Some Adverse Effects of the Death Penalty in History

Opponents of the death penalty often emphasize that numerous empirical studies have failed to support the argument that capital punishment deters murder. In fact, some of the research indicates the death penalty may increase murder rates and other violence in society.

Those studies usually examine homicide rates in various states and countries in the twentieth century. But in deciding whether society should use capital punishment, a look at medieval history can also be useful. And it leads to similar conclusions about the death penalty.

During the Middle Ages in Europe, cruel executions and mutilations of criminals were common punishments. The punishments were often carried out in public – in front of the whole community and with all ages present.

These brutal proceedings did not deter crime and violence. Nor did they make society more peaceful and humane.

Instead, people learned three lessons from the government’s violent example: to use violence in dealing with problems; to become emotionally desensitized to the sight of blood, suffering, and killing; and to place little value on human life.

As the great French scholar Marc Bloch said of the Middle Ages: “Violence was an element in manners. Medieval men had little control over their immediate impulses; they were emotionally insensitive to the spectacle of pain; and they had small regard for human life. . . .”

Additionally, Morris Bishop’s book The Middle Ages says of the period: “It was a cruel age, callous toward suffering, merely diverted by men’s contortions in agony. It felt little sympathy and pity; it had small respect for human life.”

In regard to the public execution of religious dissenters during the Middle Ages, historian Salomon Reinach explains: “The sight of these solemn executions, to which people flocked as if to a fete, hardened hearts, awakened hereditary instincts of ferocity, and made the populace indifferent to the sufferings of others.”

Thus, in addition to studies of modern societies, medieval history provides strong evidence that capital punishment doesn’t produce the results its supporters promise. Rather, the effects seem to be quite the opposite. The period is not called the Dark Ages for nothing.

Moreover, the great nineteenth-century orator and lawyer Robert Ingersoll noted that similar results have occurred throughout all of history. “Criminals have been flogged, mutilated, tortured in a thousand ways,” he said, “and the only effect was to demoralize, harden, and degrade society and increase the number of crimes.”

As for why the death penalty produces those outcomes, Ingersoll stated: “Capital punishment degrades and hardens a community and it is the work of savagery. . . . Capital punishment does not prevent murder, but sets an example – by the State – that is followed by its citizens. The State murders its enemies and the citizen murders his.”

Because violent punishments set a harmful example for society, government should take only the actions necessary to defend society from criminals.

When government goes further by using vengeance, cruelty, and other unnecessary violence, people learn to behave similarly in their daily lives.

And society becomes more violent, cruel, and callous.