Capital punishment

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Capital punishment

The use of capital punishment has been a permanent fixture in society since the earliest
civilizations and continues to be used as a form of punishment in countries today. It has
been used for various crimes ranging from the desertion of soldiers during wartime to the
more heinous crimes of serial killers. However, the mere fact that this brutal form of
punishment and revenge has been the policy of many nations in the past does not
subsequently warrant its implementation in today’s society. The death penalty is morally
and socially unethical, should be construed as cruel and unusual punishment since it is both
discriminatory and arbitrary, has no proof of acting as a deterrent, and risks the atrocious
and unacceptable injustice of executing innocent people. As long as capital punishment
exists in our society it will continue to spark the injustice which it has failed to curb.
Capital punishment is immoral and unethical. It does not matter who does the
killing because when a life is taken by another it is always wrong. By killing a human
being the state lessens the value of life and actually contributes to the growing sentiment in
today’s society that certain individuals are worth more than others. When the value of life
is lessened under certain circumstances such as the life of a murderer, what is stopping
others from creating their own circumstances for the value of one’s life such as race, class,
religion, and economics. Immanual Kant, a great philosopher of ethics, came up with the
Categorical Imperative, which is a universal command or rule that states that society and
individuals “must act in such a way that you can will that your actions become a universal
law for all to follow” (Palmer 265). There must be some set of moral and ethical
standards that even the government can not supersede, otherwise how can the state expect
its citizens not to follow its own example.
Those who support the death penalty believe, or claim to believe, that capital
punishment is morally and ethically acceptable. The bulk of their evidence comes from the
Old Testament which actually recommends the use of capital punishment for a number of
crimes. Others also quote the Sixth Commandment which, in the original Hebrew reads,
“Thou Shall Not Commit Murder.” However, these literal interpretations of selected
passages from the Bible which are often quoted out of context corrupt the compassionate
attitude of Judaism and Christianity, which clearly focuses on redemption and forgiveness,
and urges humane and effective ways of dealing with crime and violence. Those who use
the Bible to support the death penalty are by themselves since almost all religious groups
in the United States regard executions as immoral. They include, American Baptist
Churches USA, American Jewish Congress, California Catholic Council, Christian
reformed Church, Episcopal Church, Lutheran Church in America, Mennonite General
Conference, National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, Northern Ecumenical
Council, Presbyterian Church (USA), Reformed Church of America, Southern California
Ecumenical Council, Unitarian/Universalist Association, United Church of Christ, and the
United Methodist Church (Death Penalty Focus).
Those that argue that the death penalty is ethical state that former great leaders
and thinkers such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Kant,
Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau, Montesquieu, and Mill all supported it (Koch 324). However,
Washington and Jefferson, two former presidents and admired men, both supported
slavery as well. Surely, the advice of someone who clearly demonstrated a total disregard
for the value of human life cannot be considered in such an argument as capital
punishment. In regard to the philosophers, Immanuel Kant, a great ethical philosopher
stated that the motives behind actions determine whether something is moral or immoral
(Palmer 271). The motives behind the death penalty, which revolve around revenge and
the “frustration and rage of people who see that the government is not coping with violent
crime,” are not of good will, thereby making capital punishment immoral according to
The question of whether executions are a “cruel” form of punishment may no
longer be an argument against capital punishment now that it can be done with lethal
injections, but it is still very “unusual” in that it only applies to a select number of
individuals making the death penalty completely discriminatory and arbitrary. After years
of watching the ineffectiveness of determining who should be put to death, the Supreme
Court in the1972 Furman v. Georgia decision “invalidated all existing death sentence
statues as violative of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment and
thus depopulated state death rows of 629 occupants” (Berger 352). This decision was
reached not because it was believed that the death penalty was intrinsically cruel and
unusual but because, as Justice Stewart put it, the “death penalty as actually applied was
unconstitutionally arbitrary” (Berger 353). Local politics, money, race, and where the
crime is committed can often play a more decisive role in sentencing someone to death
than the actual facts of the crime. According to Amnesty International, the “death penalty
is a lethal lottery: just one out of every one hundred people arrested for murder is actually
executed” (Death Penalty Focus). In regards to racial discrimination in sentencing, it has
been found that “racial bias focuses primarily on the race of the victim, not the defendant”
(Berger 355). Only 31 out of the more than 15, 000 recorded executions in this country
have been of white defendants convicted of killing black victims, while black defendants
convicted of raping white women were commonly sentenced to death (Death Penalty
Focus). Stephen Nathanson, a professor of philosophy at Northwestern University
addresses the problems of discrimination and randomness best by saying, “as long as
racial, class, religious, and economic bias continue to be important determinants of who is
executed, the death penalty will continue to create and perpetuate injustice” (Nathanson
Proponents of capital punishment believe that the argument that the death penalty
is discriminatory and arbitrary does not give support to the abolition of capital
punishment, but rather to the extension of it. Edward Koch, the former mayor of New
York from 1978 to 1989 and death penalty supporter, states that the discriminatory
manner of the death penalty “no longer seems to be the problem it once was,” yet in 1987,
the Supreme Court case of McCleskey v. Kemp established that in Georgia someone who
kills a white person is four times more likely to be sentenced to death than someone who
kills a black person (Death Penalty Focus). In response to this, supporters of the death
penalty believe that the death penalty should be extended to all murders. This is what was
attempted after the Furman decision. A number of states sought to resolve the
discriminatory and arbitrary nature of the death penalty by simply sentencing to death
everyone convicted of first-degree murder, but the Supreme Court rejected this proposal
saying that “mandatory death sentence laws did not really resolve the problem but instead
‘simply papered it over’ since juries responded by refusing to convict certain arbitrarily
chosen defendants of first-degree murder” (Berger 353).
