Capital punishment is defined as execution as a punishment for a person convicted of committing a crime. This form of punishment is usually perceived in the United States as being reserved for crimes such as aggravated murder, felony murder, and contract killing, but in reality the application of capital punishment varies widely. When you look at the world, capital punishment is imposed for a wide array of crimes, such as espionage, treason, as part of military justice, sexual crimes (such as rape, adultery, incest and sodomy), religious crimes such as the formal renunciation of the State religion in Islamic nations, drug trafficking, human trafficking, serious cases of corruption, and in militaries around the world, court martials have imposed death sentences for offenses such as cowardice, desertion, insubordination, and mutiny. (Wikipedia.org) It is therefore not surprising that capital punishment has a huge following of supporters both for and against it. Those against it usually center their arguments on the morality of capital punishment. Through my ethics class, I have learned that the best way to evaluate morality is to look at three things: the motivation, the act itself, and the consequences. For capital punishment the motivations are punishment, retribution, and deterrence. The act itself varies, but can be such things as lethal injection, electrocution, and hanging; and of course the consequence is death. Death is by inhumane methods and not only affect the prisoner who is losing his life, but also the person performing the execution. Although capital punishment is legal in many countries and parts of the United States, I seek to prove that it is an inhumane and immoral form of punishment, whose detrimental effects well outweigh the benefits.
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In order to prove that capital punishment is inhumane, it is necessary to look at the history of capital punishment. The execution of criminals and political opponents has been used by nearly all societies-both to punish crime and to suppress political dissent. The use of formal execution extends to the beginning of recorded history. Most historical records and various primitive tribal practices indicate that the death penalty was a part of their justice system. Historical forms of capital punishment were often extremely violent and repulsing. Some examples of this are: quartering (as seen in The Song of Roland), being devoured by animals, boiling to death, being buried alive, burning (as was done to suspected witches), crucifixion, crushing, decapitation, dismemberment, drowning (like in the mafia movies), and stoning (as seen in the Bible).
I list all these horrific methods of punishment by death to juxtapose them with the modern, more humane forms of capital punishment. In the recent history of the United States, capital punishment has existed in the form of hanging, electrocution, and lethal injection. Electrocution and lethal injection still exists to this day. It is true that these modern methods are more acceptable than those used by ancient people, and even some other modern societies but all the current methods are far from humane. For example, electrocution is inhumane because it is extremely painful until the prisoner becomes unconscious and brain death occurs. Anyone who knows how painful it feels to bump into an electric fence would not want to endure death by electrocution. There have even been occasions where the electric chair has malfunctioned, which could prolong suffering. The electric chair should not be considered as a humane method of capital punishment in modern society.
Another modern method of capital punishment is lethal injection. Lethal injection was introduced in Oklahoma by Reverend Bill Wiseman in 1977, but the process was originally conceived by state medical examiner, Jay Chapman, and was approved by anesthesiologist Stanley Deutsch. Texas was the first state to use it. It has since been adopted by The People’s Republic of China, which began using this method in 1997, Guatemala in 1998, the Philippines in 1999, Thailand in 2003, Taiwan in 2005, and in all but 17 states in the United States. Lethal injection uses a combination of three drugs to kill the prisoner: sodium thiopental to induce unconsciousness, pancuronium bromide to cause muscle paralysis and respiratory arrest, and potassium chloride to stop the heart. This is a very humane method of execution compared to all the others; however, it is unclear as to whether the drug sodium thiopental is efficient in maintaining unconsciousness, since it does not do so when used for surgery. Also, a study done by the University of Miami and published in the medical journal, “The Lancer”, shows that many of the people performing the lethal injection have no anesthesia training; that the drugs were administered remotely with no monitoring for anesthesia; and that the data was not recorded and no peer review was done. So it is unclear as to whether the prisoners were being executed humanely or if they were in excruciating pain. This form of capital punishment is viewed as the most humane, but in reality it is inhumane just like electrocution.
