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Report No. 35

X. The basic argument.

325. The basic argument.-

It would also be worthwhile to draw attention to a basic feature of human behaviour-love of life. To the overwhelming majority of human beings, nothing is more dear than life. We cannot help quoting the observations of Sir James Fitzjames Stephen:1

"No other punishment deters man so effectually from committing crimes as the punishment of death. This is one of those propositions which it is difficult to prove, simply because they are in themselves more obvious than any proof can make them. It is possible to display ingenuity in arguing against it, but that is all. The whole experience of mankind is in the other direction. The threat of instant death is the one to which resort has always been made when there was an absolute necessity for producing some result.

No one goes to certain inevitable death except by compulsion. Put the matter the other way. Was there ever yet a criminal who, when sentenced to death and brought out to die, would refuse the offer of a commutation of his sentence for the severest secondary punishment? Surely not. Why is this? It can only be because 'All that a man has will he give for his life'. In any secondary punishment, however, terrible, there is hope; but death is death; its terrors cannot be described more forcibly.".

1. Stephen Capital Punishment in Fraser's Magazine, Vol. LXlX, June 1864, p. 753, cited in R.C. Report, p. 19, para. 57.

326. This basic argument about the deterrent value of capital punishment has been well put in the minority report of the Massachusetts Commission1:-

"Does the death penalty for first-degree murder really serve as a deterrent to potential murderers? All human beings fear the loss of their lives, even those who may be suffering from major mental disturbances. The instinct of self-preservation is so fundamental that the threat of death, apprehended as such, must have a powerful determining influence on the voluntary direction of human activity.

No one will knowingly drink poison or cast himself over a precipice unless he is so deranged that he cannot evaluate the consequences of what he is doing, or unless he studiously chooses the alternative of death to continued existence in what he judges to be an intolerable situation. The claim that the death penalty in itself, decreed for the committing of a major crime, will not exercise a deterring influence on the great majority of potential criminals, contradicts one of the fundamental facts of human psychology."

1. Minority Report of the Special Commission for the purpose of investigating and studying the abolition of the death penalty in capital cases; Commonwealth of Massachusetts, House Report No. 2575 (Boston) dated 30th December, 1958, cited in McClellan Capital Punishment, (1961) pp. 72, 75, 76.

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