Capital punishment or the death penalty has been a controversial subject in the criminal justice system for a long time. The issue of capital punishment draws strong reactions from both its opponents and proponents alike. Some have argued that not only is capital punishment acceptable morally, it is morally needed (Sunstein & Vermeule, 2005).  Steiker (2006) argues that the argument of capital punishment being morally justifiable is wrong as the death penalty can be viewed as a breakdown of society’s dignity, equality and justice system. Proponents of the death penalty argue that it is used to deter capital offences such as murder and that sanctity of innocent lives is preserved through imposition of this punishment. Opponents of capital punishment argue that it is morally reprehensible because an innocent person could be put to death and owing to the fact that it is irreversible it presents an even greater problem. Human rights activists such as Amnesty International and the National Coalition against the Death Penalty, also argue that capital punishment contributes to degradation of human rights, since it is a violation of the right to life. Human rights activists have also contended that the Organization of American States (OAS) adopted the Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights to Abolish the Death Penalty in 1990. The adoption of this Protocol meant that there would be abolition of capital punishment in the US. This has however not been the case and it has been argued that the imposition of the death penalty in some States is contrary to the mandate of the US in the Protocol.           

It has also been argued that Islam, Christianity, and even Judaism are in support of capital punishment (Capital Punishment: Morality, Politics and Policy-Arguments for and Against (2011). This is because in the Old Testament in the Bible and the Koran it is stipulated that there should be an eye for an eye punishment. Religion is seen as the basis of morality in any society and it is due to these religious provisions that some have viewed capital punishment as morally justifiable. Religion has also been used to argue against capital punishment due to the argument that God dictates for forgiveness and tolerance. Well renowned philosophers such as Immanuel Kant also stated their opinions regarding the death penalty. Immanuel Kant stipulated that a society is immoral if it is not ready to take the life of a person who has killed another. There are others who also argue that the death penalty should not be allowed unless in the case of certain heinous crimes.

There are many dimensions to the issue of capital punishment, thus the goal of this paper is to examine the facts about the death penalty and to explore pragmatic arguments that have been advanced for and against the morality in capital punishment. Ultimately, the paper will make a judgment as to whether the death penalty is morally justifiable.

1. Factual Background of Capital Punishment

The death penalty just like most laws in the US was adopted from the British common law system. The death penalty since its inception was founded on the principle that the punishment should be fit the crime (Sidhu 2009). This is because the death penalty is for those who have been convicted of murder which is a very serious offence by any standards. The death penalty is practiced in some states in the US while in others it is not. By 1917 only twelve states had eliminated capital punishment. Over the years this number has grown and following the 1972 Supreme Court decision in the case of Furman versus Georgia, 38 states stopped the death penalty. Following that same decision states also tailored laws to allow for discretionary use of capital punishment by juries, as opposed to the previous mandatory death penalty. Today different states employ various methods of execution, with some being labeled more inhumane than others.

In the beginning, executions were carried out in public so as to instill fear in any person who witnessed the killings. The guillotine was the most common form of execution especially in the medieval times. This method was however abolished with time. During majority of the 20th century some new methods were introduced. These methods used in implementing the death penalty included hanging, which was predominant in America until the late 19th century when electrocution was established. In 1924 the gas chamber which used cyanide gas was introduced (Waisel 2007). This was also outdated and the state of California presently considers the gas chamber a cruel form of punishment (Hing 2008). There was also the firing squad. States like Utah used the firing squad and this was condemned as barbaric and inhumane. The lethal injection was later introduced in 1977. Oklahoma State was the first to use this method. Sidhu (2009) also states that the Oklahoma City bomber was killed through the lethal injection, a method that has been condemned as causing an agonizing slow death. Despite this, the lethal injection is the most commonly used method as it is trained personnel who perform the procedure to make it as painless as can be. In 2008, the US Supreme Court ruled in support of the lethal injection method which was then practiced in 30 states.

Death penalty for a long time was seen as being racially skewed. This is because the death penalty applied to more blacks than whites. It was especially noted that blacks who were convicted of killing were more likely to be sentenced to death. The Supreme Court however ruled in 1987 that there was no discrimination of blacks when it came to the death sentence. There are hundreds of prisoners who are presently on death row in America. The state of Florida is said to have one of the largest number of people on death row. Some of the executions of the death row inmates have been the subjects of debate. One example was the execution of James Adams in 1984. This man was convicted of killing a rancher based in Florida. It was argued that he was innocent while others argued that he was clearly guilty due to the overwhelming evidence against him. Another prominent execution was that of Timothy McVeigh, who was the Oklahoma City bomber. The bombing took place in 1995 and resulted in the death of 165 people and leaving 850 injured. This terrorist attack was known as one of the most horrific in the history of America and it prompted the enactment of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. The main purpose of this legislation was to prevent a future occurrence such as the bombing. The execution of Timothy McVeigh was supported by 80% of Americans according to a poll in 2001. This case presented a unique argument to the case for capital punishment. The question that arose was whether people were more receptive to the death penalty depending with the circumstances. The issue was whether it was morally justifiable to execute McVeigh because of the destruction he had caused. There are several facts and myths that have been advanced about the death penalty. One of the disputable facts about the death penalty is that it is costly to the taxpayer. Opponents of capital punishments have alleged that states support the death penalty as it is cheaper to execute than life imprisonment. Dieter (2007) however argued that the cost of executing a convicted criminal is much higher, sometimes two or three-fold the cost of life imprisonment. The undisputable fact however, is that there is a moral argument in the issue of capital punishment.

