Death Penalty for One – or Death Penalty for Many?

Death Penalty

This is the first article in a series titled “Reconsidering our Morals – What it means to put Non-Humans first”.

The author, Nicole Huber, is a translator/writer and fledgling animal liberation activist from Germany.

The views expressed in this series are the authors and may or may not reflect the views of the Non-Humans First Movement.

Death Penalty for One – or Death Penalty for Many?

Before I became fully aware of the horrible amount of animal suffering at the hands of humans, I never gave much thought to the issue of capital punishment. It used to be one of the – admittedly very few – subjects on which I didn’t have a clear, leave alone a passionate opinion. I could sort of see the validity of both sides’ arguments, although to be honest, the strongest argument against capital punishment for me was always the danger of convicting an innocent person. However, since I live in Germany where capital punishment does not exist and there was never ever any serious talk about its reintroduction either, I never felt compelled to form an opinion.

After the attempted coup d’état in Turkey in July 2016, one of the first announcements made by president Erdogan was that the rebelling soldiers were to be punished by death and for this purpose, the capital punishment was to be re-introduced. Cue protests from various politicians and lots of sad or angry emoticons on facebook. Turkey had been negotiating regarding her accession to the EU – this, it was made clear, would be impossible for a country with capital punishment in place.

I was among the few who pointed out the hypocrisy thereof. Actually, I argued, Turkey had never abolished the death penalty, nor had any other country in the world. Each year, millions and millions of absolutely innocent non-human beings are sentenced to death and executed in often unbelievably cruel ways. The only difference is that some countries additionally execute humans as well – some of them innocent, many of them not. Why the outrage about the killing of humans when all this slaughter of non-humans goes on with hardly anyone but a small vegan minority even batting an eye?

Now, since compassion for all living beings is such a strong guiding principle in veganism, one could argue that this hypocrisy is only a problem for non-vegans; that you can – in fact, must – be against the killing of animals and against the killing of humans alike. Here’s the rub though: you cannot possibly be at the same time against the death penalty and for the right of animals not to be murdered for food. This is logically and morally inconsistent. After all, prisoners are not kept on bread and water. They consume the flesh of dead animals, the products made from milk that was stolen from desperate mothers and their kidnapped and murdered babies, the eggs of terribly exploited hens, at the price of shredding male baby chicks alive. Just imagine the obscene number of animals that need to be tortured and killed to keep one prisoner alive. This thought becomes only more revolting when you add in the fact that those convicts did commit horrible crimes against humans as well (because let’s face it, people on death row aren’t there for shoplifting).

But what about the wrongfully convicted, I hear you cry. What about the mentally disabled who don’t even understand what they have done? What about countries where people are executed for expressing the wrong view, or even for falling in love with a member of their own sex? In short, what about the innocent? What about them, indeed. The only really innocent ones here are the animals. Do you really think they would care whether they are being slaughtered for the benefit of a “good guy” (in human terms) or for the benefit of a brutal criminal (again, in human terms)? I know I sure as hell wouldn’t.

This is a bitter pill to swallow for any animal liberationist who – like myself – cares about human rights as well. It also shows (and there are several more examples that prove this truth) that it is simply delusional to believe in the slogan “Animal liberation, human rights – one struggle, one fight”, as so many animal liberation activists do these days. In reality, these two goals sometimes painfully collide. In reality, sometimes one is forced to take sides. And taking sides is even comparatively easy in this case, because all it entails is holding a certain opinion. It does neither require us to change our behaviour or to take any action, nor does it usually have any other real-life consequences.

Of course, the situation would be completely different if prisons were to feed only plant food to their inmates (so, if you find it difficult to reconcile being pro death penalty with your moral views, there’s a worthy goal to advocate for). Until this happens, however, this whole issue boils down to the question asked in the headline: Death penalty for one – or death penalty for many?

For me, the answer is clear. Because that’s what it means to put non-humans first – always.

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