Ethical arguments for and against an issue can be divided into consequentialist, deontological and virtue-based. Some arguments cannot be clearly assigned a category. Categorisation of arguments for and against the death penalty.
1. Consequentialist arguments: the deterrence argument, the prevention argument, economic arguments, effectiveness of the judicial and penal systems 2. Deontological arguments: the retribution argument, discriminatory use of the death penalty, right-to-life arguments, consideration of democratic rights 3. Virtue-based arguments: the rehabilitation argument, cruel and unusual punishments, 4. Mixed arguments: the human fallibility argument, extreme cases and exceptional circumstances In most surveys of people’s reasons for supporting the death penalty, retribution is listed as the main reason while deterrence comes second.
Capital punishment – The Deterrence Argument Proponents of the death penalty argue that it deters potential murders. Opponents of the death penalty argue that it does not in fact deter. Subarguments can be divided into a priori issues and empirical issues. Empirical issues look at statistics to find out if deterrence does or does not occur. A priori issues include the question “if the death penalty in fact deters, is it nevertheless right to use it? ” – in other words, is deterrence a sufficient justification? In favour, it can be argued that a killing is justified if such an act could save another life. Against, it can be argued that the issue of punishment should look to the criminal and the victim, not the future free choices of uninvolved observers who might or might not be contemplating their own crimes.
Many empirical studies have been done with disputed results and significance.  Some studies have shown a correlation between the death penalty and murder rates  – in other words, they show that where the death penalty applies, murder rates are also high. This correlation can be interpreted in at least two different ways, one of which can be used to support, the other to oppose the death penalty: either the death penalty increases murder rates by brutalising society (opposing) or higher murder rates cause the state to retain or reintroduce the death penalty (supporting).
It is difficult for statistical research on murder rates to prove or disprove the deterrence theory because such studies demonstrate correlation not causation. Further arguments hold that deterrence was greater in the past, when societies had fewer resources at their disposal for the detection and punishment of crime (e. g. no police forces and no prison systems). In these societies, it was may have been justifiable to make examples of a few to discourage the rest. However today new punishments such as life imprisonment carry their own deterrent effect.
It can be argued that anyone who would be deterred by the death penalty would already have been deterred by life in prison, and people that are not deterred by that would not be stopped by any punishment. A further argument is that potential criminals think that they won’t be caught, so they do not care about punishment until it is too late. Capital punishment – The Prevention Argument The idea behind the prevention argument is that a killer will probably kill again and the death penalty stops them from doing it again.
Like the deterrence argument, the prevention argument can be extended to all sorts of other crimes. If the criminal is dead, they cannot steal, lie, cheat or offend society in any other way. In the pre-modern period, authorities had neither the resources nor the inclination to detain someone indefinitely. For this reason, the death penalty was usually the only means to prevent a criminal from re-offending. Against the death penalty, it can be argued that today prevention is equally well served by other means, especially life imprisonment.
This argument can be countered by pointing out that life imprisonment often only amounts to 10 years or so and that parole boards tend to prefer prisoner’s rehabilitation hopes over the protection of society. Capital punishment – The Retribution Argument The retribution argument is the classic deontological argument in favour of the death penalty. The argument focuses on the rights and duties owed between the criminal, the victim and society. Just as the virtuous deserve reward proportionate to their good deeds, so too the vicious deserve punishment proportionate to their bad deeds.
The victim has a right to be avenged. Society has a duty to inflict a punishment that fits the crime. In the case of murder, a life must be paid for with a life. One might even hold, with Kant, that respect is shown to the criminal as someone who has chosen a particular path in life by visiting the appropriate punishment on the criminal. This argument supports the lex talionis – i. e. murderers deserve the death penalty, but smaller criminals must be spared. For opponents of the death penalty, execution itself is a violation of human rights.
It brutalizes society by sending out the message that killing people is the right thing to do in some circumstances and it denies the possibility of rehabilitation. In most Western nations, retribution, or any benefit to the victim, is not stated as a purpose of the criminal justice system. Similarly, proponents of the death penalty argue that people who have committed the most heinous crimes (typically murder) have no right to life and the abolition of the death penalty is a violation of the victim’s rights.
The death penalty shows the greatest respect for the ordinary man’s, and especially the victim’s, inviolable rights and it provides “closure” for victims’ families. In modern democracies, most murderers are not executed. The court only imposes the death penalty in case of multiple homicides or unusually horrendous murder. In such cases, the proponents argue that it is the closest and arguably the only acceptable form of justice whilst the opponents argue that vengeance is not justice.
