As America struggles with a massive opioid addiction crisis, President Trump has proposed executing certain types of drug dealers as a possible solution. While his proposal drew applauses, it seems unlikely that this will become a legal reality. However, it does raise interesting philosophical and practical questions.
From a purely practical standpoint, the key question is whether executing drug dealers would have an impact on the opioid epidemic. It will, of course, be assumed that the people running the pharmaceutical companies manufacturing and distributing opioids will not be executed as part of this plan.
From an intuitive standpoint, it does seem that execution could have an impact on the epidemic. As a great philosopher once said, “if you kill someone for doing something, they won’t do that again.” As such, killing drug dealers would reduce the number of dealers and thus could reduce the extent of the opioid epidemic. This would obviously require killing new dealers as they stepped in to replace the old, but this would presumably be a problem in the logistics of killing.
There is also the deterrence factor. On the face of it, it seems sensible to believe that the threat of execution would deter people from dealing opioids. This assumes that drug dealers are rational actors and their calculation of the risks and benefits will guide them to stop dealing. Or that they would be so scared of being executed that they would stop (or never start). It seems reasonable to think that people fear death and would thus try to avoid it. As such, executing drug dealers could prove to be effective.
However, it is not without cause that some are critical of philosophers for relying on reason and not considering the empirical data. In the case of the death penalty, there is extensive data on its effectiveness. The evidence is fairly solid that it is not an effective deterrence, which runs contrary to what intuitions about death and threats of death would suggest. Naturally, it could be argued that it would deter drug dealers, but international data suggests otherwise. As such, it seems unlikely that this is a problem that we can kill our way out of. I now turn to the moral issue.
On the face of it, the moral issue has already been settled by the practical issue: if the death penalty would not deter drug dealers, then the deterrence argument could not be used to morally justify executing them. However, there is still the classic retribution argument: killing drug dealers would be morally justified as retribution for their crimes.
On the one hand, this does have some appeal. The opioid epidemic has resulted in a significant increase in accidental deaths, so it is reasonable to lay some of the blame for some those deaths on the drug dealers. After all, if a business (in this case a drug business) knowingly provides a dangerous product to customers, then they are morally accountable for at least some of the harms. This is true in the case of legal products, such as tobacco and prescription opioids, and clearly true in the case of products that are illegal because they are harmful, such as illegally trafficked opioids.
While the drug dealers certainly do deserve to be punished for distributing such a harmful product, the punishment must still be subject to the principle of proportionality. That is, the punishment must be warranted by the severity of the harm done in the crime.
A drug dealer that intentionally sold contaminated products that killed users would be rather directly responsible for those deaths. The same would apply to a company that knowingly sold fatally flawed legal products that killed people, such as defective cars. Obviously, the criminal would compound their misdeed legally by engaging in a criminal activity, but from the moral perspective, the legality would not be the primary concern. Rather, it would be causing of death that mattered. It would be these sorts of cases that would most plausibly merit execution, on the principle that the punishment (death) should match the crime (causing death). However, selling someone a fatally defective product is still distinct from killing them—there is not as direct a causal link in the death. As such, executing those who knowingly sell defective products that will cause death would still seem morally problematic.
In most cases drug dealers do not intentionally sell defective products they know will kill their customers. They do, after all, want repeat business. But, drugs are almost always harmful to some degree and, as such, this puts them into the moral category of harmful things. The harms are quite numerous, ranging from health issues to death by overdose. This category is, of course, also occupied by many legal products, such as alcohol and tobacco. As such, the question is whether it is morally acceptable to execute someone for providing a harmful product that can potentially kill the user. Once again, the legal issue is distinct from the moral—after all, all opioids could be made completely legal tomorrow, but this would not change the basic moral issue. The easy and obvious answer is that while knowingly peddling harmful products is morally wrong, the level of wrongness does not merit execution. As such, killing drug dealers simply for dealing drugs would be no righter than killing the owners of Heineken or R.J. Reynolds for distributing legal products that cause significant health issues and contribute to the ruin of many lives.