On its way out, the Trump administration executed a record amount of people. This decision, like many they made around that time, was unusual and cruel. Understandably, this reignited the perennial debate on the legitimacy of the death penalty. A common argument forwarded by its detractors was that capital punishment is expensive. The American Civil Liberties Union, for example, lists the “waste of taxpayer funds” as a “fundamental concern” when discussing death penalty abolition.
The argument itself is irrefutable; however, it seems strange that someone would bring it up. For starters, saving taxpayer dollars is not compelling in this context. If someone is convinced that a convict deserves to die, why would the thought of lowering the budget deficit change their minds? Conversely, if executions became a money saver, hopefully nobody would be swayed by that change in circumstance. The death penalty has always been a heated moral question; the cost argument is cold-blooded to the point of sociopathy.
Who, then, is the promise of cost-cutting convincing? Nobody. At best, the ACLU is preaching to the choir. They make people who already oppose the death penalty feel validated in their beliefs. On its face, then, the argument is dull, but there is a deeper, unintended meaning within this statement. Namely: when someone makes it, they imply that human life carries a price tag, whether they believe that or not.
In the best case scenario, these savings are treated by death penalty abolitionists as a marginal icing on the cake, rather than a concrete reason to end capital punishment. Even then, bringing up this benefit implies that someone reasonable might care about the cost of administering executions. It is the premise, then, that is interesting, namely: assuming that in our society, it is normal to weigh money against life or morality.
Granted, that is probably true; austerity is common throughout the world and it promises to do just that. However, there is a difference between acknowledging the existence of a belief you disagree with and arguing through their framework.
For example, it’s commonly known that racists believe in the inferiority of other races, but it’s counterproductive to make arguments for social justice which assume that to be true. That isn’t a clever way of using their logic against them. Rather, it is legitimizing their beliefs at the expense of social justice. When arguing with racists, this looks like paternalistic arguments that, as one Daily Beast article explains: “[are only different to] that of white supremacists [in] that while white supremacists view our apparent unequal human qualities to be negative, other white people view this as a positive.”
By arguing from a racist paradigm, well-meaning people accomplish little besides affirming it. Their arguments’ illogical, bankrupt premise leads to the logical conclusion of oppression; whenever antiracists argue on this turf, it backfires. The same can be said for the “cost argument” in the death penalty debate.
After all, this claim is also incoherent with the central arguments against executing people. On the one hand, there’s a belief in inviolable human dignity, the sanctity of human life—ideas which lend themselves to the notion that the death penalty is unconscionable. Then, when talking about cost, one assumes that it’s normal to think about human life in the context of its expensiveness. This is, by definition, incompatible with a belief in inalienable rights.
At this point, anti-death penalty advocates face a paradox. Here is an argument which is both logically sound in their favour, yet is also an own goal. They’ve affirmed that it is reasonable to view human life as negotiable. Thus, instead of convincing death penalty advocates to reconsider their beliefs, the cost argument validates the belief that life can be traded away. From this rhetorical position, it’s only a short walk to supporting the death penalty, and an untenable, uphill slog in the opposite direction.
This is a common phenomenon—people making arguments based on a premise which they ought to oppose. For example, in the aftermath of a police shooting, many people get bogged down in an argument over whether the person was “innocent.” In reality, that’s beside the point. The police are not meant to be judge, jury, or executioner; guilty or not, nobody should be murdered by the police.
By fixating on the claim that they didn’t deserve to die because they weren’t doing anything wrong, however, there is an implication that, had they been doing something wrong, the police would be justified in their murder. An implication which, obviously, none of these activists would agree with. Nonetheless, it is an invitation for police brutality apologia, where someone’s death is made acceptable the second they do anything wrong. Here, the harms of arguing from a broken premise are on full display.
In some cases, this happens because people want to engage with dishonest actors. This is true in the case of police brutality; apologists do comb through the life of a victim, then parade any hint of wrongdoing, without any context, as “proof” that the murder was justified. It is unsurprising that people feel the need to fight such underhanded slander. But arguing in this context might mean capitulating to the premise that the guilty ought to be executed by cops. It seems better not to engage.
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Sometimes, however, it appears to be a conflict between one’s professed beliefs and their ingrained mentality—much like with the death penalty debate. These are far more pernicious, and we’d do well to question what the premise of our argument is—what must we believe in order to say what we’re saying.
Take some liberals’ treatment of conservative women and Black people, especially media personalities. They are often referred to as bimbos and Uncle Toms, amongst other degrading terms. It may be true that they are tokenized by a party which hates them; however, such gendered and racialized abuse is uncalled for. An article from the Washington Post cogently explains that “there are words for a person who makes the less admirable choice. “Coward,” “sellout” or “traitor” would suffice. If the person is Black, why use “Uncle Tom,” unless it is to punish the person for his color as well as his behavior?”.
This once again begs the question: what must one believe in order to think this is acceptable behaviour? Clearly, one must have some prejudice against the minority they are denigrating. Otherwise, they wouldn’t think to attack that person’s identity in conjunction with their arguments. If the abuser claims to be an “anti-racist,” then there is an implicit assumption that this language is ok when levied against the “bad” people. These liberals’ professed antiracism becomes quite hollow as a result. After all, if one’s respect for the identity of women and minorities is conditional on them voting Democratic, then there was no respect to begin with.
If the people who say these things were to confront this idea, there are two likely outcomes. Either they realize that they are racist and decide they don’t care, saving actual antiracists the headache of dealing with them. Alternatively, they correct this behaviour. Whatever happens, it is a win for the cause of antiracism.
It is already apparent what happens when this assumption isn’t confronted. Racists take the apparent hypocrisy as a greenlight for their behaviour. To them, it is a choice between an honest racism and one that is in denial; though it is a false dichotomy, it is understandable why they’d choose honesty. In fact, this dilemma is similar to the one Republicans present between Trump and Hillary or Biden. An inconsistent opposition does wonders for validating their beliefs.
Thus, when the premise of your argument contradicts your professed beliefs, you have already lost. Much like how the “expensive death penalty” argument validates its supporters beliefs, liberals who use prejudice to attack the prejudiced are emboldening them. Respect for minorities’ identity should not be conditioned on their beliefs or actions. Whenever it is, that affirms the tired, old lie that victims of racism and sexim could have avoided either of those things by keeping their head down and being agreeable.
This problem of flawed premises is an impediment to progress and, by my reckoning, ubiquitous. Ignoring it means normalizing patterns of thought which we disapprove of. If anything, it might make us believe those premises over time; who’s to say what happens if someone treats a racist idea as reasonable for years without ever confronting it.
Luckily, the issue isn’t difficult to avoid. Most of the time, these moments are a product of intellectual laziness—surface level analysis. The cost argument is certainly an example of a cold take. Therefore, it’s a simple matter of thinking before you speak. Don’t only wonder if what you’re saying makes sense, or is appropriate. Consider what you have to believe about yourself, society, or morality in order to say it. It’ll teach you a lot about yourself.
Dan Reznichenko is a Trinity first-year. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays.