Is The Death Penalty Immoral?

Arguments for and against capital punishment

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Should the government kill some of its own citizens?  That is the basic question at the heart of the debate about capital punishment.  The issue arouses very strong feelings.  Politicians make their commitment for or against the death penalty part of their election campaigns.  Supporters and opponents of capital punishment demonstrate outside prisons when an execution is scheduled to take place. And ethicists debate the arguments on both sides of the issue.

For most of human history, in most societies, certain crimes have been punished by death.  In the bible, these include many crimes beyond murder.  For instance, death is the prescribed penalty for anyone who strikes his mother or father, or curses either of them, It also decrees that rapists, adulterers, prostitutes, homosexuals, and blasphemers should be executed.  In Western culture, capital punishment was quite common until fairly recently, and not just for murder.  In the twentieth century, some societies, such as Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, executed literally millions.  But since the second world war the number of executions in Western societies has declined, and the United States is the only modern Western country that still executes criminals.

Over 100 countries have abolished the death penalty.  In 2015 the countries that execute the most  people according to Amnesty International were:

            1.  China  (over 1000)

            2.  Iran  (over 280)

            3.  Saudi Arabia (over 90)

            4  Iraq  (over 60)

            5.  USA  (35)

Arguments for and against the death penalty can usefully be classified as either consequentialist and non-consequentialist.  Consequentialist arguments, as the term suggests, appeal to the likely good or bad consequences  of a policy.

  Non-consequentialist arguments consider something other than consequences.  What follows is a concise summary of the main arguments on both sides of the debate, along with common counterarguments. 

Consequentialist arguments for the death penalty

1.  Deterrence:  Capital punishment is the most effective deterrent against serious crime.

    Counterargument:  There is no good evidence that the death penalty deters anyone from committing capital crimes like murder.  Long prison sentences are an equally effective deterrent.

2.  Safety:  A criminal who has been executed cannot be released or escape to commit any further crimes.

     Counterargument:  High security prisons are safe enough.  Convicted killers virtually never escape from prison these days.

3.  Cost:  It’s cheaper to execute someone than to keep them in prison for many years.

     Counterargument:  Actually, at least in the US, it’s cheaper to keep someone in prison for many years than to seek the death penalty because the initial trial and subsequent appeals are so much more expensive in capital cases.

4.  Satisfaction:  The execution of a murderer satisfies the desire for vengeance and justice felt by both the victim’s loved one and by many members of the general public.

     Counterargument:  Really, we are only talking here about the desire for vengeance, and that is a primitive desire that we should not necessarily seek to satisfy in a civilized society.


Non-consequentialst arguments for the death penalty

1.  Justice:  Justice requires proper retribution.  The only penalty for crimes such as murder that is sufficiently severe is  death.

     Counterargument:  A long prison sentence is a sufficient punishment.

2.  Appropriateness:  The punishment should fit the crime.  An eye for eye; a tooth for a tooth; a death for a death.

     Counterargument:  This principle would justify cruel and unusual punishments in some cases.  E.g. It could be taken to imply that rapists should be raped or castrated.

3.  Reciprocity:  Criminals should be treated as they have treated others.

  This is the golden rule.  So killers should be killed.

     Counterargument: Two wrongs don’t make a right.  And a civilized society should set a better example, not emulate the behavior of criminals.


 Consequentialist arguments against the death penalty

1.  Suffering:  Execution, and the prospect of execution, inflicts terrible suffering on the condemned and their loved ones        

     Counterargument:  Any punishment will inflict suffering.  That’s the point!  Besides, the suffering endured by the condemned and their loved ones is offset by the satisfaction experienced by those who believe that justice has been done.

2.  Rehabilitation:  A person who is executed cannot be rehabilitated.  Yet in some cases, at least, a murderer could eventually become a productive and useful citizen, even if only among fellow prisoners.

     Counterargument: Rehabilitation of brutal killers is very rare.

3.  Incitement to murder:  Paradoxically, the death penalty may sometimes make murder more likely, not less.  A killer who thinks they will be executed if caught has nothing to lose, and this may make them more desperate and callous.

     Counterargument: There is little evidence for this.  Besides, common sense suggests that in most cases the death penalty is more likely to deter rather than incite murder.

4.  Devalues life: A society that deliberately kills some of its members reduces the value it places on life.  This will be reflected in the culture at large.  E.g. When the state sanctions violence, the culture will be more violent.

     Counterargument:  When murderers are sentenced to death, the seriousness of the punishment expresses the special value that society places on life.


Non-consequentialist arguments against the death penalty

1.  Sacredness of life: Capital punishment violates the basic principle that life is sacred.

     Counterargument: Executing murderers actually upholds this principle.  It is precisely because life is sacred that the taking of innocent life cannot be tolerated.

2.  Irreversibility:  Human beings and human systems are fallible.  Mistakes will inevitably be made.  But whereas an innocent person who is imprisoned can later be released and compensated, an innocent person who is executed suffers injustice for ever.

     Counterargument:  The execution of innocent people is very rare, and with today’s drawn out appeals process it is less likely than ever before.  Moreover, the possible death of innocent people is more than offset by the lives the death penalty saves through its effectiveness as a deterrent.

3.  Discrimination:  Criminal sentencing in the US has been shown to discriminate against minorities and poor people.  As the saying goes, those without the capital get the punishment. Furthermore, there is an arbitrariness to the way sentences are handed down.  Two individuals can be convicted of similar crimes, yet only one will be sentenced to death due to such factors as race, sex, juror bias, judge’s competence, or quality of legal counsel.

     Counterargument: Problems of arbitrariness and discrimination can be solved by establishing better rules and procedures.

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Westacott, Emrys. "Is The Death Penalty Immoral?" ThoughtCo, Mar. 27, 2016, Westacott, Emrys. (2016, March 27). Is The Death Penalty Immoral? Retrieved from Westacott, Emrys. "Is The Death Penalty Immoral?" ThoughtCo. (accessed January 24, 2018).