Now You Are Going To Die

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My friend fell to the ground and the thug was going to shoot; he was unstoppable. That was it. With the gun in his hand, he had no option. The shots were heard from afar. Now there is a body lying on the floor. Two years after that, my friend is leaving prison. “A police officer should be prepared to deal properly with this kind of situation”, they said. I bet they were never about to die.

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Death sentence was quite common almost everywhere in human history. It was well accepted and taken as a fair way of punishing those who were unworthy of life. The definition of what, if anything, could make someone unworthy of life and who, if anyone, could decide someone’s worth have come to discussion mainly since the last century. That discussion inevitably led the parties to argue if capital punishment was ethically acceptable at all, under any circumstances. With people’s heads rolling down public squares’ stairs, both parties did their best to make their arguments highly convincing.  Attempting to win the debate, strong and weak arguments were brought up but, with the exception of a handful of insightful ones, most of them fall on one of the three shady categories: Religious, Emotional or Misleading/Based on deceitful information. Regardless of my religious convictions, my emotional attachment to random criminals or wronged families, and my disavowal (or convenience, depending on the situation) of  biased information, I will try to be as impartial as possible and analyse the best arguments in favour and against such a practice. But first, let’s see how bad the bad ones are, and then we move towards more reasonable ones.

“Have you ever thought about how many criminals escape punishment, and yet, the victims never have a chance to do that? Are crime victims in the United States today the forgotten people of our time?  Do they receive full measure of justice?” (cited in Isenberg, 1977, p. 129)

The idea here is that if you kill the guy, justice is being done. Can anyone see the error on that? Justice is just too broad of a concept. Plato wrote Republic, a book composed of other ten books, and couldn’t explain properly and without ambiguity what justice was. Justice is too subjective, something may seem fair for me and at the same time be an outrageous, inhuman barbarity for you. It is as if a threw a party at my house and put a sign on the door saying “Only good-looking people allowed”.

Maintain a prisoner for the rest of his life is way more costly than killing him.

Specifically in the United States, this information is false. But it really doesn’t matter; you could kill people spending just one bullet. This argument is misleading not because of its veracity, but because of its focus. It emphasises an irrelevant area in an ethical debate, finances. That makes people waste a lot of time discussing things that take them nowhere.

We don’t rape rapists or assault assailants, why would we murder murderers.

The uniqueness of capital punishment is always cited in debates, and is weak because if different crimes are suddenly regarded as worthy of death it doesn’t make sense any more. In addition, it does not contribute in anything to the discussion of whether or not is ethically acceptable, being unique or not.

Death penalty provides a sense of closure for victims’ families.

Every family reacts differently. Some families do not think that another death would make things better. It is a weak argument if you think that there is no standard reaction from the families, and that those who were wronged shouldn’t decide the punishment of their wrongdoers because of the strong emotional connection involved. But on the other hand, there is no completely logical explanation for everything in our system and most of things we do are done this way because that’s the way we collectively agree that is more pleasant to us. Why should a robber get three or five or eight years of imprisonment? Because for us that’s what seems more or less ok depending on what else he did. It is no more than a guess. We guess, and if we feel good about it we make it a law.

“Therefore if any man is dangerous to the community and is subverting it by some sin, the treatment to be commended is his execution in order to preserve the common good… Therefore to kill a man who retains his natural worthiness is intrinsically evil, although it may be justifiable to kill a sinner just as it is to kill a beast, for, as Aristotle points out, an evil man is worse than a beast and more harmful.” (Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae)

Saint Thomas Aquinas, and apparently Aristotle too, approved death sentence as a punishment to those deserving it. Here you see the authority fallacy. We believe a view just because it is expressed by someone regarded as an authority in a certain field. “President Richard Nixon should be re-elected because he has a secret plan to give an end to the war on the South East of Asia”; given that the plan was secret, people couldn’t assess its feasibility and thus the argument was reduced to “We should trust Nixon because he is the president”. I used it up there when I said “justice is super hard to define because Plato couldn’t do it”; just because he couldn’t it doesn’t mean you won’t be able to. These “authorities” committed errors in the past, and they will as surely commit more in the future. Because someone said so is not a good argument.  