2. Capital Punishment Can Be Morally Justifiable

According to House (2007) the death penalty can be viewed as moral using the principle of goodness. This principle dictates that due to the imperfection of human nature it is impossible to please everyone at the same time. The principle of goodness also stipulates that though it is impossible to please everyone, there should always be the attempt to do so. The principle also states that the rights of an innocent person should always trump that of a guilty person. It also advocates for justice. It can be said that capital punishment is morally justifiable because it protects the innocent people who might fall victim to the convicted murderers. It can also be seen as a source of justice for the victim’s family. This view has mostly been seen with the sentencing of mass murderers. This is also the reason why majority of the general public was in support of the Timothy McVeigh execution because it was seen as justice for the victims of the bombing.

One of the major reasons for supporting the death penalty is that it acts as deterrence for future murder crimes. Proponents of capital punishment advance this as a reason for the imposition of the death penalty. This is because it can be asserted that so far no one has come up with punishment that befits crimes such as rape and murder of innocent children and women. A society that does not impose stringent sanctions for heinous crimes can be said to have abandoned its ethical responsibility. Capital punishment is therefore a strong declaration to show that crimes such as murder are not allowed in society; it therefore shows the high moral ground taken against such crimes. The fact that it is a jury of one’s peers that decides on whether a person should be sentenced to death also shows that it is the people who have agreed that capital offences are intolerable and can only be punishable by death (Cassell 2008). It has been proven that in some cases murderers if not harshly convicted are likely to return to society and murder again. This was seen in the case of Robert Lee Massie. Cassell (2008) explains that Massie was convicted and sentenced to death in California in 1965 but he got out on parole and murdered yet another person. This is one clear example of the justification of the death penalty.  It was argued that had the Supreme Court not suspended the death sentence in 1972 and 1976 then murderers such as Massie would not get the opportunity to kill another person. Proponents of the death penalty have also claimed that for every execution, 18 murders are prevented. It is argued that the refusal to sentence murderers to death means convicting innocent people to death. In this sense the government is morally obligated to enforce the death penalty.  This is in the same way as the government is morally obligated to protect its citizens from environmental pollution, discrimination or occupational risks.

Proponents of the death penalty argue that capital punishment cannot be said to be morally reprehensible because morality is relative. This therefore means that if we were to say that criminal punishment should be about morals then the best show of this would be to forgive criminals and send them home with perhaps a warning and hope that they would not repeat the crime. The criminal justice system is about instilling what is generally considered the morality of the vast majority. This is because in some cases, there is a close relationship between what is considered legal and what is considered moral. For instance, rape is considered both morally and legally wrong. It can be argued that justice is more concerned with retribution than with restoration. It is the reason why a white collar criminal such as Bernie Madoff was convicted to 150 years in prison. Taking into consideration his age this was a very harsh sentence. The point in this conviction was to set an example for anyone who was engaging in the same illegal business and also for anyone who would want to start such a business in the future. The message was also that America is a society that does not condone people who fraudulently enrich themselves through other people’s hard-earned money. Capital punishment can therefore be seen as a way of eliminating the bad members of society for the greater good.

3. Capital Punishment Cannot Be Morally Justifiable

Opponents of the death penalty advance that it is morally unacceptable despite its perceived benefits (Finkelstein 2006). According to those who oppose capital punishment as immoral, the death penalty is still taking a life. It is stated that the death penalty is killing through proxy. This therefore means that whether it is the state that has authorized the killing or it is a private killing they are the same. Capital punishment opponents believe that the death penalty is a disrespect of the sanctity of life and a clear violation of the right to life. Some of the methods of execution have been labeled as barbaric and torturous. It has also been argued that since physicians are no longer performing these executions on an ethical basis, unqualified personnel have led to botched executions. These botched executions have led to seizures and slow deaths that have been extremely painful to the convicts. It has also been argued that the time between sentencing and execution is usually too long and can be psychologically disturbing to the convict.

According to Finkelstein (2006) human beings form a society by pooling together their resources and electing a government to protect their interests through a social contract. The people in the state surrender their power through the social contract, to a sovereign. The power surrendered to the sovereign is not to be misused as it can be revoked. This also means that human beings cannot accept to be part of a society where they could easily become the victims of the death penalty. Opponents of the death penalty therefore argue that it is an overstepping of the government’s mandate, given to it by the people.

