There are few discussions that result in as much heated debate as those that revolve around the use of the death penalty. Although the concept of taking an individual’s life for the commission of a crime has been around since the dawn of organized civilization, it is not something that can be easily agreed upon. Why is it that some people oppose the death penalty, while others strongly support it? Does the death penalty work in deterring crime, while punishing the offender for the crime that has been committed? What are the chances that an innocent person will get sentenced to death?
These are just some of the questions that will be discussed in this paper. None of them have simple answers; for if that were the case, there would be no need for this paper in the first place. Therefore, this analysis on the death penalty does not claim to be a definitive resolution on the subject. Rather, this paper is intended to serve as an eye-opener to the multitude of different viewpoints on capital punishment. Only then can one make an educated decision based upon a comprehensive understanding of the facts that have been presented.
It is of great concern that the reader of this paper realizes the importance of exposing the facts of the death penalty from fiction, in much the same way one would separate the “wheat from the chaff.” So, with that fair warning out of the way, we can begin by looking at the pros and cons of the death penalty, as stated by various organizations and finally we’ll compare and contrast what we know in order to formulate a structured philosophical summary of the massive amount of information that is available. The first side of the coin that will be considered is the viewpoint in support of the capital punishment.
The use of the death penalty in the United States is increasing rapidly. According to the U.S. Department of Justice website, there were 501 executions in the United States between the years 2000 and 2007. Along with this, comes increased debate on the death penalty. On one side of the aisle, many individuals believe that death is the only fair penalty for those who commit the worst criminal acts imaginable. Some supporters of the death penalty argue that capital punishment is even mentioned in the Bible. One passage states, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man” (New International Version, Gen 9.6).
Moreover, the death penalty was even referenced and supported by some of the greatest philosophers in history, such as Thomas More, John Locke, and Immanuel Kant. The framers of our U.S. Constitution thought no differently; they too supported capital punishment (Siegel 577).
Looking at this issue from an ethical standpoint, it is important to consider why we use the death penalty in the first place. If we understand why something works the way it does, that knowledge should bring us closer to understanding whether or not to employ such a thing. In general, there are two major reasons why the death penalty is used. Primarily, it is meant to punish the criminal offender to the greatest extent possible for the crimes he or she committed. In the tradition of “an eye for an eye,” the punishment should somewhat match the crime, and in many instances, it is felt that death is the only comparable measure.
The punishing effect of the death penalty is best described by Louis Pojman, who found that, “imprisonment constitutes one evil, the loss of freedom, but the death penalty imposes a more severe loss, that of life itself…I fear death more than imprisonment because it alone takes from me all future possibility” (Bedau and Cassell 61).
The second major reason for the implementation of the death penalty deals with deterring other members of society from committing acts of murder. If we compare execution statistics with murder rates, we see that there is a strong correlation. As stated, “between 1965 and 1980, there was practically no death penalty in the United States, and for 10 of those 16 years—1967-76—there was literally no death penalty: a national moratorium” (Dudley 30). During this time period, when there was no threat of death if convicted, the murder rate in the United States rose from 9,960 annual murders to 23,040. The murder rate pretty much doubled during these years when there was no death penalty, with a jump from 5.1 homicides per 100,000 people to 10.2 homicides per 100,000 people (Dudley 30).
From the data given above, it is clear to see why so many people believe that the death penalty serves as an effective deterrent. Whether or not the rise in murder rates had another cause behind them has yet to be fully understood.
In addition to this data, death penalty supporters believe that the act of killing a convicted murderer is justified, since the murderer will never again be able to take a human life. They argue that without the death penalty available, convicted murderers serving life sentences without the chance of parole may kill other inmates or prison guards. This stems from the belief that since the criminal cannot be punished any more severely, they have nothing to lose by killing someone in prison. This creates a risk that many individuals see as costly and unnecessary. Death penalty supporters would rather the murderer be killed, than be able to kill again in prison, or altogether escape from prison.
Shifting gears to the moral questions now, death penalty supporters are routinely challenged on their perceived lack of respect for the sanctity of all human life. In response to this, a common reply is that they support the death penalty because of their commitment to the sanctity of life, not in lieu of it. Their logic goes something like this: if a murderer takes an innocent life in cold blood, in doing so he or she has given up their own right to live. It is therefore imperative that the state execute this person, since not doing so would put greater value on the life of a murderer than on the life of a murderer’s victim.
