Sparking much controversy and anxiety in the hearts of American citizens is the ethical dilemma of the death penalty. The death penalty, as a form of punishment, is given to those who commit crimes deemed by society and government as deserving the infliction of death. Termed “death penalty”, “death sentence”, and “execution”, the issue is not a newfangled idea, rather a form of punishment that actually dates back to the ancient laws of China. Actively controversial, the death penalty serves as a divider among many political ideologies, religions, and cultures.
This essay will assess the ethical issues associated with the death penalty from the views of ancient thinkers, as well as modern principles.
Historically, the first recorded punishment of death was sentenced to a man of nobility who was accused of magic. Punishment by death was frequently cruel and included crucifixion, drowning at sea, burial alive, beating to death, and impalement (Reggio). The most infamous death sentence in BC was given to the Greek philosopher Socrates, who was forced to drink poison for heresy and “corruption of youth”.
Used by almost all societies, the death penalty has been the consequence of many crimes, for example, the first crimes associated with the punishment of death included: publication of libels and insulting songs, the cutting or grazing of crops planted by a farmer, the burning of a house or a stack of corn near a house, cheating by a patron of his client, perjury, making disturbances at night in the city, willful murder of a freeman or a parent, or theft by a slave (Reggio). The punishment for these crimes, though often cruel, included: boiling to death, dismemberment, sawing, breaking wheel, crucifixion, slow slicing, and decapitation. Some speculate that British influence of the time can account for the large majority of countries that adopted the penalty. Up until about the 1700’s, Britain had named upwards to two hundred and twenty-two crimes that were punishable by death, including cutting down a tree or counterfeiting tax stamps (Reggio). Around 1823, many laws were passed exempting crimes from capital punishment. Capital punishments were abolished exponentially during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the era was marked by a transition from cruel and violent punishment to humane forms of “executions” in Britain and many other European countries.
The first recorded execution in America was documented in 1608 when officials executed George Kendall of Virginia for alleged plots to betray the British to the Spanish. The first legal execution occurred in 1620 for the crime of theft. The severity and frequency of the death sentence varied from colony to colony. For example, in Massachusetts, the only recognized capital crimes were these seven: murder, sodomy, burglary, buggery, arson, rape, and treason; while in other colonies, one could be executed for something as simple as stealing grapes. By the late 1700s, the colonies in America shared common capital crimes, with the exception of a few, and later reforms were foreseeable. The first series of significant reforms arose during the period of 1833-1853 (Reggio). The practice grew dangerously close to a spectator sport until this time. People would flood the streets to get a glimpse at the hangings. As fights and brawls would break out, the local merchants would feed the frenzy by serving alcohol and offering souvenirs. During the era of reform, private hangings became the alternative to the mayhem of public hangings. 1846 marked the first step toward abolishment of the death penalty. Michigan abolished the death penalty (except for treason), followed by severe limitations by Massachusetts, and abolishment by Wisconsin.
The electric chair came in an odd way in 1888 after Edison Company began public demonstrations by electrocuting animals. The reasoning was that if it could kill animals, it could probably kill people. Hanging was almost unseen after a hangman misjudged a drop and a woman’s head was ripped from her body. The majority of people from this era were opposed to certain forms of death sentences, but few were opposed to the practice altogether. The majority of the world has moved toward more humane forms of punishment in response to the disorder associated with the dated forms of capital punishment. Currently, the United Nations passed a nonbinding resolution to promote the abolishment of the death penalty across the world, yet approximately 60% of the population of the world lives in countries where executions take place (Reggio).
Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative seeks to act with accordance to a general rule. The general rule applied here is very difficult, given the different capital crimes in the world, and the vast forms of achieving death. He would also pose the question of whether or not the death penalty is using a human as a means to an end. According to the categorical imperative, “society and individuals must act in such a way that you can will that your actions become a universal law for all to follow” (Kant on Capital Punishment) (Kant, 2004). Kant’s view on crime is that society makes laws that, if they are broke, punishment must follow. The purpose of punishment is not to benefit anyone (deterrence or to teach a lesson), but rather a form of penalization. It is essential to see Kant’s view with regard to only murder. He works on the basis that we cannot punish for the sake of the benefit of society, because some innocent people can be deemed unnecessary for society and still remain innocent of crime. Kant works on the view that society and government have laws – and should those laws be broken, there will be penalization. Laws that are broken without punishment are flimsy (Kant, 2004). A weak law is then an indication of a weak society.
In the words of Jeremy Bentham, “All punishment is mischief; all punishment in itself is evil. (Bentham)” The utilitarian view of punishment is that punishment causes unhappiness and pain, therefore it, for the most part, is a bad thing. Punishment can only be justified if the benefits outweigh the costs. For example, does the punishment of a man who has broken into several houses cause good for a society? The answer is yes because he will no longer break into houses if he is punished by being thrown in jail. Most utilitarians would oppose any form of punishment, especially the death penalty because it causes suffering. Principally, the main standard that utilitarianism is based on is that pleasure should outweigh pain. On this cost benefit analysis, the death penalty can go either way. Capital punishment reduces crime in some aspects, but it also is taking the life away from the criminal. The argument that capital punishment deters crime is hard to prove, but would be an argument in favor for utilitarianism, but just as the categorical imperative fails logically, the execution of the innocent can be justified in utilitarianism as well.
