The Death Penalty: An Ethical Assessment

The Death Penalty: An Ethical Assessment

Given the increased concern over torture at the domestic and international levels, issues such as capital punishment are receiving much more attention than in previous years. The debate over whether the death penalty is a viable form of punishment is vehemently divided. As of 2016, thirty-one states allow the death penalty. Nineteen have outlawed the process entirely, while four have a moratorium on capital punishment imposed by their respective governors. On a global scale, fifty-seven countries have no universal prohibitions on capital punishment, all other countries abolishing it either by law or practice. With no obvious policy consensus reached on local or international fronts, disagreements concerning the death penalty will continue to manifest themselves in public life.

In recent decades, capital punishment has become a heated issue due to startling statistics on criminal convictions and execution failures. On the former, while the number of criminals sentenced to death in the United States has decreased since the late 90s, those remaining on death row represent more marginalized and less informed portions of the population. Issues regarding wrongful sentencings have permeated the criminal justice system. Due to false testimonies and negligible evidence, hundreds of innocent individuals have been released from death row in recent years. This begs the question of how many individuals convicted as felons have died wrongfully at the hands of the government. Building on wrongful convictions, over forty percent of the death row population in the United States is African-American, which is starkly disproportionate to their presence in the general population.

Concerns surrounding capital punishment are not limited to sentencing, but extend to the act of murder. Botched executions have increasingly become a topic of wide discussion. Though death via lethal injection should be relatively quick, some recent executions have taken upwards of two hours. This unexpected prolonging of an individual’s death is attributed to non-universal drug protocols; the chemicals used for lethal injections are constantly shifting, and with each iteration, uncertainty rises concerning their effectiveness in causing a timely death.

Given the increased concern over the moral and ethical efficacy of capital punishment, I feel it fitting to assess some of the major philosophical schools of thought, determining their stances on the death penalty and perhaps reaching a conclusion as to what a proper course of action looks like. Though several normative theories have reasoned arguments for whether capital punishment is morally permissible, it is  my opinion that utilitarianism and Kantian deontology hold the clearest assessments.

Utilitarianism states that acts are right if their outcomes balance out experienced pleasures and pains, promoting the greatest net utility. Therefore, utilitarians would assess the consequences of allowing, or prohibiting, the death penalty. As most would recognize, crime, especially murder, is a major source of disutility in society. Not only do crimes like murder directly inhibit individuals from pursuing the happiness they have reason to desire, but they also can detract from utilities of less explicitly affected parties. Violent crime inflicts sheer depression and anguish on the families of victims, while simultaneously inciting fear and anxiety in society at large if allowed to persist at their perceived levels. Therefore, utilitarians would primarily concern themselves with alleviating crime, and would need to assess whether capital punishment can work to deter criminals from engaging in murder and other heinous wrongdoings. However, external effects like cost and the physical and emotional pain brought on by lengthy prison stays can outweigh the positives and must also be considered.

Kantian deontology asserts that morally viable acts are those that promote and protect the human exercise of reason. Looking towards capital punishment, deontologists would assess whether the process complies with the promotion and protection of reason in human beings, and that the intent is respectful of these values. Human beings' capacities for reason give them direct moral standing, and our laws reflect the importance of rational autonomy and allow for its continued cultivation. Murder undermines the intrinsic value of the human life and directly inhibits the exercising of victims’ reasoning faculties. This effort to combat what is objectively most morally valuable warrants a retributive punishment that directly and proportionately addresses the severity of the injustice. However, things such as the disproportionate number of African-Americans on death row and the propensity for victims’ families to make emotional pleas to seek sanctioned killing to preserve justice show capital punishment can devolve into a means of racial discrimination or flat-out revenge. This may suggest capital punishment does not exist for the sake of recognizing the dignity of the human person, denigrating the rule of law and reducing human life as somehow unworthy of unconditional protection.

Regardless of whether we support or prohibit the death penalty, it seems that under both theories we risk participating in morally impermissible behavior. The complexity of the criminal system and the unique nature of humanity suggest to me that the death penalty should be evaluated on a case by case basis. No legal mandate can possibly grasp the constantly evolving issue. Individuals pursue crime for different reasons, and such things as remorse and psychological state can profoundly influence whether certain punishments are appropriate. In order to avoid punishing criminals in a manner disproportionate to the felony and pursue the defending of justice, it is society’s responsibility to avoid sweeping generalizations of capital punishment and its effectiveness. Instead, it must acknowledge the myriad of existing variables surrounding the issue to best evaluate whether such a dire course of action should, if at all, be implemented.  

Works Cited

“50 Facts About the Death Penalty.” 50 Facts About the Death Penalty | Death Penalty Information Center, deathpenaltyinfo.org/50-Facts.

Avaliani, Archil. “Kant- The Death Penalty.” Philosophos, 2004, www.philosophos.org/philosophy_article_78.html.

“Botched Executions.” Botched Executions | Death Penalty Information Center, deathpenaltyinfo.org/some-examples-post-furman-botched-executions.

“Capital Punishment: Utilitarianism.” The Ethics of Capital Punishment, rsp9-sasha-abrahams.weebly.com/utilitarianism.html.

“Ethics - Capital Punishment: Arguments against Capital Punishment.” BBC, BBC, www.bbc.co.uk/ethics/capitalpunishment/against_1.shtml.

“Firing Squad to Gas Chamber: How Long Do Executions Take?” NBCNews.com, NBCUniversal News Group, 25 Mar. 2015, www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/firing-squad-gas-chamber-how-long-executions-take-n329371.

Murtagh, Kevin. “Punishment.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, www.iep.utm.edu/punishme/#H1.

“Punishment.” Punishment, www.csus.edu/indiv/g/gaskilld/ethics/punishment.htm.

“States With and Without the Death Penalty.” States With and Without the Death Penalty | Death Penalty Information Center, deathpenaltyinfo.org/states-and-without-death-penalty.

Timmons, Mark. Disputed Moral Issues: a Reader. Oxford University Press, 2017.

“Top 10 Pro & Con Arguments - Death Penalty - ProCon.org.” Should the Death Penalty Be Allowed?, 9 Dec. 2016, deathpenalty.procon.org/view.resource.php?resourceID=002000.

White, James E. Contemporary Moral Problems. Wadsworth Pub. Co., 1999.

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