If we have death sentences people will think twice before killing someone.

hummmmm…. I don’t think so, but that’s tricky to prove. You could argue that in the USA states adept to death penalty do not show lower homicide rates than states averse to it. But that’s a fallacy; you are taking a casualty for a causality. This rate is not influenced only by one variable, but by thousands. Things like culture, climate, city policing, the set of laws for the specific state and many other things deeply influence on the homicide rate. Saying that the sole adoption of death penalty keeps murders’ index high or low is to be too pretentious. On the other hand, I would say that what makes people think twice before performing a barbarian act is more the probability of being caught than the terrible punishment that would be waiting for them.

You are punishing the person twice

This argument is specifically aimed at the USA. There prisoners usually wait for more than a decade for their execution, meanwhile they are kept isolated from other prisoners and are sharply restricted in terms of visitation and exercise.

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Prisoners on death row spend as much as 23 hours alone in their cells.

The psychological terror and the years of loneliness are more than enough to destroy anyone’s mental health. That raises the question of whether the prisoner is not being punished twice, and also what is the real purpose of death sentence. The purpose cannot be deterrence, for its unproven effectiveness, it can’t be to free society of the evil by eliminating its propagator, because if society can take 10 years with him caged it can take any amount of time whatsoever, and it can’t be to give families a sense of completion, for it would make a family suffer for 10 years before releasing it of its unfinished matter. Is the purpose of the sentence to give a fair punishment to the convicted criminal or to give him the worst punishment possible, thus combining utter isolation with death sentence?

We don’t have the  right to take lives.

Again, that’s too subjective. We take lives every day; we kill flies and ants and most of us are ok with killing cows, chickens and fishes so we could have a nice meal. But ok, let’s stick to taking human lives. Know that friend I spoke about in the beginning of the text? Had he hesitated he wouldn’t have lived to tell me that story. Do you think he didn’t have the right? But if he acted rightly we have to change the initial statement, add an “if”. Let us make a concession: “a person loses their right to life if they start a murderous attack and the only way the victim can save their own life is by killing the attacker”. What if someone started a murderous attack and the only way the victim could save their own life was by killing the attacker, but the victim couldn’t kill the attacker and died. The attacker lost his right to life, does he gain it again when he finishes? Still, it is a super subjective statement. People killed people before, why can’t we do it now? What changed? Or it may be that nothing changed and people never had the right to take other people’s lives but they did it anyway. I didn’t find any completely logical argument for that; it is more an agreement than a rational conclusion.

You could kill a decent person

Although it doesn’t help with the discussion of if it is ethical to kill someone under any circumstances, it is an important point against capital punishment. Death penalty is irreversible and could be applied to an innocent party. People against death penalty like to highlight that many people on death row had their sentences overturned or sent back for review. That sentence gives the idea that someone innocent was about to die. In fact, what generally occurs is that reviews are brought up due to procedural errors instead of uncertainty regarding the accuracy of the conviction. But supporters of death penalty also highlight that no innocent was ever executed. That’s partly because of the long process of appeals and reviews, specifically designed to prevent mistakes, and partly because once you killed the guy no one keeps investigating.

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The big problem is that judgements and sentence decisions are made based on evidences and testimonials, and testimonials are rather tricky. Our mind is beautifully designed to fill every void space it finds. And if there is nothing to put there, it makes something up. We have a blind spot in our eyes, one in each; our brain uses the combination of both to make it look like there is no blind spot (here, do the test). The same happens with our mind, if we don’t remember something very well it will make something up to fill the void. I don’t even need to tell you how dangerous it can be when someone’s life is at stake. When your mind is in a greatly stressful situation it can behave quite oddly. You can mistake a black guy for a white guy just because while he was pointing the gun at you, you  couldn’t look at anywhere else than the gun. Your brain was was shouting “GUN! DANGER DANGER, GUN, DANGER DANGER, GUN!!”. It is serious business and not all the juries have guys as sensible as this one.

