What are the pros and cons of California Proposition 34 from a utilitarian perspective? How does J.S. Mill’s utilitarian analysis support the death penalty?

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Before we analyze Proposition 34 with regard to John Stuart Mill's theory of utilitarianism, let's summarize the proposition as follows:
California Proposition 34
  • Ends capital punishment in California
  • Saves the state approximately $1 billion
  • Converts 726 death row sentences to life imprisonment without parole
In John Stuart Mill's essay Utilitarianism, he outlines a social theory that is based on the idea that the action that promotes the most happiness for the most people is the best action. Mill's argument relies on the assumption that happiness is the basic goal that drives humans. Mill spends much of the essay describing happiness, and his definition of happiness is nuanced. There are many kinds and grades of happiness. There are higher forms of happiness, such as the accomplishment of lifelong goals, and lower forms of happiness, such as the pleasure from eating an ice cream cone. This concept of happiness is important when considering Proposition 34. Assuming a utilitarian standpoint, let's assess the pros and cons of Proposition 34.
 
Pro: Saves Taxpayer Dollars
The Proposition would save the state money and thus pass that savings on to taxpayers. The residents of California (38 million in 2012) don't spend $1 billion on death row costs. This monetary benefit is a low-grade happiness. 
 
Con: Effects on Victims and Law Enforcement Officials
The inmates landed on death row for serious crimes, many of which had victims. If Proposition 34 were to have passed, those victims would have to live with the knowledge that the person who harmed them did not get as strict of a punishment as originally delivered. Hypothetically, if every inmate on death row had 100 affiliated victims and officials, that would mean happiness for 72,600 people. The perception of living in a just society is a higher order happiness, and one could argue those 72,600 people would receive it (though it's also possible some of them would disagree).
 
Pro: Inmates Get to Die a Natural Death at a Natural Age
If Proposition 34 passed, the death row criminals no longer get executed and instead stay in prison for life without parole. Assuming that the inmates do not want to die, this means that the inmates gain happiness.  Arguably, the 726 inmates have a very high grade happiness (getting to die at a natural age). 
 
Was Proposition 34 Utilitarian?
By Mill's standards, Proposition 34 was utilitarian. It would have provided happiness (although low grade) to residents of the state of California at the expense of the smaller group that would have lost happiness as a result (the inmates and the victims). Referring back to Mill's idea of providing the most happiness to the highest number of people, Proposition 34 would have provided happiness to a large group of people while taking away happiness from a smaller group of people. 
 
The problem in considering Proposition 34 according to Mill's utilitarianism is trying to compare the varying levels of happiness. There are three instances of possible happiness we see in Proposition 34: 
  1. The low-grade happiness of taxpayers saving money (38 million residents).
  2. The high-grade happiness of inmates who get to live longer lives (726 inmates).
  3. The high-grade happiness of victims who see justice served to criminals who harmed them (72,600 victims).
It seems impossible to compare these three groups according to happiness levels. Even though the groups vary greatly in size, each kind of happiness is so greatly different from the next. Mill's utilitarianism does account for different qualities and quantities of happiness in his essay; however, the subjective nature of happiness makes it nearly impossible to compare these different grades of happiness. This problem is one of the known and debated flaws in Mill's theory. Utilitarianism by definition overrides the benefit of the individual in favor of the benefit of the whole. Surely, however, there is a threshold for how far an individual's happiness can be deprioritized over the good of the group. 

Does Mill's Utilitarianism Support the Death Penalty?
Since Proposition 34 did not pass, death row inmates remain on death row and cost taxpayers annually. In California's current situation, the death penalty is not utilitarian by Mill's standards: it costs more happiness than it creates. The utilitarian nature of a death penalty depends on how the punishment is delivered and how much it costs the group. If there were reforms that made it less expensive to execute an inmate (rather than commute their sentence), it is possible that the death penalty could be considered utilitarian.
Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
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