It is also ascertained that the death penalty on other occasions leads to the death of innocent people. This means that innocent people are convicted and sentenced for crimes they did not commit. The death penalty is also not reversible and its finality has been condemned as morally impermissible. This is because unlike in normal imprisonment where a convicted person once proved innocent could be released, death means the end. This could be very agonizing for the family of the person who was wrongly convicted. It could also be very traumatizing for the convict who all along knew he or she was innocent, and had to face the execution.

It has also been claimed that the death penalty is morally reprehensible due to the fact that it is applied arbitrarily. This is mainly because the Supreme Court removed the provision that certain crimes mandatorily called for the death penalty. Juries have the discretion to decide when to apply the death penalty. Dear (2008) also argues that it is illogical for the government to condemn killing by killing.  It has also been claimed that capital punishment cannot bring back the person who was murdered, therefore it has no meaning. It has also been ascertained that the death penalty essentially strips the convict of his inherent dignity as a human being. This is because capital punishment basically means that the life of the condemned is meaningless.

Beneficence is a central concept in morality and becomes very applicable in the debate concerning the morality of death penalty or capital punishment. Beneficence simply refers to acts of kindness, mercy, and altruism all which suggest love and the promotion of good of other people. It means acting to promote other people’s legitimate and important interests. It therefore follows that acting to kill a murderer is surely against the moral principle of beneficence. When death penalty is passed to an individual, it goes against the values of kindness and mercy which underlie the moral principle of beneficence (Finkelstein, 2006). It is common knowledge that nobody likes dying and more so forcefully being put to death. Giving a death penalty to an individual is tantamount to condemning the individual to death against his own wish or interest to live.  This is going against the moral principle of beneficence which requires us to act and promote the individual’s interest.  According to Hume’s theory, benevolence is an important feature of human nature which is manifested in charity, compassion, and friendship. When an individual is put to death courtesy of a death penalty, it goes against the benevolent nature of humans. Even if a person’s crime is murder, it doesn’t necessary mean that the person should be put to death.  This should be an opportunity for humans to show their benevolent nature in form of mercy by handing the culprit a lesser sentence. It is an opportunity to show the murderer that despite his/her cruelty, mankind can be kind and merciful to him/her. Doing this will be promoting general goodness of others which will eventually lead to a better world.  It is worth to note that the utilitarian theory promotes this when it suggests that the rightfulness of an action is in proportion to its promotion of happiness with the opposite being the wrongfulness of an action.

Nonmaleficence is also an important moral principle which propagates the doing of no harm to other people. Because of this, it goes hand in hand with the moral principle of beneficence. When the principle of nonmaleficence is applied to the debate on morality of death punishment, it is quite clear that it does not support it. When a person is executed courtesy of a death sentence, it is tantamount to causing physical harm to that person (Finkelstein, 2006). Even during the period impending execution, the individual undergoes a lot of psychological harm due to associated anxiety, stress, and depression.  The death penalty is therefore not moral because it goes against the moral principle of nonmaleficence.

Justice is also an issue when it comes to the debate on the morality of death penalty. Supporters of death penalty argue that the death sentence is demanded in certain cases for justice to be served. This argument is deeply rooted in the ‘an eye for an eye’ concept which is shared by America’s religious values. While justice might seem to be served to the victim when a murderer is handed the death sentence, a question that arises is that, has justice been served to the culprit? With the highly sophisticated crimes of today, justice systems become affected where errors occur in the course of investigations. This can lead to an innocent person being condemned to death. Even when it comes to the real murderers, there is no doubt that taking another person’s life cannot replace the life that he/she took (Dear, 2008).  It doesn’t necessarily mean that justice has been served. Besides, there is no statistical evidence which shows that the death penalty deters potential murderers from committing their heinous crimes. While it is argued that the death penalty prevents the person from committing other crimes, a lesser sentence like a life sentence can adequately serve this purpose. It is on these grounds that the death penalty should be done away with and replaced with a lesser sentence such as a life sentence.

4. Conclusion

The death penalty will always be a significant and divisive issue in America. Congress has continually been partly supportive of the practice to instill fear and deter murders. However, there is no statistical evidence that the death penalty deters potential murderers from committing murder. While the death penalty may be lawfully justifiable in the sense of the long held concept of ‘an eye for an eye’, it is barely morally justifiable since it goes against the moral principle of beneficence and nonmaleficence. A death penalty is just another way of causing more harm and putting more people to death rather than upholding the sanctity of life. It does little to bring back to life the murdered person. A life sentence can be sufficiently able to prevent the murderer from committing more murders. It can help promote the goodness of mankind which is to be kind and merciful even to a murderer. This will greatly enhance the concept of a moral society that is preoccupied with doing good. Ultimately, this will likely benefit everyone.

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