Moral progress and arguments against the death penalty

Moral progress and arguments against the death penalty

My friend Jason Brennan, a professor of philosophy at Georgetown, offers a short and sweet argument against the death penalty:


Even if we grant for the sake of argument that some people deserve to die, it does not follow that the state may be authorized to kill them. For a state to have the right to kill criminals, it must make decisions about guilt and hear appeals in a fair, competent, and reliable manner. It must have rules that reliably let the innocent–or those whose guilt is reasonably in doubt–go free. The American criminal justice system fails to meet these standards. Perhaps a government of smart angels should be granted the right to kill. We could debate that. But no state in America deserves any such right.

I think this is right. Indeed, this used to be my own standard argument against the death penalty. Its virtue is in its first step. The argument is neutral on the question of whether some people deserve to die. Now, I don't know when it happened, but at some point in the not-too-distant past, I stopped wanting to grant, even just for the sake of argument, that some people deserve to die and thus that perhaps it would be alright if a government of smart angels were granted the right to execute.

I think part of the shift in my thinking is a result of my research on the dramatic changes in moral culture that have come in the wake of technological progress and economic growth. (At one point, I was trying to write a book on this.) We have in fact become both smarter and more angelic and the result is increasing abhorrence of the death penalty. If we were smart angels, we would demand an end to executions.

I have here advance proofs of Steven Pinker's forthcoming book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined. It's a smorgasbord of data on liberalizing moral change. Pinker shows that modernity brought about a stunning shift in norms, including attitudes toward capital punishment. Look (click to enlarge):

In the face of such a decisive trend in moral culture, we can say a couple different things. We can say that this is just change and says nothing in particular about what is really right or wrong, good or bad. Or we can say this is evidence of moral progress, that we have actually become better. I prefer the latter interpretation for basically the same reasons most of us see the abolition of slavery and the trend toward greater equality between races and sexes as progress and not mere morally indifferent change. We can talk about the nature of moral progress later. It's tricky. For now, I want you to entertain the possibility that convergence toward the idea that execution is wrong counts as evidence that it is wrong. This would suggest that those American states yet to abolish the death penalty are cases of arrested development. Looking at these trends, it seems overwhelmingly probable that we will look back on the death penalty as a shameful bit of lingering of savagery. And we won't be wrong. If our smarter, more angelic future selves wouldn't concede, even just for the sake of argument, that capital punishment is okay, why concede it now?

A brief history of human dignity

What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.

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Sponsored by the Institute for Humane Studies
  • Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
  • That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
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Urban foxes self-evolve, exhibiting Darwin’s domestication syndrome

A new study finds surprising evidence of the self-evolution of urban foxes.

A fox at the door of 10 Downing Street on Janurary 13, 2015.

Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • A study from the University of Glasgow finds urban foxes evolved differently compared to rural foxes.
  • The skulls of the urban foxes are adapted to scavenging for food rather than hunting it.
  • The evolutionary changes correspond to Charles Darwin's "domestication syndrome."

How much can living in the city change you? If you were an urban fox, you could be evolving yourself to a whole new stage and becoming more like a dog, according to a fascinating new study.

Researchers compared skulls from rural foxes around London with foxes who lived inside the city and found important variations. Rural foxes showed adaptation for speed and hunting after quick, small prey, while urban fox skulls exhibited changes that made it easier for them to scavenge, looking through human refuse for food, rather than chasing it. Their snouts were shorter and stronger, making it easier to open packages and chew up leftovers. They also have smaller brains, not meant for hunting but for interacting with stationary food sources, reports Science magazine.

Interestingly, there was much similarity found between the male and female skulls of the urban foxes.

The observed changes correspond to what Charles Darwin called the "domestication syndrome," comprised of traits that go along with an animal's transition from being wild, to tamed, to domesticated.

The study was led by Kevin Parsons, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Glasgow.

"What's really fascinating here is that the foxes are doing this to themselves," Parsons told the BBC. "This is the result of foxes that have decided to live near people, showing these traits that make them look more like domesticated animals."

The researchers are not suggesting you should go out and get a fox as a house-pet just yet. But they are seeing the evolutionary process taking place that's moving the urban foxes along the path towards becoming more like dogs and cats, explained the study's co-author Dr. Andrew Kitchener from National Museums Scotland.

A fox beneath a tree in Greenwich park, south east London

A fox beneath a tree in Greenwich park, south east London on May 14, 2020.

Photo by Glyn KIRK / AFP

"Some of the basic environmental aspects that may have occurred during the initial phases of domestication for our current pets, like dogs and cats, were probably similar to the conditions in which our urban foxes and other urban animals are living today," said Kitchener. "So, adapting to life around humans actually primes some animals for domestication."

The specimen came from the National Museum Scotland's collection of around 1,500 fox skulls.

You can read the study in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

fox sleeping beneath stadium seats

A fox at the LV County Championship, Division two match between Surrey and Derbyshire at The Brit Oval on April 9, 2010 in London, England.

Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

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