Should we execute writers of computer viruses? (link via Amit.) I believe that we shouldn’t, but let me dispose of the invalid reason first – the reason that goes “We cannot put a number on human lives!” We make choices about our own lives all the time. Every time I spend a rupee on pleasure, I take it away from my future medical fund, money that could save my life some day. “Putting numbers” on human lives just involves quantifying choices we make routinely, not descending to a new level of moral depravity.
On the other hand, I think there are some good reasons why our intuition in this case is right:
- Our natural sense of justice demands proportionality. Even if that demand is not justified, it exists, and it will not be changed when faced with cost-benefit analysis. If we execute virus-writers, most of us will be unhappy, and this unhappiness should in turn be factored into our cost-benefit analysis.
- In a just society that executes only murders, executions will be rare. The kind of people we execute will tend to be the worst of the lot, people who will usually not have many friends or relatives who will cry over them. On the other hand, a writer of a virus will probably be a functioning member of society and will have people who will be desperately unhappy to see him dead. That should factor into our costs.
- A society that executes “petty” criminals is a very different kind of society from one that kills only butchers. A society that metes out proportional justice will also be one where the law is generally respected. If you start killing 20-year old college students for petty crimes, people will start considering the law their enemy and disobeying the law to save him. A society where good and bad does not correspond to lawful and unlawful is not a good place to live.
There could be many more. While it is a good idea to subject our moral intuitions to these tests, it is not a good idea to be so eager to accept counterintuitive conclusions just because they are counterintuitive.