Capital punishment – The Rehabilitation Argument Rehabilitation, along with prevention, deterrence and retribution, is one of the main justifications for punishment of any kind. Rehabilitation arguments focus on the perpetrator of a crime (as distinct from the victim or society at large) and ask how the perpetrator can be turned into a normal member of society. Rehabilitation advocates hold that the primary purpose of a judicial system should be to educate and reform criminals.
Rehabilitation arguments both for and against the death penalty exist. On the one hand it can be argued that the death penalty denies any possibility of rehabilitation and is therefore wrong. On the other hand, it can be argued that criminals may be led to rethink and reconcile their lives by the pressing expectation of death. Examples of the latter include death row inmates turning to religion, as well as witches confessing their sins before being burnt. Capital punishment – The right to life / sanctity of life
Arguments based on the right to life or the sanctity of life are a variety of deontological argument usually used to oppose the death penalty. Pope John Paul II was a renowned supporter of the principle of the sanctity of life. Some argue that the death penalty is a violation of human rights primarily Article 3 and Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Some assert that it violates the “natural rights” laid out by 17th-century English philosopher John Locke who set out many of the foundations of American law.
The American Declaration of Independence also includes the “right to life” as the first listed of the natural rights. While those against capital punishment might claim this as an irrevocable right, proponents may claim that, as protection from abuse is the basis of such rights, that the right was forfeit by the seriousness of the crimes. Supporters of the death penalty can also use right-to-life arguments. They focus instead on the right to life of the past victims and potential future victims. Failure to enforce the death penalty could be seen as a failure to honour those rights.
It can also be argued that people who have committed the most heinous crimes (typically murder) have no right to life. The death penalty shows the greatest respect for the ordinary man’s, and especially the victim’s, inviolable value. Capital punishment – Economic Arguments Economic arguments are consequentialist or utilitarian arguments. They revolve around the costs associated with different types of punishment, arguing that cheaper punishments are better to society. Arguments have been produced from both opponents and supporters of the death penalty based on economics.
Opponents of the death penalty point out that capital cases usually cost more than life imprisonment due to the extra costs of the courts such as appeals and extra supervisions . Proponents counter this argument by stating that the severity and finality of death as punishment demands that the extra resources be expended. When some death row inmates are freed on appeal or their sentence is reduced, that is a demonstration that the system works thanks to the extra expense of the judicial appeal system.
The opponents argue that such reversal is proof that the system doesn’t work, especially at the initial trial. For example, in the U. S. A. , the accused is allowed to plead guilty so as to avoid the death penalty. This plea requires the accused to forfeit any appeal arguing innocence on material or procedural grounds. Furthermore, by waiving the threat of the death penalty, individuals can be encouraged to plead guilty, accomplices can be encouraged to testify against other defendants, and criminals can be encouraged to lead investigators to the bodies of victims.
Proponents of the death penalty, therefore, argue that the death penalty significantly reduces the cost of the judicial process and criminal investigation. However, the use of a plea bargain is banned in many countries because it can encourage the innocent to plead guilty and the guilty to testify against the innocent hence increasing the likelihood of a miscarriage of justice. Capital punishment – The Human Fallibility Argument The human fallibility argument is an argument against the death penalty.
Its fundamental premise is that criminal proceedings are fallible and that if errors are made then the potential exists that an innocent person may be executed. The human fallibility argument can be viewed as deontological (based on the rights of innocent convicts) or as consequentialist. Since the reinstitution of the death penalty, opponents state that there have been 122 death penalty convictions that have been overturned and that this is an indication of innocence. In addition, death penalty opponents have claimed that innocent people have been executed.
Erroneous convictions potentially are due to the fact that 95% of defendants cannot afford legal representation and the claim that public defenders do not vigourously defend these cases. Furthermore, opponents of the death penalty state that the legal system is difficult to reverse once a miscarraige of justice has taken place. Recently, the development of DNA testing has placed addition concerns about potentially exonerating evidence of inmateas already condemmed to the death penalty. Opponents argue that socety should abolish the death penalty to prevent the execution of innocent people.
Proponents of the death penalty state that there is no defninitive evidence that a wrongful execution has occured since the reinstitution of the death penalty.  Most proponents recognize that the potential for an innocent person to be senteced to death, and therefore argue that only in convictions where the evidence is overwhelming should the death penalty be instituted. Furthermore, proponents counter than there is a distinction between “legal innocence” and “actual innocence. ” Proponents argue that death penalty convictions that were overturned, the vast majority were do to “legla innocence” and not “actual innocence. Proponents point to cases where the criminal trial resulted in a “not guilty” verdict yet in civil courts the same person was found liable. Capital punishment – Discrimatory misuse of the death penalty This is primarily a deontological argument: the death penalty may be abused in violation of the rights of oppressed groups. In order to protect oppressed groups from the state, the state’s ability to use the death penalty must be removed. Some argue that, in the US, the race of the person to be executed can affect the likelihood that they receive a death sentence.