Our minds really play tricks on us. If you don’t believe me, why don’t you do this awareness test and show the world how well your mind works?

The religion paradox

The idea was to think of the subject as a solely rational matter, using only logic arguments. Religious views are not considered valid in this kind of argument because many people have many different religious views, and the basis for a religious argument is only faith; and you could have faith on anything. But here comes the curious thing, without religious connotations death penalty makes no sense at all. Capital punishment is intrinsically based on the assumption that by dying,criminals will have a worse punishment than living in prison. I don’t know if you noticed but there is no logical basement for that. We don’t know how it is like on the other side, except for the information that comes from the three categories we regarded as shady in the beginning of our analysis. Religion, that almost all agree bad people will be punished in the afterlife; Emotions, people generally feel better when something bad happens to a bad person; and Dubious information we get from people who have near death experiences (no resentments, I just don’t believe you guys).

As Master Miyagi said n Karate Kid II: “Daniel-san, for person with no forgiveness in heart, living is worse punishment than death”

Is it necessary?

Just because people did it in the past, it doesn’t mean we can do it now. Life imprisonment is an alternative if you really think this person could never ever go back to society again. And with life imprisonment you could at least make that person contribute to society in some way (through supervised work). As you may notice, arguments opposing death penalty are much more solid and thoughtful that those in favour of it. That’s something to take into consideration.

Know that friend of mine? I spoke to him about jail and what he went through. He told me how prison is not the best place to learn how to love society. He told me how rehabilitation and the importance of a human life are not really the main topics they learn on their day to day in jail. Maybe if we were better at rehabilitating, we wouldn’t need to get rid of people.

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So, What’s The Way To Decide?

Thoughts

I’m moving to another country in three weeks. Everything I accumulated during 20 years will have to fit in two 23 Kg suitcases and a 5 Kg handbag. I will leave a lot of stuff behind. But do you know what is the best thing? The best is that I could use just one of the 23 Kg ones and I would be happy. The most precious things I have are my books, my guitar, my Buzz Lightyear toy, the photos and songs in my hard drive and the picture frame my girlfriend gave me. If I can take that with me I will be satisfied.

I always thought that what gives value to people are qualities they would still have if they were naked in the middle of the desert. Be rich, have good taste for clothes, play well the piano, drive like Speed Racer. These are things that can impress a lot of people, but who are you when there is no wealth backing you up or status drawing a line between you and them, or no audience to regard you as a credible person?

Actually, that’s quite unfair. People have great qualities that can shine only when there’s something else in the scene. Like a good talker, a good negotiator, a good writer or good listener. These are qualities many people, myself included, seek to learn, and they can add value to the bearers lives and to society, but invariably need the presence of things (like other people) to have value.

People very often create a set of expectations over a subject, and then, after that, they create a prejudice.  People want to get in shape, they hear they have to do exercises, they see that people sweat when they exercise, and then they think that if they are sweating they are exercising. That may seem like a dumb example, but we actually do that much more often than we think.

When we draw that kind of silly conclusions we are trying to define the content of something by looking at its form. It’s like fever! Fever is not an illness. When you go to the doctor he doesn’t say “yeah man, you got a Fever, take this ice cube”. That’s because fever is the by-product of a real problem. You can almost assure that if someone has some specific illness, then this person will have fever. But it would be foolish to state the opposite.

Well, that’s exactly what we  do when we invert form and content. And when a huge group of people, sometimes our whole world, have this wrong perspective, we tend to believe that’s the real deal, the truth (remember your “whole world” is everything and everyone you know, not more than that).

