According to Braswell, McCarthy and McCarthy (2011), the classical justification that has always been used when legalizing and applying the death penalty is that when individuals commit capital crimes, they lose their right to life and should be put to death. In the legal system, the concept of rights forfeiture is always applied in various methods to punish wrongdoers. The most common method used is incarceration. The idea is to deny wrongdoers the right to free movement and expression. According to John Locke’s argument, God has given every person the right to life, liberty and health. Locke further states that people retain these rights throughout their lives.
However, the rights should be denied if an individual violates the rights of other people. If an individual violates the rights of other people, then it is justified to forfeit his or her rights, including the God-given right to life. Therefore, society is entitled to kill an individual who violates or threatens to violate the right to life of other people.
However, the rights forfeiture concept fails to explain why society should kill a person as a way of punishing him. First, it has been argued that Locke’s idea of natural rights does not have real meaning or substance. According to this argument, the notion of rights forfeiture is void and meaningless (Mathewes, 2012). Secondly, nobody should give up his or her life in order to enter society. For instance, a person can agree to risk being incarcerated in order to become a part of his society (Mathewes, 2012). However, no reasonable man can risk his life in order to fit in with society. Therefore, the concept of rights forfeiture should only be used to deny wrongdoers the rights to freedom and movement.
The concept of “an eye for an eye” has always been used to justify and legalize the penalty (Steffen, 2010). The retributive concept holds that a person should be punished in the same way he or she committed a crime. If an individual kills another person, he has denied the person his or her rights to life. Therefore, the criminal should also be killed in order to pay for his sins and provide justice to his victim.
However, the consequences of the concept of retribution are absurd. For instance, when the concept is applied in other forms of crime, it attracts a number of problems. For example, if a man’s building collapses and kills him, then the mason who constructed it should be killed. However, if the building collapses and kills the client’s wife, then the builder’s wife ought to die. This is actually absurd because killing the builder’s wife will have a consequence of violating her rights to life yet she did not commit any crime.
According to Leone (2012), capital punishment such as the death penalty is important in deterring other people from committing the same crime and protecting society from the effect of crimes. Proponents of the death penalty argue that people, especially would-be murderers, tend to avoid committing the crime if they are aware that they risk death (Leone, 2012). However, this is not an ethical question.
Rather, the ethical and moral question of deterrence is whether killing criminals is the best way to deter other potential criminals. Opponents have shown that the effectiveness of the death penalty in deterring others from committing crimes is not effective even in states where the death penalty is applied. They argue that a fine of $50 cannot do a better job in preventing a person from trespassing than a mere fine of $5 (Rae, 2009).
Recent stories and news about the death sentence
All over the world, the debate on capital punishment and its legalization or abolishment is common, with different opinions arising from different parties, individuals and organizations. In particular, some American states like California and Georgia have come into the limelight for their continued application of death punishment for capital offenders. However, the international focus has shifted to some Asian nations like Singapore, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
In what seems to be a success for opponents of the death penalty, Singapore has spared a drug convict from death, a rare event in a country that is known to have killed hundreds of people accused of drug trafficking, including foreigners. In 2013, courts in Singapore lifted the death penalty on Yong Vui Kong, a Malaysian accused of drug trafficking. The judges ruled that Kong was only “a courier” of the substance. The court seems to have reconsidered the Malaysian laws, especially the Misuse of Drugs Act, which makes it mandatory for the people found guilty of drug misuse and trafficking to face the death penalty.
The recent event is one of the indications that the harsh penalty will be reconsidered in future, especially due to the realization that it is not as effective in controlling crime as expected. In fact, even after killing thousands of drug criminals, nations like Singapore, Malaysia and others still experience many cases of drug crimes.
The death penalty is not only an inhumane, brutal and barbaric way of ending human life but also an ineffective and illogical means of punishing wrongdoers. In particular, the death penalty does not provide justice to society because the aim of the society is to see criminals change into responsible and law-abiding individuals. Secondly, the death penalty does not necessarily deter other people from committing the same crime. For instance, despite the awareness that countries like Singapore and Saudi Arabia or states like California have strict laws that make the death penalty a mandatory way of punishment, criminals still carry out capital crimes involving drugs in Singapore and Saudi and murder in California.
In normative ethics, utilitarianism theory states that an action is right when its consequences cause or promote human happiness. An action is wrong if it tends to reverse human happiness. In addition, it is worth noting that the happiness referred to in this theory is not just the happiness of the person involved, but also the happiness of all the people affected. Thus, this theory tends to support the abolishment of the death penalty. For instance, family members, relatives, friends, colleagues and other members of society are normally affected when a person faces the death penalty. In fact, they mourn the death of their colleague. In addition, the biggest percentage of the population is affected negatively.
Secondly, in Kantian ethics, the moral worth of an action depends on whether it respects human goals or personal purposes. If an action respects human goals, it is morally worth it. Proponents of the death penalty argue that the action is morally worth it because it serves and promotes the human goal of living in a crime-free society. However, it is worth arguing that the goal of humans is not to kill other people, rather, the goal is to convert criminals. As such, the death penalty is not morally worth it.
In virtue ethics, the death penalty is not morally right because a person is put to death for one or a few crimes he committed, yet he has done other activities that promote human values. A person is judged and killed because of a single action. In addition, the person took the action due to some circumstances and cannot do the same thing over other circumstances.
The bottom-line argument is that killing a person as a form of punishment may prevent others from committing the same crime. However, it does not provide justice to society because killing does not allow the criminal to rethink his life and become a better citizen. Secondly, it does not deter others from making false accusations on others.
Braswell, M. C., McCarthy, B. R., & McCarthy, B. J. (2011). Justice, Crime, and Ethics. New York: Routledge.
Leone, U. (2012). The Death Penalty: A Bibliographic Research. New York: Daine Publishing.
Mathewes, C. (2012). Understanding Religious Ethics. New York: Wiley Publications.
Rae, B. S. (2009). Moral Choices: An Introduction to Ethics. Nashville, TN: Zodervan Publishers.
Steffen, L. (2010). Ethics and Experience: Moral Theory from Just War to Abortion. London: Lawman & Littlefield.