Death-penalty proponents counter this by pointing out that most murders where the killer and victim are of the same race tend to be “crimes of passion” while inter-racial murders are usually “felony murders”; that is, murders which were perpetrated during the commission of some other felony (most commonly either armed robbery or rape), the point being that juries are more likely to impose the death penalty in cases where the offender has killed a total stranger than in those where some deep-seated, personal revenge motive may be present.
A recent study showed that just 44% of Black Americans support the death penalty.  Capital punishment has also been used politically to silence dissidents, minority religions and activists. A major example of this is the People’s Republic of China from which there are many reports of the death penalty being used for politically motivated ends.  See also: Falun Gong. Capital punishment – Effectiveness of the judicial and penal systems A variety of consequentialist arguments have been advanced regarding the effective functioning of the judicial and penal systems.
In favour of the death penalty, it is argued that: •The death penalty provides extra leverage for the prosecutor to deal for important testimony and information. •Without the death penalty, a person already serving a life sentence may have no reason not to kill in prison. •By waiving the threat of a death penalty, individuals can be encouraged to plead guilty, accomplices can be encouraged to testify against their co-conspirators, and criminals can be encouraged to lead investigators to the bodies of victims. The threat of the death penalty can be a powerful echanism for greasing the wheels of justice. (See “plea bargain”). •The death penalty alleviates the need for vigilantism on the part of the victim’s family or friends (in the form of lynching or retaliatory murder). If the state fails to punish effectively and properly, vendettas or blood feuds can arise, in turn further threatening the stability of society. •If a criminal has already committed a lesser crime which carries a life sentence, the absence of the death penalty would mean that the criminal has nothing to lose by escalating the level of his wrongdoing, such as by killing witnesses.
Against the death penalty, it is argued that: •If criminals believe they will face the death penalty, they are more likely to use violence or murder to avoid capture. Therefore the death penalty might theoretically even increase the rate of violent crime.  Capital punishment – Cruel and unusual punishments The term cruel and unusual refers to the Eighth Ammendment to the United States Constitution where any form of punishment that is deemed cruel and unusual is unconstitutional.
Absolutist arguments hold that the death penalty, in whatever form, is especially cruel and therefore wrong. Relativist arguments hold that specific forms of the death penalty are excessively cruel. Relativist arguments can be countered by developing new methods of execution, or by arguing that the alternatives are even more cruel. Proponents argue that the current application of the death penalty is humane. Arguments turning on the cruel and unusual nature of the death penalty are virtue-based arguments.
The United States Supreme Court has never held a specific capital punishment method as being “cruel and unusual. ” Capital punishment – Consideration of democratic rights An argument used both in support of and against the death penalty is that one should follow the majority opinion in the country concerned. For example, if a majority of Americans support the death penalty, then democracy deems this to be the “right” view for that country. There are two possible objections to this argument.
Firstly, that voters make up their minds on the basis of ethical arguments offered to them and not the other way round – i. e. ethical arguments should not be decided on the basis of uninformed voting. Secondly, that modern democracy is not direct democracy but representative democracy, which allows representatives a degree of freedom to vary from the direct wishes of their constituents if they believe it is in society’s better interests to do so (otherwise we would have no taxes, for example).
Capital punishment – Extreme cases and exceptional circumstances A particularly contentious and difficult area of the death penalty debate concerns a variety of cases and circumstances regarded as exceptional. Some may take the view that the death penalty is normally wrong, but should be kept for some or all of these exceptions. They include: murderers of law enforcement officials (police, judges), time of war and military discipline, serial killers, child murderers.
For example, as regards special arguments for the maintenance of discipline in the armed forces, an argument in favour is proposed by Leon Trotsky: “An army cannot be built without reprisals. Masses of men cannot be led to death unless the army command has the death penalty in its arsenal. So long as those malicious tailless apes that are so proud of their technical achievements a€” the animals that we call men a€” will build armies and wage wars, the command will always be obliged to place the soldiers between the possible death in the front and the inevitable one in the rear. Against this, it is argued that the death penalty in the armed forces usually has the opposite effect than desired, eroding the morale of the troops rather than improving it, and striking a wedge between the commissioned and enlisted servicemen as the latter are likely to consider shooting their own as murder. In extreme cases the death penalty can lead to fragging incidents.