Is It Morally Permissible to Put Someone Convicted of a Crime to Death?

The death penalty has always been a controversial issue battled in courts and society whether or not it is ethical to put someone convicted of a crime to death. The supporters of capital punishment argue that people who committed certain crimes deserve to be put to death since this punishment prevents new crime cases and serves as a form of retribution for the victim of the crime. However, the death penalty is an intolerable denial of the basic human right to life, and the system is flawed and does not guarantee that an innocent person will not be killed. This paper provides arguments against capital punishment and in the end refutes the counterargument.

Capital punishment undermines the fundamental moral values of the democratic system. The most important American pillars are freedom and equality. However, the USA is one of the few developed countries that use the death penalty as a form of punishment. Everyone’s right to life should be guaranteed by the law, even if these people are criminals. According to Nathanson, “people do not lose all of their rights when they commit terrible crimes” (p. 387). The value of human life does not depend on its worth or usefulness. Thus, the death sentence is the arbitrary deprivation of human rights. Not being able to take particular circumstances into consideration results in different levels of guilt, receiving disparate punishment for the same sentences. Humanity should strive to step away from violence and brutality by setting the example that killing is wrong, and the death penalty does not make it right on the government level.

Capital punishment is irreversible and once a person is executed, making amends will not cancel the mistake of the system. Many people who have been sentenced should never have been convicted in the first place. It raises an intolerable risk of applying the death penalty to potentially innocent people and deprives a person of the opportunity to prove their innocence with possible new evidence or laws that might lower the level of punishment or reversal of the conviction. The benefits of the death penalty are rather illusory execution of violent public acts in the name of justice. In the essay excerpt, Nathanson says that violence arouses hatred and anger, which leads to even more violence (p. 388). It does not solve social problems, on the contrary, it serves as an example that if “an eye for an eye” principle is applied on the government level, it is normal to kill other people. Thus, when human life is at stake, mistakes are not permissible, especially when they could be avoided.

Capital punishment for the sake of retribution is problematic and morally flawed as a practice. It is merely the form of vengeance, which contributes to the popularization of the death penalty. Other crimes except for murder do not receive a punishment that is identical to the crime. Rapists are not being raped, and people who hurt other people are not physically beaten up in public. As Nathanson states: “In some cases, this is immoral, while in others it is impossible” (p. 385). If it cannot be expected to implement equal punishment for each crime, the death penalty should not be the only one applied to this rule. It creates a double standard and makes capital punishment unique in a negative way. Retribution is used selectively, which makes it is not right to justify it with the death penalty. Modern society requires a more advanced measure of restoring justice than revenge. Since capital punishment has risks and mistakes, retribution is not a sufficient justification for its implementation.

The opponents of the death penalty state that it prevents future crimes. They say that it is used to discourage potential murderers from committing unlawful actions. If society keeps executing people, criminals will reconsider killing others as they would fear for their own life in case their crime is proved. Primoratz states that the criminal offense is the sole ground of the right of the system to punish people (p. 371). He also refers to the biblical statements about death punishment and says that the only sentence for the murder is the execution of the murderer (p. 372). It promotes the brutalist approach and contributes to the vicious circle of violence.

The execution of offenders brutalizes society, which increases the possibility of murder. This argument cannot be taken seriously because people who commit murder rarely think of the consequences of their actions. They do not expect to be imprisoned for the crime and cannot estimate the real seriousness of possible execution or life in prison. It often happens that murders are committed, followed by emotional impulses and moments of anger. Therefore, it is hard to calculate the possible outcomes before committing the crime. In some cases, the murder is planned. Still, even then, criminals focus more on how to escape the responsibility of their actions rather than thinking about what happens to them after the police find out. Capital punishment cannot be an effective deterrent as it is impossible to implement it consistently and promptly.

The death penalty goes against the basic human right to life which in the circumstances of the flawed system potentially puts innocent people at the risk to be executed. A retributive justification of criminal execution comes from the “an eye for an eye” ancient approach, which undermines the sanctity of life itself and violates fundamental human rights for it. The deterrence of capital punishment is not proven to be better than other forms of punishment, which makes it an unnecessary sacrifice. The flawed system should not be allowed to take away human lives at the risk of potentially killing innocent. Capital punishment is no longer ethical in modern society with its arbitrariness and potential injustice.

Works Cited

  1. Nathanson, Stephen. “An Eye for an Eye?” The Ethical Life: Fundamental Readings in Ethics and Moral Problems, edited by Russ Shafer-Landau, Oxford University Press, 2018, pp. 380-389.
  2. Primoratz, Igor. “Justifying Legal Punishment.” The Ethical Life: Fundamental Readings in Ethics and Moral Problems, edited by Russ Shafer-Landau, Oxford University Press, 2018, pp. 370-379.
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