The Main Ethics of the Death Penalty Paper

Ethics of the Death Penalty

The death penalty is a . Some countries feel that it is a cruel punishment and have outlawed it, such as England. Others practice the punishment liberally with small caliber crimes receiving the harshest possible punishment. In the United States of America, the death penalty exists in some states but has been abolished in others. Crimes that qualify for the death penalty are serious felonies such as murder. Those on opposing sides of the issue often look to the philosophy of ethics to prove their own position or to subvert the opposition’s perspective. Often those who support the death penalty argue that this is the only just punishment for someone who has committed heinous crimes against other people. The dignity of the victim is the only one they consider. Antithetically, those who oppose the death penalty argue that committing a crime like that should be punished, but that the death of another person does nothing to change the fact that the other person is already deceased. They believe that the death penalty is unethical in that it deprives the convicted person of their dignity and their right to existence. Comparing the two sides, the various arguments can be examined and a conclusion can be drawn. There are crimes which deserve more than a simple prison term and there are people who choose to commit crimes of such a disgusting character that the action makes them no longer human; therefore in cases of extreme crime, the death penalty is a viable punishment.

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Immanuel Kant argues that every being is entitled to a level of dignity. Human beings deserve this because of their separation from objects. People, because of their ability to moralize have intrinsic worth. They are all valid, regardless of the caliber of their characters. Therefore, he might well argue that no one has the right to take a life, even if the one being killed has already done so. At the same time, he states that the criminal, when he does got to prison for his crimes, is complicit in his imprisonment. If he did not want to go to prison, then he would not have made the choice to commit a crime where the punishment is confinement in a cell for a specified length of time or even death. He writes, “It may be rendered by saying that the undeserved evil which any one commits on another, is to be regarded as perpetrated on himself” (Kant 104). By perpetrating the crime, regardless of the likelihood of his capture and imprisonment, the criminal is asking to be put in prison. Therefore, his execution or incarceration does nothing to diminish his personal dignity. He made the choice to commit the crime and therefore set about the path to his ultimate destiny. Furthermore, Kant states that unlike other crimes, there is no way to make up for a murder. With burglary, restitution can be made or vandalism can be cleaned, but there is no way to make amends for a murder. Therefore, he writes, “Whoever has committed murder, must dieThere is no likeness or proportion between life, however painful, and death; and therefore there is no equality between the crime of murder and the retaliation of it but what is judicially accomplished by the execution of the criminal” (Kant 105). Punishment is only viable if the ramifications are equal to the seriousness of the crime. In the case of murder, the only equitable punishment is for that individual to die for his crimes.

Kant’s perspective is obviously not shared by everyone; a great many of the world’s finest thinkers believe the exact opposite. They think the death penalty ought to be universally abolished. Thurgood Marshall and Hugo Bedau argue that the dignity that Kant discusses is incongruent with the death penalty and that nothing justifies the death of another person. What that person has done is irrelevant. No action they could perform can dehumanize an individual to the point where you can consider their rights to existence as lesser than anyone else’s. According to these men, the death penalty is an arcane relic of a past era when punishments were meted out based upon the need for revenge. Modern society has evolved, they argue, to the point where the concept of punishment as it was originally designed no longer has the same purpose. There is no way to rehabilitate someone after they have been killed and the modern system of justice is designed to rehabilitate criminals more so than to punish them. If this is the purpose of the criminal justice system, then there is no reason for the death penalty. However, if the purpose of the criminal justice system is still to punish people for their actions, then the penalty still is valid.

Marshall uses the term retribution to explain the factor of revenge that is included in the death penalty. Death does nothing to bring back the victim of the crime or to again. All it does is allow the society to enact revenge against the perpetrator. Besides the opinion that the death penalty only serves as a form of retribution, he believes that the punishment deprives the criminals of their dignity and their worth as human beings. He states, “What might be termed the purely retributive justification for the death penalty — that the death penalty is appropriate, not because of its beneficial effect on society, but because the taking of the murderer’s life is itself morally good” (Marshall 1976). This need for retribution is the resultant of a defective sense of morality. Further, he suggests that if the American public understood the moral turpitude of the death penalty, then they would stop supporting it. By depriving criminals of their human dignity, the American people and the American government are depriving themselves of another form of dignity.

Bedau’s response to the idea of retributivism is that the death penalty is not designed to be fair; in fact, he posits that, although there have been reforms to change this, the death penalty is still arbitrary and that too many people now think that there is justification when it is sentenced. He says, “The chief consequences of resting the defense of the death penalty on retribution is that it makes criticism of executions on grounds of justice, or reason, or experience, increasingly difficult” (Bedau 2004,-page 10). The retributive factor of the death penalty makes critiquing it in any way synonymous with supporting the crimes of the individual when that is not the intention. In an open dialogue, there is room for difference of opinion, but the diminishing of the other side’s opinion through false association does nothing to convince the opposition of your viewpoint.

Louis Pojman has a different opinion than Bedau and Marshall. First, he believes that there is the right to punish people if they choose to commit crimes. He believes that, for some prisoners, punishing their actions by giving them death is an acknowledgement of their status as specialized individuals. By saying that their actions are so terrible that they warrant death, the authorities are elevating these criminals in status. Actions can be so evil and so horrendous that the punishment that is required is more than can be done by a prison sentence. Anyone who commits murder, for example, “deserves to suffer in the same way he has harmed another. Or, at least, the suffering should be equal and similar to the suffering he has caused” (Pojman 1998,-page 10). This is definitively a retributionist attitude, but it is a valid expression of Kant’s perspective as well. When a person chooses to violate the rights of another, they forfeit their own. They are allowed to be treated in a specialized manner, as is the case when one is sentenced to death.

Although some thinkers believe that the death penalty subverts the rights of the prisoners to their individuality and dignity, these opinions do not take into account the feelings of the victims or their loved ones. This speaks to the retributionist aspect of the death penalty, but that does not change its validity. Those who kill others have altered the appropriate methods with which they can be treated. Causing the death of another should mean that your own life has less value than the one you have destroyed.

Works Cited

Bedau, H.A. (2004). The death penalty in America, yesterday and today. Killing as Punishment:

Reflections on the Death Penalty in America. Northwestern UP: Boston, MA. 3-15.

Kant, I. (1972). Justice and punishment. Philosophical Perspectives on Punishment. Ed. G.

Ezorsky. State University of : Albany, NY. 103-106.

Marshall, T. (1976). The death penalty is a denial of human dignity. Philosophy in Action. 557-


Pojman, L.P (1998). For the death penalty. The Death Penalty: For and Against. Ed. L.P.

Pogman & J. Reiman. Rowman & Littlefield: Lanham, MD. 1-65.

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