The topic of capital punishment has always
been a controversial issue and will continue to be so for the foreseeable
future. The most severe crimes are subject to the highest form of punishment
which is capital punishment. The death penalty, or capital punishment, has a
large group of supporters who believe in the advantage of the death penalty for
fighting or deterring crimes. However, there any many who oppose and view the
death penalty as cruel, unconstitutional, barbaric, and uncivilized. With the
increased number of terrorist attacks, shootings etc. that are occurring in the
United States recently and the death penalty still remains relevant. A large
number of people believe that perpetrators deserve the maximum punishment while
others disagree. All of this is an emotional response because it shows the
person reacting to their beliefs, but it does raise the legitimate question as
to whether or not capital punishment is an effective and ethical way to deter
Louis P. Pojman writes an article, as a
response to Adam Hugo Bedau’s article, titled, “Debating the Death Penalty:
Should America Have Capital Punishment?” Pojman mentions that there are two
important elements when it comes to establishing the morality of the death
penalty; retribution and deterrence. Working together these two elements provide
a strong argument in favor of the death penalty. Retribution is the belief that
the guilty and only the guilty deserve to be punished in proportion to the
severity of their crime. He points out that retribution is not vengeance but rather
the rational theory that criminals deserve to be punished in proportion to the
severity of their crimes and furthermore retribution is said to be in line with
humans gut instinct that some crimes need to be severely punished and that all
crimes deserve some sort of punishment. Pojman’s overall belief of the death
penalty is, “Public executions of the convicted murderer would serve as a
reminder that crime does not pay. Public executions of criminals seem an
efficient way to communicate the message that if you shed innocent blood, you
will pay a high price… I agree… on the matter of accountability.”
The second element mentioned is deterrence.
Deterrence is the thought that executing murderers deters or prevents prospective
murderers from killing innocent people. The idea here is that by putting such a
strong penalty on the crime of murder, any future murderers are strongly
encouraged to reconsider their behavior or else suffer the consequences. In
order to motivate the idea that deterrence is effective he asks us to consider
a hypothetical world in which every murder is instantly and unfailingly met
with a divine retribution which is to say that every time someone commits a
murder they are killed by a bolt of lightning killing the murderer.
Adam Bedau, in his article The case
against the Death Penalty has six different points advocating against the
death penalty. What he rights is based purely on philosophy and highly
respected. His main statement that differs from that of Pojman is that the less
severe punishment is the most appealing and should be administered to
criminals. The issue with this is that by defaulting to the less severe
punishment the prospective criminal would not be deterred from committing the
crime and the criminal who received the less severe punishment would be more
likely to carry out those heinous crimes again. This would result in the loss
and suffering of innocent lives.
suggests that in such a world murder would cease to exist entirely and this is
thought to be proof that retribution, if administered quickly enough and often
enough, is a really strong deterrent to any and all murders. But even in such a
hypothetical world this justice might not be able to eliminate murder. One
would suspect that it would not. Some murders are committed by those who are
clinically insane or temporarily overcome with irrational emotions. And
irrational agents do not stop to consider the consequences of their actions.
Consideration of consequences is something only an rational person would be
able to do well, if at all.
Assuming that the “lightning bolt justice”
worked one might think of a hypothetical world in which murderers were
instantly teleported to a prison in which they could not escape. It seems that
such retribution by imprisonment would also be incredibly effective at deterring
and reducing the number of murders. After all, if a rational person who does
not want to die they are most likely a rational person who does not want to
spend the rest of their life in jail. “Some cases of rape, kidnapping, treason,
and white collar crimes…may well merit the death penalty.” Maybe those that
came before us leaned towards being too harsh on offenders. Today people may be
too soft on them. The goal is to continue to seek the right mean, and give the
offender what he or she deserves.
A possible question one might ask could be
why isn’t life imprisonment an effective deterrence? It is certainly considered
but Pojman takes the view that life imprisonment also causes irreversible harm.
He notes that most humans would prefer a short life of higher quality than a
longer life of lower quality. Life imprisonment does cause irreversible harm
even to a person who is eventually proven innocent and released. That person
would lose a large portion of their free life and most humans would prefer a
shorter life of high quality. But observing that life imprisonment is harmful
to innocent people one has to wonder if it is a comparable harm to being
unjustly executed? Yes, both are harmful and unjust in the case of innocent
people but which is worse? Logically assuming that most people would prefer a
shorter more high quality life than most people would prefer the death penalty
and having their life exonerated then drawn out.
