The morality of capital punishment

The death penalty is often used as a form of justice for heinous crimes and it is one of the most controversial topics of discussion throughout the world. It is a unique means of guaranteeing that a convicted killer can never kill again. There are many views regarding the morality of capital punishment. These moral views are based on cultures, religions, personal ethics and standards. We will explore theories in regards to the death penalty from utilitarian, John Stuart Mill and retributivist Immanuel Kant.

Mill's ethical views are based on the Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, which holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as the tend to produce the reverse of happiness. Pleasure and freedom from pain, are the only things desirable as ends (RTD, pg 66). The death penalty does not promote pleasure but invokes pain. Since suffering is an intrinsic evil for utilitarianism, it must be eliminated whenever possible and is not morally justified when its use doesn't result in more good than evil.

For utilitarianism, the primary benefit of punishment is reducing crime therefore, reducing the evil of suffering which is caused by crime. Mill's believes the death penalty is evil. However, he will agree that the death penalty is justifiable. It is justifiable because it deters further crime within society and sets an example for those that may contemplate committing future criminal acts. Mill's concludes that by putting a criminal to death it would cause him unhappiness, but not doing so would create even more unhappiness.

Therefore, in order to prevent greater unhappiness it is best to impose the death penalty. Kant's ethical views regarding the death penalty stem from his belief that all humans have "an intrinsic worth, i. e. , dignity. " According to Kant, the death penalty shows a respect for human dignity because it recognizes that the criminal is a rational human and as they make the rational choice to break the law they should be responsible for their actions. In other words "they made their own bed to lie in". He firmly believes in "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.

" (EMP, pg 133) Kant views the death penalty as being morally correct and necessary for murderers. He states that punishment should be governed by two principles. First, people should be punished simply because they committed crimes, and for no other reason; and secondly, it is important to punish the criminal proportionately to the seriousness of his or her crime. For example, small punishments may suffice for small crimes, but big punishments are necessary in response to big crimes (EMP, pg 136). Therefore, a crime such as murder would be adequately resolved by giving the criminal the death penalty.

He states: "when a rational being decides to treat people in a certain way, he decrees that in his judgment this is the way people are to be treated. " (EMP, p. 139) Although Kant supports the death penalty, his view is only the guilty should be punished. The wrongdoer must be found guilty. Kant thinks that it's unjust if an innocent person is given the death penalty in order to benefit society. Kant feels that humans should never be used as a means to an end. Moreover, the aim of "rehabilitation," although it sounds noble enough, is actually no more than the attempt to mold people into what we think they should be.

We have the right to respond to their wickedness by "paying them back", but we do not have the right to violate their integrity by trying to manipulate their personalities (EMP, pg 136). Kant would never argue that a murderer should be given life without parole. Unfortunately, the death penalty is full of complexity. There are issues such as the death penalty being disproportionately distributed amongst various races, genders, and economic backgrounds. There is even concern of the innocent being falsely convicted and given the death penalty. Mill places no limit to the amount of punishment to the guilty nor the amount deserved.

If the end result of the death penalty is to increase happiness amongst the majority then sometimes there is cause for even the innocent to be given the death penalty. (EMP, pg 137) Mill's and Kant's views of the death penalty are quite similar and they both find the death penalty morally acceptable with Kant's view being stronger and more sufficient in our opinion. It is more sufficient because it simply states that a rational being that makes a decision to break the law should be responsible for their actions irregardless to what society may or may not think.

This may serve as a precaution for others to think twice before committing murder. Let's preserve respect for the human dignity in our society! FOOTNOTES 1 Rachels, James, The Elements of Moral Philosphy. 4th ed. New York, NY: McGraw Hill Companies, 2003 2Rachels, James, The Right Thing to Do. 3rded. New York, NY: McGraw Hill Companies, 2003.


Rachels, James, The Right Thing to Do. 3rded. New York, NY: McGraw Hill Companies, 2003. Rachels, James, The Elements of Moral Philosophy. 4thed. New York, NY: McGraw Hill Companies, 2003