The death penalty, it seems, never rests; controversy surrounds it today as it always has, and arguments rage over the morality and efficiency of it continuously. If anything has changed, it appears to be a lessening of support, and likely due to media promotion of how minimally capital punishment deters severe crime. The death penalty is on the wane: “Thirty-six percent fewer states carried out executions in 2012 than in 2011” (DPIC, 2012). This may also be due to the culture’s determination to see itself as enlightened, which equates to more lenient treatment of extreme offenders. Added to this is the tendency in people to be unable to fully comprehend the levels of crime that bring the punishment into consideration; when violence is unimaginable, it is then difficult to address such a thing at that level and remain rational. Nonetheless, and however capital punishment is legislated today, the reality remains that this is a penalty justified by the very degrees of the crimes calling it into play.
The great argument usually opposing the death penalty points to it as failing to deter, and statistics fly back and forth as to the validity of this. Certainly, many facts indicate that capital punishment does not significantly deter murder. This, however, ignores the more fundamental issue of degree or state of the deterrence. On one level, there can be no truly reliable means of determining how many extreme crimes are deterred by the death penalty simply because these crimes do not happen. Citing a state wherein murder rates are high and capital punishment is imposed by no means translates to an ineffectiveness of the punishment; rather, it may well be that the crimes rates would be even higher without it. Then, logic dictates that some deterrence occurs whenever a known punishment is attached to a crime (Bedau, Cassell, 2005, p. 39). Also, the majority of those who support the death penalty only partially hold deterrence as a reason, and usually express doubts as to the realities of the punishment actually preventing extreme crime (Mandery, 2011, p. 31). In all cases and sides, then, deterrence is not a relevant issue in determining the rightness of the penalty, just as some measure of deterrence is inevitable.
What must be considered is what the public so often avoids confronting, which is that, questions of absolute morality aside, there are actions and behaviors so horrific that they require this form of response. Kant is helpful here, in that his philosophical approach is both pragmatic and moralistic. On one level, Kant provides strong support for capital punishment in his view of the scope of what is morally wrong. That is, even if the act mandating the punishment is not immoral, the forbidding of it by law renders it immoral (Hill, 2000, p. 180). The society to some extent decides morality by means of law, and the severity of murder, for example, is such that the law must respond to the same degree in order for the morality to be upheld. More to the point, however, Kant presents retribution, frequently cited as a failing or dubious motive for the death penalty, as a rational and moral drive. Kantian ideology holds that the evil done by an individual is in some sense inflicted upon that individual, in moral terms; to do evil is to bring evil upon the self (Hill, 2000, p. 186). Importantly, Kant here acknowledges the existence of evil as a real force. This may not be entirely acceptable to modern thinking, but it is nonetheless a view held by a vast variety of cultures of the past and today, and irrespective of religious creeds. In simple terms, good and evil are real to most minds, and evil at its most active dos not merit the consideration attached to other crimes.
What is also vital here is comprehending how Kant removes retribution from the modern and negative perceptions of it. Retribution is only fueled by suspect motives of “vengeance” when it is interpreted as such; otherwise, it exists as a sane and logical form of addressing a great wrong. Moreover, and even morality aside, it serves to promote the balance necessary in a culture. If the crime is truly monstrous, then the punishment must be as severe as can be given. This is society’s way of asserting that certain acts are not subject to debate or validation, which in turn reflects the society’s understanding that some crimes and criminals are completely beyond the realm of normalcy. It is perhaps an irony, but there is no escaping the fact that what justifies the death penalty is precisely the extremes of crime that call for it.
Bedau, H. A., & Cassell, P. G. (2005). Debating the Death Penalty: Should America Have Capital Punishment? New York: Oxford University Press.
Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC). (2012). The Death Penalty in 2012: Year-End Report. Retrieved from http://deathpenaltyinfo.org/documents/2012YearEnd.pdf
Hill, T. E. (2000). Respect, Pluralism, and Justice: Kantian Perspectives. New York: Oxford University Press.