Immanuel Kant was a German
philosopher and is a central figure in modern philosophy. In order to
understand fully his view on the death penalty one has to first look at his
belief or “Kantianism”. He argued that what gave humans their importance on
earth is their ability to reason and distinguish humans from other earth
dwelling creatures. Without reason, humans cannot value anything. Thus, humans
should value reason which gives us individual freedom. He believes that one
should only do things they can rationally endorse and to treat others with
respect and not as a tool. Kant believes that “If an offender has committed
murder, he must die. In this case, no possible substitute can satisfy justice.
For there is no parallel between death and even the most miserable life, so
that there is no equality of crime and retribution unless the perpetrator is
judicially put to death.”
Kant’s opinion of the death penalty can be
seen in his work “Metaphysics of Morals” (Part One), written in 1797.
His perspective is that criminals should only be given what they deserve,
meaning, that they should be punished simply for committing capital crimes, and
for no other reason beyond that. He also argued that the punishment chosen for
the criminal should be proportionate to the crime which is in correspondence to
what Pojman argued. Kant believed that punishment should always be the response
for a crime and that it is considered immoral for a criminal to go unpunished,
A society that is not willing to demand a life of somebody who has taken
somebody else’s life is simply immoral.This is what Kant believed as equality.
Furthermore, when it came to punishing
criminals Kant was opposed unless it took away the humanity of the punished.
Therefore, capital punishment would be seen as immoral, in Kant’s perspective,
unless the criminal had tortured the victim when in which case the correct
punishment for the criminal would be torture. This has a very “eye for an eye”
mentality which Pojman also argues for.
Kant and Pojman share the idea of the
retributivist theory of punishment that the only punishment equivalent to
death, the amount of punishment that was inflicted on the victim, is death.
Death is collectively different from any kind of life, so no substitute could
be found to equal death in the form of punishment.
Utilitarianism, which is the doctrine that
actions are right if they are useful for society, is the belief that the death
penalty is morally acceptable because it benefit the society as a whole. It
does not view capital punishment a something that can hurt or correct an
individual but rather as something that helps to solve a sociological problem.
A main argument for capital punishment is that it prevents or deters crime from
being repeated and thus improves the safety of the society. This has been
previously discussed in Pojman and Kant’s view on capital punishment. Utilitarianism disapproves of punishment that
is administered as a way to make a criminal suffer for his/her crime. Instead,
the role of punishment is to prevent future crime by inflicting fear of
punishment resulting in protecting society.
According to Utilitarianism, the death
penalty is not meant to provide justice by taking an “eye for an eye” as is
believed by Kant and Pojman. Capital punishment is also preferable to
imprisonment, as believed by Pojman, for this worst kind of crime because it
prevents the criminal from being released from prison and committing a crime
again. From the utilitarianism perspective, the act of taking someone’s life is
justified if it prevents the taking of other innocent lives.
Another argument that is made by
utilitarianism, although not the most high quality argument, is that the
government saves money by executing prisoners instead of keeping them
imprisoned for their whole lives. Life imprisonment would be at the expense of
the community and therefore hinder society which is the opposite of what utilitarianism
argues for. The utilitarian would only argue for capital punishment if the
sacrifice of one person would advocate for the greater happiness to the
society. Each case in which the death penalty would be considered would have to
be considered separately and the appropriate punishment would be that which
would result in the greater good for the community.
By viewing their different arguments and
beliefs for Capital punishment, one sees that Pojman, Kant, and the Utilitarian
all have some different beliefs when it comes to justifying the death penalty.
However, the one thing that they all can agree on is the need for Capital
punishment as a deterrent to one degree or another. Bedau’s argument against
capital punishment and that the least severe punishment is the most appealing
for the criminal does not deter criminals and in turn increases crime and puts
innocent lives at risk. By enforcing capital punishment, most prospective
criminals see and fear the results of committing heinous crimes and therefor
resist the urge to do save saving many innocent lives and bettering the society
and community as a whole.
G, Louis P. Pojman, and Adam Hugo Bedau. “Debating the Death Penalty: Should
America Have Capital Punishment?” Why the Death Penalty Is Morally Permissible,
2004, pp. 51–54.
against, Bedau, Hugo A. “The Case against the Death Penalty.” Kings College,
Policy Studies Review, 1 Feb. 1989.
Kant “metaphysics of morals”