I recently returned from an NEH-sponsored seminar on punishment at Amherst College. I learned an enormous amount and am full of ideas for papers on punishment.
One moral issue surrounding punishment that has not received enough attention from moral philosophers is the somewhat perverse insistence that those on death row can only be executed if they are competent to be executed. This issue was thrust back in the public eye in the last year or so thanks to the case of Charles Singleton. Singleton was convicted of murder in 1979, and while on death row, he developed symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia: Singleton heard voices that threatened to kill him, and came to believe that he was the center of a vast corporate and government conspiracy. The state of Arkansas ordered in 1997 that Singleton be given antipsychotic medications which, ironically, reduced his schizophrenic delusions but also enabled him to meet the existing legal standard for competency to execute. That standard, established by the Supreme Court in Ford v. Wainwright, held that an individual is competent to be executed if he understands that he is to be executed and the reasons for his execution. Singleton was executed in January 2004.
Singleton’s case is morally fascinating on a number of levels. It raises worries about: the moral duties of medical professionals to their condemned clients; the execution of the mentally ill and the mentally handicapped (which the U.S. is virtually alone in practicing); whether competency to execute requires meeting the same legal standards of competency for, say, standing trial or issuing a will, or whether competency to execute requires a different standard; and whether ‘artificially induced’ competence (competence without a cure) should count as competence from a legal perspective.
But the ethical literature on competency to execute is somewhat slender, and I’d like to probe the moral underpinnings of the notion of competency to execute. What morally justifies requiring those executed to be competent? What conception of punishment and its rationale, goals, etc., do we need to make sense of this requirement? Is it cruel to execute the incompetent, or is it more cruel to execute the competent instead of the incompetent? What is behind the common moral sentiment that executing, e.g., the mentally handicapped or the incompetent, is particularly inhumane?
Thoughts, rants, provocations welcome!