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The Inhumanity of Capital Punishment, Article Critique Example

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Article Critique

The debate concerning the merits of capital punishment remains one of the most hotly contested social issues. Those in favor of the state administering death to those judged guilty view this act as a sufficient punishment for the crimes of the one sentenced to death. It is to function as both a redemption for the crime in question and also as a deterrent to other crimes. Nevertheless, sociological research suggests that such benefits are highly doubtful. Not only is there no clear data correlating the effectivity of capital punishment as deterrent, from a greater ethical perspective it can be stated that the idea that the political, social and legal apparatus can function as a type of God administering death when it so wishes should give us some pause as to what kind of state and what kind of laws we live under. Namely, by advocating capital punishment, we are promoting a greater culture of death, consistent with the same murderous crimes that lead to the question of capital punishment itself.

This is not necessarily an idealistic version of what the state should like, but rather an issue about what kind of ethical ideas we want to form our various governing institutions. We all live under these institutions and are subject to their authority to certain degrees – of course it could be argued that certain privileged groups, such as the wealthy, possess different statuses in these institutions, meaning that they can more easily manipulate say, the legal system, because of their financial assets. But the main point here is that we live under such institutional authority and this means we can shape it with our ethical principles. An authority that authorizes capital punishment essentially promotes death as a legitimate answer to social problems. As Shaw writes, “when we punish people, we do to them something that is normally wrong to do to other people: We restrict their liberty, take away their property, harm them physically, or even deprive them of their lives.” (293) While some punishment for crime appears necessary the option to deprive one of their life as Shaw puts promotes the culture of death on the highest levels of government authority. In other words, the government becomes a type of God who decides on who lives or who dies.

But this is not the only problem with capital punishment. Even when this punishment is put into place and challenged from greater ethical reasons, this does not mean that there are no flaws with this policy on the purely practical and everyday level. There are many historical cases in which capital punishment is used on an innocent person, an event that is not only a tragedy for the individual condemned to die and those close to him or her, but also in this great error is also contained a lack of faith in our criminal justice system. With this approach, as Shaw writes, “if the truth ever leaked out, the results would be extremely bad” (299), namely, the entire system would be placed into question. No one would believe in the legitimacy of the authority since they incorrectly decided on the most important issue of taking or preserving the life of an individual.

Capital punishment also places too much of an emphasis on its effectivity as a deterrent. It is argued that with capital punishment, individuals better understand the potential consequences of their actions. However, the law is not meant to accurately predict the future conduct of its citizens. As Shaw writes, the role of legal authorities “is not calculate what precise social benefit, if any, will come from sentencing the particular person.” (300) We cannot take the life of an individual because we believe that this will prevent other people from doing the same: this is too deterministic an approach and ignores the emotions and contingencies that make up any crime and any human existence in general.

Accordingly, the arguments in favor of capital punishment present a certain view of the human being, in which his or her future can be predicted, and his or her present life is in the hands of the state. We thereby foster a culture of death, not only through actually putting those to death but by also thinking that humans are robotic entities, whose behavior we can clearly predict. Never mind the clear empirical evidence for such the errors of capital punishment: from an ethical perspective, such a system promotes precisely the wrong values.

Works Cited

Shaw, William H. “Punishment and the Criminal Justice System.” Social and Personal Ethics. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2008.

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