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Last night was apparently the execution of John Muhammed, the adult half of the pair responsible for the DC sniper shootings.

Chrystal linked to the story, otherwise I wouldn't have known.

I was talking about this with someone else from the area recently, about how surreal it was to walk around outside then, how white vans freaked us out for months afterwards, even after we found out that they weren't using a white van at all. I remember because I was working at the local congresswoman's office when the first shootings happened right in Rockville, five minutes down the street. We kept getting calls from constituents and then one of the calls was my dad, telling me not to go outside and take the bus home, he would come and pick me up.

That was one hell of a year. 9/11, the anthrax attacks, the sniper shootings, and then Paul's death. A really crazy year.

I don't believe in the death penalty. That is mostly driven by feeling that it disproportionately punishes minorities, and that it frequently punishes the wrong people. But John Allen Muhammed is one of the people that is clearly guilty and probably "deserves to die". I still don't think he should have been executed. I don't think badly of those who think he should be executed. But the news that he's dead doesn't make me happy or satisfied or relieved. Just very sad.

Date: 2009-11-13 03:35 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] a-priori.livejournal.com
I always got gas at St. Exxon (the gas station under a church in Rosslyn) because it was closest to my apartment. Then, after the sniping started, there were prohibitively long lines at that station. The reason? Surrounded by very tall buildings and busy streets (and mostly tucked under the church), the pumps were just about the most difficult place a sniper might attempt to shoot into.

Date: 2009-11-13 06:36 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] grolby.livejournal.com
This was weird as hell to follow from Massachusetts. I was in my junior year of H.S. I just remember being real glad that I wasn't living near D.C.

I'm also against the death penalty, and my belief that Muhammed shouldn't have been executed is really a matter of principle. I certainly can't feel sorry for the guy, but this is not an acceptable power for the government to have.

Date: 2009-11-13 05:17 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] greensword.livejournal.com
I agree, but it's easier to feel that way in the abstract. I mean, I wasn't really affected by the sniper - all he did was worry me for a few weeks - but I wonder if my beliefs would hold up if someone I loved was killed.

Date: 2009-11-13 06:25 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] grolby.livejournal.com
Well, I think that's why our justice system is (supposedly) based on the principle that the accused should be tried and sentenced by an impartial jury and judge. Which is why I am so frustrated by arguments from emotion: "How would you feel if he murdered your mother/sister/girlfriend/whatever!?" Well, terrible, and I would probably want to take him down myself. But that's why I'm not in charge of determining what is just in that case; my judgment is not reliable.

We know, of course, that the system is deeply flawed, but it works a hell of a lot better than it would if the desires of angry family members were admissible as evidence of guilt or need for a certain sentence.

Date: 2009-11-13 09:48 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] greensword.livejournal.com
Well, I think that's why our justice system is (supposedly) based on the principle that the accused should be tried and sentenced by an impartial jury and judge.

Which is sort of an unrelated issue to whether or not capital punishment should happen. An impartial judge and jury can give someone the death penalty.

I'm not arguing for capital punishment, here, though. I'm just saying that it is difficult to know whether I would continue to hold that belief if faced with the emotional turmoil of facing down the murderer of a loved one. I like to think I am that consistent, but part of me doubts I would be.

Also - our moral principles are derived in large part from our emotions. The fact that I hold this principle relatively emotionlessly does not make me believe in it more - if anything, it makes me believe in it less.

Date: 2009-11-13 11:40 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] grolby.livejournal.com
Which is sort of an unrelated issue to whether or not capital punishment should happen. An impartial judge and jury can give someone the death penalty.

What I meant by that is simply that wanting to kill someone who killed a loved one is perfectly normal and acceptable, even if you are against capital punishment. It might be hard to maintain philosophical consistency under those circumstances, but a just system should render that irrelevant (presuming that said just system does not permit the death penalty) because you cannot influence the result.

Personally, I can say that I don't see myself having any trouble remaining philosophically consistent, but that doesn't mean I wouldn't be itching to pull the trigger myself.

Also - our moral principles are derived in large part from our emotions.

No, I don't think so. We allow our emotions to influence moral judgments, but that's not where they derive from.

Date: 2009-11-14 07:25 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] greensword.livejournal.com
We allow our emotions to influence moral judgments, but that's not where they derive from.

Where do they derive from, then?

Date: 2009-11-15 07:12 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] grolby.livejournal.com
I would hope that you know more about this than I do, but I understand that the simplest answer is that they derive from the physical and chemical structure of the brain, as a (likely) evolved component of a social organism. I think of morality as being like language, and it appears to be an apt comparison: there are different sets of rules in specific cultures and settings, but the underlying mechanisms are the same. With differences, of course. There's research showing that some people are more likely to associate strong feelings of disgust, anger, etc with morality than others. I think that's more a matter of the fact that the brain is a complex organ with interacting parts than a matter of these moral judgments, in all cultures, being born directly from emotion. If anything, I'm inclined to think that morality comes first.

