The Heart Has Its Reasons: Examining the Strange Persistence of the American Death Penalty
Studies in Law, Politics and Society, Vol. 42, No. 1, 2008
51 Pages Posted: 7 Oct 2007 Last revised: 18 Mar 2009
The debate about the future of the death penalty often focuses on whether its supporters are animated by instrumental or expressive values, and if the latter, what values the penalty does in fact express, where those values originated, and how deeply entrenched they are. In this article I argue that a more explicit recognition of the emotional sources of support for and opposition to the death penalty will contribute to the clarity of the debate. The focus on emotional variables reveals that the boundary between instrumental and expressive values is porous; both types of values are informed (or uninformed) by fear, outrage, compassion, selective empathy and other emotional attitudes. More fundamentally, though history, culture and politics are essential aspects of the discussion, the resilience of the death penalty cannot be adequately understood when the affect is stripped from explanations for its support. Ultimately, the death penalty will not die without a societal change of heart.
Keywords: capital punishment, death penalty, punishment, emotion, cognitive bias
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