“(Capital punishment) is . . . the most premeditated of murders, to which no criminal’s deed, however calculated . . . can be compared . . . For there to be an equivalence, the death penalty would have to punish a criminal who had warned his victim of the date at which he would inflict a horrible death on him and who, from that moment onward, had confined him at mercy for months. Such a monster is not encountered in private life.”
Capital Punishment has been in practice for centuries. In the past, death penalty was carried out with the belief that it was a deterrent against crimes. However, in Western Society (esp. America) the debate over this form of punishment has never ceased. No one knows whether the death penalty is right or wrong.
The people who want the death penalty claim that it is a deterrence against major crimes. Secondly, capital punishment is a final event and it will ensure that the criminal will never repeat his/her crimes. Some even go further and add that once the death penalty has been carried out, the society no longer has the financial burden to look after the prisoner. And finally most families who have their loved ones murdered, claim that the death penalty brings a closure, peace and the debt has been paid (Shapiro 2000, Bedau 1997, 2004).
Like all things in life, there are always some who argue against capital punishment. They say that the punishment induces pain and suffering on the criminal’s family. Others claim that capital punishment in any form is a painful process and does not value life. The criminal suffers during the procedure because he/she may be awake or feel the pain during the execution, not forgetting the emotional stress that leads up to the execution. And yet there are others who say that capital punishment is not fair. Some ethnic groups/minorities are more likely to get the death penalty than other races. And finally the opponents of the death penalty claim that there is always a chance that an innocent man will be sent to the gallows and the process is irreversible (Browning 2000).
Firstly, with regard to an innocent person being executed, this is a flawed argument and not relevant to the punishment. If an innocent man is executed, the problem is with the legal system and the prosecutors who are unjust and unfair. “It is not the penalty – whether death or prison – which is unjust when inflicted on the innocent, but its imposition on the innocent”, writes Haag (1968). To minimize these mistakes, our judicial system which reviews death penalty cases takes a long time.
The opponents also claim that the death penalty cheapens the value of life, but forget to note that the murderer also wasted a human life by killing. How can such an argument be based only from the perspective of the criminal? Further, the belief that people who are given the death penalty are most likely to be minorities is true but that is because of the discriminatory practice on part of the prosecutors and jury system. It is not the fault of the penalty system.
For the opponents of the death penalty, their views can only be justified based on moral/religious grounds. The religious opponents of the death penalty always claim that we have a moral obligation to save human life and that life has a greater value than death. They all claim that life is precious and should not be wasted away (Noonan 1982, 1998). That death is not necessary to protect the public. And if there is an alternative to death then we should seek something more favorable like a life sentence. These same opponents also view that all murderers should be given a chance of reformation or rehabilitation. This may be true for many criminals but one should be aware that there are just as many individuals (esp. serial killers) who are simply plain evil and bad. For them no amount of rehabilitative therapy can help. The only treatment for them is the death penalty
Even on moral grounds, can a criminal never be punished? This was the traditional view but today there are some who do support this argument and suggest that punishment may be justified for some severe offenses. Still some stress the importance of being fair in imposing the penalty. What is fair has to be decided by society. Individuals who persistently break the rules and unfairly take advantage of others usually upset this equilibrium. And thus the penalty re-establishes this balance caused by rule breakers. And this leads to another question, does this moral viewpoint give consent to punish or is it a requirement to punish the criminal?
If it is a duty then who is responsible for the punishment? Is it always the government or anyone? Others say that we owe it to the victim to punish the criminal. To avoid punishing the criminal is to disallow them the distinctiveness of being human. Most claim that we are obligated to punish for the sake of justice and not for the sake of either the victim or the offender. So when we send someone to jail for a murder, we are performing in a way fitting to the value we placed on the life of the victim as a manifestation of our apprehension for equality and safety. And, perhaps paradoxically, executing a criminal for murder is an expression of how much we value life.
Igor Primoratz (1989) says, …[T]he moral consideration is justice. Punishment is morally justified insofar as it is meted out as retribution for the offense committed. When someone has committed an offense, he deserves to be punished: it is just, and consequently justified, the he be punished. The offense is the sole ground of the state’s right and duty to punish”.
My personal feeling is that the death warranty is required in some cases. I do not believe that capital punishment deters anyone from committing more crimes. There may not even be any type of social or financial benefit by promoting the death penalty but one can rest assured that the killer will never commit any more horrendous crimes.
Others say the death penalty is unjust and that all individuals should be treated equally by law. Life itself is unjust. We live in a cruel and harsh world- where there is so much inequity between the rich and the poor, we have homeless, the poor, the unemployed, the mentally ill, the ones with cancers and dying, children without parents, soldiers dying in wars- all this is unjust- not only the death penalty.
Everyone makes big deal that we are committing a crime by applying the death penalty in America. But in reality the death penalty is only applied to a select few in America. The numbers are always less than a 100 per year and sometimes not even that. Thousands of people die in car crashes each year and yet that seems to be forgotten. Perhaps we should stop people from driving cars and close down all the roads.
America is a very transparent society where we try and correct our wrongs. And the injustice done to the minorities has created a sense of awareness in the judicial system. Hopefully, the system will improve in the coming years, but that does not mean we should stop the death penalty. Somewhere, somehow, innocent people will die and in most cases it is simply a case of bad luck.
The question of placing values on human life is difficult. Everyone wants to put value on the life of a criminal but no one wants to value the life of the individual killed. All those individuals who talk about values probably have never been affected by crime or have their loved ones killed- how can they understand value? Value is based on life’s experience -it is not gained by reading a holy book or attending a court trial.
Bedau, Hugo Adam. Killing as Punishment. Reflections on the Death Penalty in America. Northeastern University Press, of New England. 2004.
Bedau, Hugo Adam. The Death Penalty in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Browning, Tonya. Capital Punishment: Life or Death. Computer Writing and Research Lab, University of Texas. Online. Internet. 27 April 2000.
Haag, Ernest van den. On Deterrence and the Death Penalty. Ethics. 78:4(7) 280-288, 1968.
Noonan J. The Role and Responsibility of the Moral Philosopher. 1982. (Eds Daniel O. Dahlstrom and Desmond J. FitzGerald)
Noonan J. The Lustre of Our Country: The American Experience of Religious Freedom. HYPERLINK “http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1998” \o “1998” 1998
Igor Primoratz Justifying Legal Punishment, Atlantic Highlands, NJ, and London: Humanities Press, 1989, x+196 pp. Updated paperback edition, 1997, xii+198 pp.
Shapiro, Walter. “What say should victims have?” AskJeeves.com. Online. Internet. 29 April 2000.
Special thanks to Siam for contributing this article