Moreover, proponents of the death penalty claim that it is the smartest thing to do economically, since they believe the cost of life imprisonment outweighs the cost of an execution. What these supporters emphasize is that even with a costly execution, money is saved in the long run due to the reduction in future murders. The National Center for Policy Analysis claims that every execution results in 18 fewer murders in society (Friedman 62). Supporters believe that this proves how cost-effective the death penalty really is. As we will see later, this is a much disputed topic.
Having seen this viewpoint in support of the death penalty, let’s now turn to the other side and explore some of the reasons why someone would oppose it.
Primarily, the viewpoint rejecting the death penalty is rooted in the belief that no person or governing body has the right to take another life. While opponents of the death penalty agree that the act of murder is a horrendous crime, they do not believe that the state should engage in that same type of crime for any reason whatsoever. In their eyes, to do so would be hypocritical, unethical, immoral, and unjust.
Opponents of the death penalty usually support life imprisonment without the chance of parole as the alternative punishment. They claim that not only is this sometimes a more severe punishment than death, but that it is also cheaper in the long run. Certain groups claim that, “the most comprehensive study conducted in this country found that the death penalty costs $2.16 million per execution over the costs of a non-death penalty system imposing a maximum sentence of imprisonment for life” (Dieter 6). Moreover, the expenses of a death penalty trial and appeal process must be paid up front. On the other hand, life imprisonment expenses are incurred over a long period of time, therefore placing less strain on the system.
Another reason why some people oppose the death penalty has to do with their moral conscience. Since 1973, there have been 129 death row exonerations according to a study conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union. Supporters of this viewpoint claim that through the use of new evidence (most notably DNA evidence), 129 lives have been spared from a wrongful death. They continue that this is proof enough that the criminal justice system is flawed and incapable of handing down capital punishment sentences with absolute certainty of the convicted person’s guilt (Bedau and Cassell 127).
These are just some of the most discussed issues on both sides of the argument for and against the death penalty. Obviously, there are many other motives for taking either side, but for the sake of brevity, we cannot cover them all. Now with this information in hand, it should be easier to make an independent decision on whether the death penalty is good or bad, moral or immoral, and just or unjust.
In my personal opinion, I began this project with an open mind, since I knew very little about capital punishment from either a historical or philosophical perspective. As I researched the vast array of data available on the subject, it became clear just how divided the issue really is. Eventually, however, I came to the conclusion that all this talk about the negativities of the death penalty really has more to do with its implementation than with its moral standing. What this means is that most of us can agree that some crimes are so terrible and so evil that the only justifiable punishment is death. The problem therefore is not in the severity of the punishment, but in the guarantee that only those worthy of such punishment receive it, rather than innocent people who have been wrongfully convicted. Additionally, if we have satisfied this first problem, another issue pops up; how do you simultaneously condemn the act of murder while agreeing for the death penalty without being hypocritical? This of course is settled in my mind, by remembering that the death penalty should be used for the greater good, which means that it should help prevent future murders both by removing the murderer from society and deterring others.
With all this being said, we must remember that a major failure of the death penalty is that it apparently costs far more than a life sentence. In my opinion, this is the most difficult obstacle to overcome, since the high costs of the appeals process helps assure the state that there has not been a mistake in the conviction process. So, will it ever be possible to lower the costs of the death penalty process, while at the same time insuring that no innocent people will be executed? The answer seems to be no, it is not possible to have the best of both worlds. Therefore, as with every tough decision in life, we must choose between the two.
Personally, I would rather take the extraordinarily small risk of executing an innocent person through the system of the state, than allow a convicted murderer to murder again, either in prison, or after escaping from prison. Also, even though the evidence is not unanimous, I believe that the death penalty serves as a deterrent, if but only for a very small number of potential criminals. If the death penalty laws deter even one person from taking a life, then it has served a good cause in protecting the life of the innocent. I am therefore in support of the death penalty, so long as it is carefully regulated and issued only in the worst cases, when no other punishment would seem fit.
In the words of former president James Madison, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” Unfortunately, this is not the case. Thus, the government must be ready and willing to do whatever is necessary to see to it that freedom is upheld, crimes are punished, innocent citizens are protected, and criminals are deterred, even if that means using society’s ultimate sanction against society’s ultimate criminal.
Note: This paper was written during the Fall 2008 semester at Palm Beach State College as part of an Introduction to Philosophy course.
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