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Capital punishment

The question as to whether or not it is morally acceptable for the state to execute people, and if so under what circumstances, has been debated for centuries.

The ethical problems involved include the general moral issues of punishment with the added problem of whether it is ever morally right to deprive a human being of life.

Introduction to capital punishment

Capital punishment is the practice of executing someone as punishment for a specific crime after a proper legal trial.

It can only be used by a state, so when non-state organisations speak of having 'executed' a person they have actually committed a murder.

It is usually only used as a punishment for particularly serious types of murder, but in some countries treason, types of fraud, adultery and rape are capital crimes.

The phrase 'capital punishment' comes from the Latin word for the head. A 'corporal' punishment, such as flogging, takes its name from the Latin word for the body.

Capital punishment is used in many countries around the world. According to Amnesty International as at May 2012, 141 countries have abolished the death penalty either in law on in practice. Source: Amnesty

In 2008, there was a growing reluctance among those countries that do retain the death penalty to use it in practice. In 2008, only 25 out of 59 countries that retain the death penalty carried out executions.

Amnesty International, March 2009

China executes the most people per year overall, with an estimated figure of 1,718 in 2008. Amnesty International also states that in 2008 Iran executed at least 346 people, the USA 111, Saudi Arabia 102 and Pakistan 36.

Details of which countries are abolitionist and which are retentionist can be found on the Amnesty website.

In China, at least 1,718 people were executed and at least 7,003 people were known to have been sentenced to death in 2008. These figures represent minimum estimates - real figures are undoubtedly higher. However, the continued refusal by the Chinese authorities to release public information on the use of the death penalty means that in China the death penalty remains shrouded in secrecy.

Amnesty International, March 2009

There is now steadily increasing support for abolishing capital punishment.

On 18 December 2008, the United Nations adopted resolution 63/168, which is a reaffirmation of its call for a moratorium on the use of the death penalty (62/149) passed in December the previous year. The resolution calls for states to freeze executions with a view to eventual abolition.

The World Coalition against the Death Penalty was created in Rome in 2002, and 10th October 2006 was World Day against the Death Penalty.

 

 

Retribution

First a reminder of the basic argument behind retribution and punishment:

all guilty people deserve to be punished

only guilty people deserve to be punished

guilty people deserve to be punished in proportion to the severity of their crime

This argument states that real justice requires people to suffer for their wrongdoing, and to suffer in a way appropriate for the crime. Each criminal should get what their crime deserves and in the case of a murderer what their crime deserves is death.



The measure of punishment in a given case must depend upon the atrocity of the crime, the conduct of the criminal and the defenceless and unprotected state of the victim.

Imposition of appropriate punishment is the manner in which the courts respond to the society's cry for justice against the criminals.

Justice demands that courts should impose punishment befitting the crime so that the courts reflect public abhorrence of the crime.

Justices A.S. Anand and N.P. Singh, Supreme Court of India, in the case of Dhananjoy Chatterjee

Many people find that this argument fits with their inherent sense of justice.

It's often supported with the argument "An eye for an eye". But to argue like that demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of what that Old Testament phrase actually means. In fact the Old Testament meaning of "an eye for an eye" is that only the guilty should be punished, and they should punished neither too leniently or too severely.

The arguments against retribution

Capital punishment is vengeance rather than retribution and, as such, is a morally dubious concept

The anticipatory suffering of the criminal, who may be kept on death row for many years, makes the punishment more severe than just depriving the criminal of life

That's certainly true in the USA, but delay is not an inherent feature of capital punishment; some countries execute people within days of sentencing them to death

Some people are prepared to argue against retribution as a concept, even when applied fairly.

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Deterrence

Capital punishment is often justified with the argument that by executing convicted murderers, we will deter would-be murderers from killing people.

The arguments against deterrence

The statistical evidence doesn't confirm that deterrence works (but it doesn't show that deterrence doesn't work either)

Some of those executed may not have been capable of being deterred because of mental illness or defect

Some capital crimes are committed in such an emotional state that the perpetrator did not think about the possible consequences

No-one knows whether the death penalty deters more than life imprisonment

Deterrence is most effective when the punishment happens soon after the crime - to make an analogy, a child learns not to put their finger in the fire, because the consequence is instant pain.

The more the legal process distances the punishment from the crime - either in time, or certainty - the less effective a deterrent the punishment will probably be.

Cardinal Avery Dulles has pointed out another problem with the deterrence argument.

Executions, especially where they are painful, humiliating, and public, may create a sense of horror that would prevent others from being tempted to commit similar crimes...

...In our day death is usually administered in private by relatively painless means, such as injections of drugs, and to that extent it may be less effective as a deterrent. Sociological evidence on the deterrent effect of the death penalty as currently practiced is ambiguous, conflicting, and far from probative.

Avery Cardinal Dulles, Catholicism and Capital Punishment, First Things 2001

Some proponents of capital punishment argue that capital punishment is beneficial even if it has no deterrent effect.

If we execute murderers and there is in fact no deterrent effect, we have killed a bunch of murderers. If we fail to execute murderers, and doing so would in fact have deterred other murders, we have allowed the killing of a bunch of innocent victims. I would much rather risk the former. This, to me, is not a tough call.

John McAdams: Marquette University, Department of Political Science

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Rehabilitation

Of course capital punishment doesn't rehabilitate the prisoner and return them to society. But there are many examples of persons condemned to death taking the opportunity of the time before execution to repent, express remorse, and very often experience profound spiritual rehabilitation.

Thomas Aquinas noted that by accepting the punishment of death, the offender was able to expiate his evil deeds and so escape punishment in the next life.

This is not an argument in favour of capital punishment, but it demonstrates that the death penalty can lead to some forms of rehabilitation.

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Prevention of re-offending

It is undeniable that those who are executed cannot commit further crimes.

Many people don't think that this is sufficient justification for taking human life, and argue that there are other ways to ensure the offenders do not re-offend, such as imprisonment for life without possibility of parole.

Although there have been cases of persons escaping from prison and killing again, these are extremely rare.

But some people don't believe that life imprisonment without parole protects society adequately. The offender may no longer be a danger to the public, but he remains a danger to prison staff and other inmates. Execution would remove that danger.

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Closure and vindication

It is often argued that the death penalty provides closure for victims' families.

This is a rather flimsy argument, because every family reacts differently. As some families do not feel that another death will provide closure, the argument doesn't provide a justification for capital punishment as a whole.

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Incentive to help police

Plea bargaining is used in most countries. It's the process through which a criminal gets a reduced sentence in exchange for providing help to the police.

Where the possible sentence is death, the prisoner has the strongest possible incentive to try to get their sentence reduced, even to life imprisonment without possibility of parole, and it's argued that capital punishment therefore gives a useful tool to the police.

This is a very feeble justification for capital punishment, and is rather similar to arguments that torture is justified because it would be a useful police tool.

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Date: 2015-01-02; view: 1103


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