An argument against the death penalty which to sensible and decent persons should
seem undeniable is the fact that innocent people have been murdered by the state in the
past and in all probability more will follow. The wrongful execution of an innocent person
is such an awful injustice that in any civilized society could never be justified, yet this is
the message that the United States is willing to pronounce. Simply put by Professor
Nathanson, “to maintain the death penalty is to be willing to risk innocent lives.” In 1987,
a study conducted by Hugo Bedau and Michael Radelet appeared in the Standford Law
Review concerning the execution of innocent people. The study concluded that in the
period between 1900 to 1980, about “350 people were wrongfully convicted of capital
offenses, 139 of the 350 were sentenced to death, and 23 were actually executed”
(Nathanson 344). Over this eighty year period this figure averages out to the death of an
innocent person about every 3.4 years. This fact is extremely disturbing and rightfully so,
yet death penalty advocates blatantly disregard the information or attempt to justify it in
Those who support capital punishment claim that such cases of innocent people
being executed have never occurred. For instance, Edward Koch quotes Hugo Bedau in
support of his claim that such cases are not true, saying “it is false sentimentality to argue
that the death penalty should be abolished because of the abstract possibility that an
innocent person might be executed.” Koch, in an attempt to gain political support, acted
quite unethically by quoting Bedau out of context and implying that such cases have not
occurred. According to David Bruck, a prominent lawyer for South Carolina Office of
Appellate Defense, “all Bedau was saying was that doubts concerning executed prisoners’
guilt are almost never resolved.” Koch also failed to relate in his essay that Bedau, who
had not yet released the 1987 study, had already comprised a “list of murder convictions
since 1900 in which the state eventually admitted error” in about 400 hundred cases.
Another response to the fact that innocent people have been executed is that the
small number of innocents executed outweighs the number of lives that will be saved since
the possibility of being executed will deter others from committing a murder, and also lives
will be saved since that murderer cannot kill again. Scientific studies have failed to prove
that executions deter other people from committing crime. According to Dr. Ernest van
den Haag, a well-known scholar in favor of the death penalty, “one cannot claim that it has
been proved statistically that the death penalty does deter more than alternative penalties”
(Haag 338). However, Haag supports his stand on the death penalty by stating that,
“when they have the choice between life and death, 99 percent of all prisoners under
sentence of death prefer life in prison.” This statistic proves nothing but the fact that man
has an innate desire for survival. Those asked the question have already committed the
crime and thus does not reflect the sentiment of those considering a crime. Also, people
often kill when under great “emotional stress or under the influence of drugs or alcohol –
times when they are not thinking of the consequences” (Death Penalty Focus). Career
criminals and those that plan a crime do not expect to get caught, thus making the
In response to the fact that a executed murderer will never kill again, society must
ask itself whether it is morally and ethically acceptable to risk killing an innocent person
when an alternative such as life imprisonment without possibility of parole exists. In
California since 1978, more than 1,000 people have received this alternate sentence which
includes no appeals process. The public can be assured that those who commit heinous
murders and receive this sentence will never be free again. According to Death Penalty
Focus, “a recent Field Poll showed support for the death penalty plummeted when
alternative sentencing is available. Just 29 percent favored death over life without parole
plus requiring the defendant to work in prison and give part of his earnings as restitution
The use of capital punishment has endured throughout the ages, yet its use today
in a “civilized” society should no longer be acceptable to morally and ethically conscience
individuals. The vast majority of countries in Western Europe and North and South
America – more than 80 nations worldwide – have abandoned capital punishment, yet the
United States remains an avid supporter in company with countries such as Iran, Iraq, and
China as one of the major users of capital punishment (Death Penalty Focus). The use of
the death penalty in its discriminatory and arbitrary methods “only magnifies inequalities of
race that persist in the criminal justice system and in American society generally (Berger
355). Even with the death of a guilty man, innocence is lost, for even Edward Koch
admits that “the death of anyone – even a convicted killer – diminishes us all.” But it is a
sad commentary on the state of this country when we are willing to accept the avoidable
death of an innocent man and allow the “death penalty to continue to create and
Bibliography:
Berger, Vivian, “Rolling the Dice to Decide Who Dies,” New York State Bar Journal,
October 1988.
Bruck, David, “The Death Penalty,” The New Republic, May 20, 1985.
Death Penalty Focus (DPF), “Myths and Facts about California’s Death Penalty,” pamphlet
Koch, Edward, “Death and Justice: How Capital Punishment Affirms Life,” The New
Republic, April 15, 1985.
Nathanson, Stephen, “What If the Death Penalty Did Save Lives?” An Eye for an Eye?
The Morality of Punishing by Death, 1987.
Palmer, Donald, Does the Center Hold? An Introduction to Western Philosophy, Mayfield
Publishing Company, London, 1996.
Van den Haag, Ernest, The Death Penalty Pro and Con: A Debate, 1983.