Ethics of the Death Penalty, Term Paper Example

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Term Paper

What should we do with murderers and other dangerous criminals? This dilemma has challenged societies since the beginning of their existence but the decision has not gotten any easier. One option is capital punishment, or the death penalty. This allows states to decide on a case by case basis whether to punish a crime with a life sentence or execution. This paper will explore the ethical implications of capital punishment and evaluate its place in a modern society.  It will present both Kant’s retributive theory and utilitarianism in relation to capital punishment. Finally I will offer my own opinion on these theories and whether I feel they justify the use of the death penalty in America.

The first execution in the United States was in 1608 following British law. After the Revolutionary War and American Independence, the United States maintained the practice of capital punishment even after it was abolished in Britain in 1964. The decision of capital punishment has always been a state issue. Over the years many states have chosen to individually ban the death penalty with Michigan first in 1846. This trend has been followed by 16 other states including a nationwide moratorium instated by the Supreme Court from 1972-1976.  In 1976 the Supreme Court deemed capital punishment legal for certain cases. Currently 34 U.S. states use the death penalty for a small number of aggravated murder cases. According to a 2011 Gallup poll, 61% of the public supports the use of the death penalty although that figure drops to 49% when other options are offered (DPIC).

According to Amnesty International (2010), the United States is 5th in the world in terms of number of executions per annum after China, Iran, North Korea and Yemen. 97 countries had abolished the death penalty outright by 2012 with around 70 nations retaining the death penalty though many do not actively use it as a punishment. The European Union has a strict anti-death penalty law for all member nations. Practicing nations are also in violation of International Law by the United Nations.

One of the universal trends in capital punishment has been the progression to less brutal and more ‘humane’ methods of execution. The French developed the guillotine during their Revolution for this end and many nations banned the bloodier methods. The United States Constitution prohibits all ‘cruel and unusual punishment.’ The death penalty by ruling does not fall into this category so long as the execution methods remain humane. Most executions in the United States are by lethal injection though other methods are legal and have been used in recent years, including the electric chair, gas chambers, hanging and firing squad.

Other exceptions have been added to the system in recent years to exempt the mentally handicapped from receiving the death penalty in 2002. In 2005 the Supreme Court also abolished all capital sentences for juveniles. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 22 juveniles had been executed since the lift of the moratorium in 1976 though the 1990 U.N. human rights treaty, Convention on the Rights of the Child, put an international ban on the death penalty for juveniles (under 18). Only two nations failed to sign the document- Somalia and the United States.

These are some of the facts about the death penalty in America today but why have we continued with this practice? Why does capital punishment continue in the United States when it has been abolished in nearly every other Western nation? Some of the common rhetoric for supporting the death penalty is that first, it serves as a deterrent for future murderers. This is not corroborated by the criminological community. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 88% of experts rejected the notion of the death penalty as a deterrent to murder. This is primarily due to the disbelief by criminals that they will actually be caught. For example, the southern states of the U.S. have the highest national murder rates but account for 80% of the nation’s executions. Second, there is in an argument that the death penalty is a cheaper option than keeping a prisoner on a life sentence. This argument is false. The average price tag on a death penalty case is 70% more than a ‘comparable non-capital case.’ In Texas, capital cases cost about $2.5 million which is more than it would cost for the same prisoner to serve a 40-year life sentence. These ‘hidden costs’ are in the multiple appeals courts’ costs incurred in capital cases, the years of incarceration on death row as well as the actual execution.

As one can see the logistical arguments for the death penalty often fall short. The fact is that the death penalty in the United States is more of an emotional issue. The most common justification is simply that it is the just desert of a murderer is that he also be murdered. It is a timeless sentiment of retribution- that an ‘eye for an eye’ is the just course. Kantian theory is in line with this thought. Kantian ethics revolve around the idea of the Categorical Imperative which is the idea that morality of any maxim or action can be evaluated on its ability to be applied on a universal level. Kant is a promoter of retributivism. This theory is difficult to pinpoint and very case-dependent but overall it is the idea of concretely linking punishment with moral violations. Kant uses the ‘principle of equality’ in relation to punishment. He does not, like a Utilitarian, take into account the overall general happiness or unhappiness of the majority in decisions of punishment instead he seeks punishment for every crime that gives the criminal the just desert of their crime. Society has a moral obligation to inflict this retaliation upon them.

There are several solid arguments against Kant’s theory. First, the idea of identical retaliation is currently only used for murderers. We do not rape rapists or kidnap a kidnapper and Kant surely would not advocate that we did for it strips the criminal of their humanity. Some argue that capital punishment also does this and is in fact a worse affliction that the original murder and therefore unfair retribution. The French philosopher Albert Camus was an active critic of the death penalty and expressed the sentiment of unfair retribution eloquently in his book, Reflections on the Guillotine (1959), writing:

But what is capital punishment if not the most premeditated of murders, to which no criminal act, no matter how calculated, can be compared? If there were to be a real equivalence, the death penalty would have to be pronounced upon a criminal who had forewarned his victim of the very moment he would put him to a horrible death, and who, from that time on, had kept him confined at his own discretion for a period of months. It is not in private life that one meets such monsters.

Philosophy is functioning on a purely theoretical basis in terms of capital punishment. One can debate indefinitely the morality of the death penalty but the reality is that there are too many problems with the system to administer these abstract ideas. Kantian theory makes several assumptions that do not mesh well with the current state of affairs in the U.S. system. The first is that the murderer in question is indeed guilty. In the past decade there has been an average of 5 exonerations per year based on evidence of the accused’s innocence. These men spent years on death row before their release for committing no crime whatsoever. Is this not criminal in itself and who should be punished but the state for incarcerating someone without spending the money to have DNA or other expensive tests done to categorically prove their guilt?

The second assumption is that capital punishment is evenly distributed. This is the most troubling problem in the United States. Kant is talking about applying an equal punishment for every crime but in today’s system factors such as the race of the victim and the location of the crime play a much larger role in the fate of the murderer than the crime he committed. In its current form the death penalty is not administered in any kind of fair or logical way. For example, Texas carries out fully 1/3 of all executions in the United States. A criminal might commit a heinous crime next door in Oklahoma but suffer none of the consequences of a similar crime 20 miles away in Texas. The question of race is also undeniable. A 1998 report revealed a pattern of race-victim or race-defendant discrimination in 96% of cases. The racism generally revolves around the race of the victim with criminals being 4 times more likely to receive a capital sentence if the victim was white over any other race.

In conclusion, Kant’s theory does not stand up in reality. It is almost impossible to concoct a perfectly equal punishment for every crime. Capital punishment is a painful process of years of incarceration and dread and this pushes it beyond the bounds of the original crime. The current broken system of capital punishment in the United States also makes the philosophical consideration of its ethical validity a moot point. With such uneven distribution of the punishment by race and location, not every criminal is subject to the same considerations. It would be better for the United States to let go of the emotional argument of a life for a life and follow in the footsteps of the rest of the modern world on the path towards a system of justice that focuses on rehabilitation rather than retribution.

References

“Abolish the Death Penalty.” Amnesty International. Web. 19 Mar. 2012.

Camus, Albert. Reflections on the Guillotine; an Essay on Capital Punishment. Michigan City, IN: Fridtjof-Karla Publications, 1959. Print.

“Death Penalty Information Center: Facts About the Death Penalty.” Deathpenaltyinfo.org. DPIC, 23 Mar. 2012. Web. 19 Mar. 2012.

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