Warren Buffet cites Benjamin Graham’s advice in his biography:

“You’re neither right nor wrong because other people agree with you. You’re right because your facts are right and your reasoning is right”

Benjamin Graham

Based on these prejudices, people often-times look more to the form than to the content of some stuff. Here is my top ten list of form-content inversion and an attempt to explain how it happens.

Relationships – Undoubtedly the most recurrent topic in young minds — and not so young too. People have defined relationships in their heads with what happens in relationships instead of with what really is a relationship. On internet you see a bunch of images of people hugging or kissing, with a sepia effect and a moving phrase; all of them supposedly showing how a relationship should be like. And then, when it’s time to have a relationship, the girl assumes the “role” of the girlfriend and the boy the “role” of the boyfriend. From friends to boyfriend and girlfriend they have a drastic change in behaviour instantly. The girl feels she should ~behave like the girlfriend~.

That’s adopting the form of the thing, Mimic the movements of someone else, someone else’s experience. Relationships should be spontaneous! You don’t have to act like that just because that’s the way couples do, you should act in a way that makes you feel good; not focusing the form of a relationship but its content, its meaning.For example, a form-oriented couple and a content-oriented one walk on the street. Both are walking hand on hands with their respective partner. One couple thinks: “we have to change our facebook status, we have to spend more time together, we have to watch romantic films in the theatre; we ought to do all that cuz that’s what a couple does”. And the other one thinks: “I’d love to tell everyone that I found you, ill change my facebook status so people will know it faster; It was so good being with you, I can barely wait to see you again; Hey Star Wars episode VII is out! how about we see it instead of it’s boring romance competitors?”.

One is guided by what they want to do, and the other one by what they think they should do. Well, not surprisingly, the wrong interpretation brings along problems. This flawed conception creates undue fears like insecurity. A good example of a content and meaning-focused instead of form-focused film, is undoubtedly “When a Man Loves a Woman”. What a great film!

The thing is that some people see relationships as a structured model they should adapt to if they want to partake of its feelings banquet. When in fact, relationship is just a name for what happens when two friends like each other so bad they would like to kiss. If your partner is not your best friend, then that can be a big warning that maybe you are living the form-focused paradigm.

Religion – Needless to say that the conception people have of religion is wrong time and time again. Even religious people sometimes can’t get this one. And the worse thing is when someone tries to explain the subject to someone else and either makes it more confuse, or explains it wrong.

I’m a Christian. With Christianity the idea is simple, there’s a book that states some values, we gotta follow that. Some people ,attempting to bring more people to think alike, build big places and gather great amounts of people. Nothing wrong with that; actually, that’s the idea. But people are used to routines, and when you are dealing with other people there must be order or else you won’t get anywhere.

The problem arises when people are so worried about the routines and customs, and they come from so long ago, that people forget the real purpose for which the habits were adopted. Then they start to think that the customs are the real thing, and forget about the values. And that’s what generates the bunch of controversy we see everywhere. And that’s how they invert form and content.

Formal Studies – I’ll go straight to the point: Formal Studies are overrated.

People go wild when they hear this, but that’s the ugly truth. They get pissed off in front of such a statement because if they did’t go to University they at least want their children to go. And they don’t really think about all the pros and cons of  choosing to study or not . But that’s a discussion for another post, let me focus on the  inversion.

Nowadays a graduate degree is almost essential. There are specifications on whatever your mind can imagine. That’s very different from 60 years ago, when superior studies were not only uncommon but rare. With the increasing demand, the Universities’ supply augmented but the quality of the new players were not exactly the best.

Once that two people doing the same job have different salaries if one of them has a degree and the other hasn’t , people begun to look at graduate studies as a degree instead of a place to learn to do something. As our world grows more and more capitalistic, people little by little lose sight of the idea of creating something, and replace it with a desired salary.

It is when the degree is regarded as more important than the own knowledge acquired that the content has been substituted by the form.

Advices and Advisors – Who do you listen to? When you hear an advice, what is the criteria of evaluation? Sometimes we get pretty bad advice from respectable people. Sometimes we can be well advised by some atypical people. Sometimes advices come well constructed and beautifully worded, but nonetheless wrong. And sometimes they come clumsy, but worth a listen.