In the Aristotelian tradition, humans should act rationally accompanied by appropriate amounts of courage, self-control, and fairness (Aristotle, Nico.) He strongly believed in the necessity for society to enact laws with teeth in them, for the purpose of creating citizens with good habits of character. When a crime in enacted, Aristotle believes that the balance must be restored between the one doing the harm and the victim. I believe that capital punishment can be justified in the Aristotelian tradition because no other justification can be explained. Aristotle, like Immanuel Kant, believes that governments and societies need laws and no action against those laws should go unpunished. “It is in justice that the ordering of society is centered (Aristotle),” in other words, every human should act in a just manner, and those who act unjustly should be chastised accordingly by their society. Retributive justice, or if the punishment is an acceptable form of response to a crime, Aristotle believed was essential to a good society.
Ron House, the faculty of Sciences at the University of Southern Queensland, offers a new prospective by which we can look at all the death penalty using a principle known as the “Principle of Goodness” (House, 2007). His theory beautifully encompasses the philosophers that preceded him. “We must act so as to accord with a general rule, and the Principle of Goodness is a general rule (Or becomes one as soon as we say “act such as to avoid evil and pursue goodness”); stricter because not any general rule satisfies the Principle (House, 2007).” The theory assumes that the world is not perfect, just as utilitarianism does. There will always be exceptions to every rule, just as murder in self-defense has now been accepted as ethically acceptable. House points out that the critics of the death penalty often claim that it is simply a form of retribution, but if retribution, or eye for an eye, was the only factor, wouldn’t we give terrible torture for torture or mutilation for mutilation? We seem to stop short somewhere, but where do we draw the line – a difficult question to answer. House also points out that societies are ever changing, and one solution is never the answer to a problem like the death penalty. The principle of goodness helps us make clear the important considerations and proposals to the issue. Tremendous protection of the innocent must be present along with logic based arguments absent of emotions based on the race of an offender or outrage towards her/him (House, 2007). Today, the absence of bias or irrational emotion is impossible. Other factors, although irrational and illogical, will always play a part in the decisions of a courtroom.
From a moral point of view, Steffen Lloyd stresses the problem with the death penalty. How do we know 100% that every man on death row is guilty? He also allows the viewer to relate the unjust crucifixion of Jesus Christ to the possibly innocent individuals on death row. His argument was that there can be just execution, but the American legal system prevents just execution (Lloyd, 1998). Despite whether or not it is ethical or moral, as Bill Mears points out in his CNN study, some states just cannot afford the death penalty. “Thirty-five states still retain the death penalty, but fewer and fewer executions are taking place every year,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “But the overall death row population has remained relatively steady. At a time of budget shortfalls nationwide, the death penalty is turning into an expensive form of life without parole.” The same information center conducted a study that suggested capital punishment costs can average $10 million more per year per state than life sentences. He suggests that the death sentence provokes more plea bargaining and appeals than any other sentence, therefor driving up the cost of such a penalty (Mears, 2009).
Whether you are a proponent of the death penalty, or an opponent, there remains to be several difficult questions to answer with regards to this controversial practice. How can one be certain the cost of the death penalty? Or the cost of life in prison? Whether it actually deters crime or not? Does race play a factor or not? Or whether we can be certain enough that someone committed a crime? The answer to these questions can go either way and it seems difficult to prove with absolute certainty any of them, but the death penalty remains to be agreed upon and disagreed upon everywhere in the world. Rasmussen reports that as of June of 2010, 62% of Americans supported the death penalty, but were unsure of its effectiveness and its ability to deter crime. The truth of the matter remains to be that we will never universally agree on any one item, especially the death penalty, but the great thinkers I have described before help us to assess the ethical perspectives that help us form a stance on the debated issue.
1.) Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, transl. C. Rowe, Oxford Univ. Press paperback
2.) House, R. (2007). The death penalty and the principle of goodness. Manuscript submitted for publication, Faculty of Sciences, University of Southern Queensland, Australia. Retrieved from http://principleofgoodness.net/files/papers/death-policy-US- paper.pdf
3.) LLoyd, S. (1998). Executing justice : the moral meaning of the death penalty . Cleveland, Ohio: Pilgrim Press.
4.) Mears, B. (2009, Oct.). Study: states can’t afford death penalty. CNN
5.) Reggio, M. H. (1997). History of the death penalty. PBS (Magazine article)
6.) Jones, E. (2000). Capital punishment. International Debate Education Association
7.) Kant, I. The Right of Punishing, Retrieved on April 1st, 2004. From: http://w1.155.telia.com/~u15525046/ny_sida_9.htm