Date: 2009-11-15 07:35 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] greensword.livejournal.com
I would hope that you know more about this than I do

Me, too! It's pretty much the central focus of my lab.

I understand that the simplest answer is that they derive from the physical and chemical structure of the brain, as a (likely) evolved component of a social organism.

Well, yes. But this is true of emotions as well, and virtually every other higher-order facet of human cognition. It's such a given that I don't think it really says anything.

I tend to view morality as a whole mess of instincts and beliefs that evolved separately and which sometimes work together and which sometimes don't. For instance, the debate over capital punishment might provoke the following systems:

- Feelings of repulsion at the idea of harming another: thou shalt not kill (or hurt). A useful feeling for humans to evolve as we came to live in cooperative groups. Perhaps the single most potent social instinct.

- Feelings of anger and vengeance when another transgresses social norms: an eye for an eye. A beneficial way for a society to operate, a way to enforce social norms so that individuals have an incentive to obey them.

From the feelings of repulsion, comes the pacifist position on capital punishment. It is not good for a state to harm its citizens any more than it is for the individual to harm its citizens. Hurting people is inherently wrong, thus the state should not engage in it.

From the feelings of anger and vengeance, comes the pro-death-penalty position. If we don't punish these egregious offenders, other people will think they can get away with it, and society will crumble.

How do you resolve this conflict? Some people would turn to utilitarianism to decide it. Which option best benefits society? Then the decision rests on the efficacy of capital punishment. Does it really act as a deterrent? If it does, isn't it in society's best interest to put the worst, most violent criminals to death?

Would you be willing to alter your beliefs about capital punishment, if it could be shown to be a deterrent? Do you think the death penalty's most ardent supporters would stop supporting it, if it was shown that the death penalty was not a deterrent at all, and actually increased violent crime?

Morality is not all about emotions, no, but it is hard to escape their influence. If everyone has the same moral grammar, and that morality is internally consistent and coherent - where do these conflicts come from?

Date: 2009-11-15 10:08 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] grolby.livejournal.com
Heh, I just knew that I was getting in over my head with this! :-D

Well, yes. But this is true of emotions as well, and virtually every other higher-order facet of human cognition. It's such a given that I don't think it really says anything.

You're right, it's a hopelessly vague statement. We are apparently more on the same page than I had initially thought.

I tend to view morality as a whole mess of instincts and beliefs that evolved separately and which sometimes work together and which sometimes don't. For instance, the debate over capital punishment might provoke the following systems:

- Feelings of repulsion at the idea of harming another: thou shalt not kill (or hurt). A useful feeling for humans to evolve as we came to live in cooperative groups. Perhaps the single most potent social instinct.

- Feelings of anger and vengeance when another transgresses social norms: an eye for an eye. A beneficial way for a society to operate, a way to enforce social norms so that individuals have an incentive to obey them.


What do you mean when you say that they evolved separately? There's no need to invoke the simultaneous appearance of our various social capabilities (emotion, morality, speech, in-group cohesion, etc) in order to say that they have evolved interdependently, and that the way that they interact is not all a matter of circumstance. After all, these structures have existed together in the same brain for quite a while. Still, while I don't know that you could come up with a Broca's Area for morality (in fact, I doubt it), there's little doubt in my mind that our brains are built to process notions of right and wrong. Social behavior and probably moral reasoning on some level has been in the apes for a long time.

I do think that the list of reasons for opposition to the DP that you give might be a bit simplistic. For example, there aren't many cultures that don't distinguish killing from murder; that is, most people believe that killing is justified in some situations. Plenty of these people oppose the death penalty; common reasons include the inevitable execution of innocent people. Likewise, most people think that "eye for an eye" retributive justice is crude and oversimplified, even if they do support the DP.

Would you be willing to alter your beliefs about capital punishment, if it could be shown to be a deterrent? Do you think the death penalty's most ardent supporters would stop supporting it, if it was shown that the death penalty was not a deterrent at all, and actually increased violent crime?

No, and maybe. I don't think that justice is about deterrence, and I worry when I see the argument advanced. Of course, it's well-known that there's no evidence (statistical or psychological) that the death penalty reduces crime, but plenty of people who would be willing to make that argument still support it.


Morality is not all about emotions, no, but it is hard to escape their influence. If everyone has the same moral grammar, and that morality is internally consistent and coherent - where do these conflicts come from?
\

I agree that it's hard, even impossible. However, I never claimed that morality (moral grammar) was internally consistent, at least in a rational sense. If we still lived in small tribes and family groups, conflicts might not arise often. But we are not living in the conditions under which our sense of morality evolved, so they arise inevitably.

Date: 2009-11-15 07:35 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] greensword.livejournal.com
P.S. Thanks for debating this with me! :)

Date: 2009-11-15 10:08 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] grolby.livejournal.com
No problem! :-)

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