The problem with this discussion is that everything depends on the person. Maybe you think that “Live fast, die young” is a good life philosophy. I’d certainly not agree with you, but we would be stuck in a dead-lock. But there is something in common between the two outlooks, and it is how we decide if a advice is good or bad for us. I’d like to highlight more the “for us”, because an advice is not inherently good or bad. It is good or bad for you. And your goals and your life expectations are the criteria to decide whether the advice is useful or not, for you.

“Don’t ever lie, to anyone” can be an excellent advice, this advice can make your career advance fast as you win a good reputation. But if you want to be an infiltrated agent in a foreign army, you will probably die if you follow this advice.

But we don’t have to go this far to find an example, simple and common sayings like “work a lot” or “get married, have children and buy a house” can be good or not depending on our goals. There are also advices that don’t really favour our goal, but show that perhaps we are treading the wrong path. That change our core ideas. And these are usually the most important ones. Because if you are heading to a cliff it’s better to change the way before you get there.

And here’s where it gets tricky. You are hearing someone saying that what you think is inherently wrong and that you should think differently. How do you decide who is wrong, if it is you or the adviser?

The inversion of form and content enters the scene here. When the way the argument is exposed matters a lot, and it can cloud the real consequences of believing it. Like the little child in a poor neighbourhood who is approached by a gangster, at his eyes a successful guy. And then the gangster conveys distorted values to the kid, and shows the life and the world as they are seen by him, a viewpoint he firmly believes is the only one right, and teaches the kid to behave in a way that leads to a cruel path. How can the kid ever go against such a convincing argument? He will grow and then at some point in his life he will be told the contrary. Maybe by someone who doesn’t look as successful as the gangster, but someone who understands that the values the grown kid now stands for are wrong. And he will have to weigh that. The form might not be pretty, but the content should not be ignored.

But again, that’s just my opinion. I think that a gangster is not qualified to educate someone to live in a fair, just and moral society. Even though our society is not like that, we should act as if it were. Because as long as we behave selfishly we will have a selfish society. But you might think otherwise anyway.

In the end we understand that to weigh advices’ contents we must have not only a set of goals, but a set of values. So, then you are able to separate the form of the message from its content, and are not deceived by its appearance. Now, philosophy has some great theories on that and I won’t go on into this subject now, the purpose here is just to stress the important difference between form and content in advices and advisors, and to point out the inversions that commonly occur.

If you would like to know more about society’s values I strongly recommend this video:

Is God Necessary for Morality? – William Lane Craig vs Shelly Kagan Debate

Shelly Kagan in the debate “Is God Necessary for Morality?” with William Lane Craig

Material things – Well, with stuff it is very simple, you pay a lot for something that isn’t really worth that much. And I’m not talking about paying for the design, I’m talking about paying for “reputation”.

Entertainment – I’m deeply disappointed with latin-american TV, the idea of adding value to society and being a mean of conveying information and healthy entertainment is lost. All you see are shows prepared to keep hypnotized fools. They show things that may attract us, but by no means are beneficial to us.

I loved to watch a show called Castelo Rá-tim-bum. It was great, I loved the characters, the people who were invited as special guests, it was  a great show. The great thing about it, although at the time I didn’t realised that, was that it showed the reality I, as a Brazilian kid, was used to seeing. It was produced by a channel called Tv Brazil — a far from popular channel. All the other channels with their audience explosions showed fake scenarios with fake people doing fake things. It was always a big and beautiful house with blond kids, and that’s definitely not the reality of 99% of Brazil. Castelo Rá-Tim-Bum showed barefoot kids playing in the street in many of their songs.

