July 10, 2009

Worse Than Death

murder crime sceneImage by polandeze via Flickr

Is anything worse than death, and if so what? To answer this question, I suggest that we consider to categories. First, we can ask ourselves whether any crimes should carry a stiffer punishment than murder (i.e., from the perspective of what we consider to be appropriate punishments, are any crimes worse than murder?). Second, we can focus on the subject experience of the victim (i.e., from the perspective of the victim, is anything worse than being killed?).


In the American criminal justice system, first-degree murder does carry among the steepest sentences. However, there are various aggravating factors which can lead to sentencing enhancements. For example, a murder in which the victim has been tortured will often result in a more severe sentence than one in which this was not the case.

From the criminal justice framework, we ask ourselves whether various punishments fit various crimes. In so doing, we consider the nature of the crime. At the same time, we are constrained by sentencing guidelines and constraints imposed on judges by politicians more interested in looking tough on crime than achieving justice.

For these reasons, some crimes that many of us consider as bad if not worse than murder (e.g., certain sadistic rape/torture scenarios) almost never carry sentences as severe as homicide. Thus, the way our criminal justice system currently works, nothing is really worse than homicide but some homicides are worse than others.

Victim Experience

As muddled as things seem on the punishment side of things, they are refreshingly clear when we focus on the experience of the victim. Putting ourselves in the shoes of the victim, we see that there are many things far worse than death.

It is quite easy to concoct scenarios where the victim begs for the relief of death to escape pain inflicted by the sadistic offender. For most of us, prolonged torture fits this bill nicely.

We can also consider the case of severe child sexual abuse. I suspect most of us would agree that it certainly could be worse than death. Frankly, this is one of the reasons that the Vatican's claim that abortion is worse than child rape disgusts me. From what I know of the long-term consequences of severe child sexual abuse, the idea that never having been born in the first place is worse than this truly boggles the mind.

Subscribe to Atheist Revolution