Besides showing my country’s reality it also transmitted a very good message. It taught kids the importance of taking a shower, importance of friendship, games to play with your friends and even taught how some things worked. Now I look at the “series” — that in fact are soap operas with teen sluts — that my sister watches on Nickelodeon and everything I can think is: Oh my God, my sister’s brain is being shitwashed. The series teach lies, deceiving, a lot of bad behaviour, stubbornness and selfishness, besides teaching how to be a teen slut too.

All the values are lost in this example. Now, I’m not saying there were anything like the ‘good old times’  were values were important and bla bla bla. No! As I said before, the channel that taught good things was an unpopular channel. Trash is being transmitted by mainstream channels since ever. I am also not saying that today there is nothing that provides good entertainment either. Disney-Pixar films like Toy Story, Nemo, and Brother Bear are here to prove that.

Form and Content – People can even mix up form and content. Let me be clear, form is not bad. It is not bad to look at the form of something, the form is part of the whole. The problem is when a product, or a person, or a situation, or whatever, is accepted just because of the form. And that’s what was happening in most of the situations above. But wouldn’t it also be bad if we chose stuff just because of the content?

The form is the way the content looks like, or the way it is transmitted. Now, imagine if I’m a super genius and I will give you a class. The things I will say will blow your mind, but I will give this class for 19 hours straight. I will have no dynamic at all in my speech, there will be no break and you will have to be standing the whole time.

Will this class be good? You will probably enjoy the first 30 minutes, or even the first hour, but after some time the situation will be unbearable. The content is still great, but the form is bad. So, the class, which is the combination of both, is bad.

Nowadays people think that it’s cool if you have something that no one else has. Some people try to run from the mainstream. “Oh it’s a great band, they are sooo underground, it is just a guy and a recorder, the guy never had a singing lesson in his life and has no talent at all, but he’s sooo deep”. “Oh this film is slow, ugly and has terrible acting but what a good plot!”.

Things are made of form and contend, if one of the two is missing, value is lost.

Books – I have a bit of a controversial opinion on books. You see a bunch of people everywhere bragging about having read a book before seeing it’s film, or bragging about being passionate about reading. That by itself has no sense! It is not because the trash you are consuming is written in a book that it will magically turn into wisdom.

People think that the fact that they read, no matter what, makes them intelligent in some way; not only intelligent, but more intelligent than those who don’t read.

The flaw in this conception is the widely spread prejudice that the form, a book, is by itself enough to make the content valuable. That’s a fallacy. Reading does have inherent benefits; it improves your grammar and — that’s highly dependant on what you’re reading — gives you better text interpretation skills.

Hence, although reading has intrinsic advantages it does not guarantee that you are getting smarter as you read; actually you could get dumber if you read some stuff.

People – This one is easy, you look at the person and judge her right away. It’s not your fault, it is an instinct, everyone has it, and it’s in you for a reason. The reason is protection. For the same reason our mind is set to consider any kind of secretion and excrement as disgusting and nasty, so that we don’t get close. It is set this way because these things can be harmful to us, and if we didn’t think they were nasty we would probably eat, drink, or have some kind of contact with these stuff, and then we would get sick.

Our brain works almost the same way when it comes to people. It’s a defence mechanism. We are programmed to accept people who have more in common with us more easily. That’s why there is racism , that’s why you see poor against rich, women against men, nation against nation, and so on. We are prejudiced by nature. But that’s obviously not an excuse. We are also violent by nature, polygamous by nature and jerks by nature, and that doesn’t mean that we are fated to act like that. We grow in a civilised society and learn to control our instincts. That’s why we are the ones pastoring sheep, not the other way around.

You judge people the moment you see them, but that’s not the problem here — that can even be a good thing, you should use you prejudices to guide you in a first approximation to the person. The problem arises when you think that your first impressions are right. And that’s when you invert form and content.

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I’m sad to say that I lied about the top ten, as you can see there’s only nine items in the list. But that can be your homework. What do you think has an inversion of form and content?

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As for my trip, I firmly believe that my 23 Kg suitcase, in spite of its clumsy way, will hold a far bigger value to me than its form can reveal.