Having discussed the inhumane nature of capital punishment both historically and currently, what are the major arguments in support of it? The Supreme Court of the United States provided two reasons for capital punishment: retribution and deterrence. These are the main reasons that people support it. Many people feel that the punishment should fit the crime. So capital punishment should be the most fitting sentence for the most heinous of crimes. In the same way, capital punishment as a deterrence is supported because it prevents future heinous acts from being committed. This makes people feel safe. Deterrence cannot be effectively accomplished by the alternative to capital punishment, life in prison without the possibility of parole, because it would still be possible for the prisoners to commit crimes, either while in jail against other prisoners or guards, or by escaping from prison. Therefore, capital punishment is accepted as the best form of deterrence. It also gives the victim’s family closure knowing the criminal is no longer around to do anyone harm.
There are strong arguments opposing capital punishment. Some people feel that it is more of a punishment to make the criminals live in prison, incarcerated for the rest of their lives, rather than having a short life in prison. They believe that prison life would continually punish a criminal for years and years, with death as the only release. These opponents of capital punishment believe that the same objectives would be met by life in prison: deterrence, retribution, and closure. Unlike this closure, the closure received from capital punishment, can be delayed for a very long time due to the built in appeal system under capital punishment. The appeal process also causes the cost of executing a prisoner to skyrocket in relation to the cost of keeping him in prison for life. If we look as California for example, in June 2008, the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice found that California annually spends approximately $137.7 million dollars on the death penalty. By replacing the death penalty with permanent imprisonment, the Commission noted that the state could save in excess of $125 million per year. (Deathpenalty.org) The high cost and long appeal system have caused many pro-capital punishment judges to change their minds. One judge, Judge Kozinsi, gave a speech in which he noted that “the number of executions compared to the number of people who have been sentenced to death is minuscule” and concluded that “whatever purposes the death penalty is said to serve – deterrence, retribution, assuaging the pain suffered by victims’ families – those purposes are not served by the system as it now operates.” Judge Kozinski added that the costs of death penalty prosecutions far outweighed the results, and that because of the proliferation of such prosecutions “there would have to be one execution every day for the next 26 years” to handle the volume. He recommended that death penalty prosecutions should only be brought against “the most depraved killers.” (talkleft.com)
Ultimately, the most important argument against capital punishment is that it is immoral. No matter how you look at it, capital punishment is killing, and murder is always wrong! A further look at the morality of capital punishment is needed, because although murder is deemed a moral absolute, this is not always the case. Depending on what form of morality you believe in, murder can sometimes be deemed moral. In ethics class, we looked at five main types of ethical theories. Four of the theories are flawed: utilitarianism, Kantianism (deontology), egoism, relativism, and the fifth, virtue ethics, is not. Let us now examine each theory’s view of capital punishment.
The utilitarianism theory would view capital punishment as moral. This is because utilitarianism looks at what would make the most people happy. Utilitarianism was founded by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. It is a consequentialistic theory of morality. This means that it is only concerned with the consequences of an act. Moreover, utilitarianism is concerned solely with what increases the overall utility, happiness, of a society. This blind concern for consequences and ignoring the minority view is what makes utilitarianism a flawed theory. Therefore, although the consequence of capital punishment is the killing of prisoners, utilitarianism would view this to be moral since it helps society increase their overall happiness. By killing the prisoners the victim’s family would be happy at the justice being dispensed, and the rest of society would be happy because they would feel safer knowing that the prisoner can never escape and harm them or their families. The utilitarian view does allow for life imprisonment as a viable alternative to capital punishment, since the prisoner is still being punished and will not be able to cause the overall happiness of society to diminish.
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The second theory of ethics is Kantianism also called Deontology. Kantianism views capital punishment as being immoral. Deontology is an ethical theory, founded by Immanuel Kant, that focuses on the rightness or wrongness of intentions or motives behind action such as respect for rights, duties, or principles, as opposed to the rightness or wrongness of the consequences of those actions. It is sometimes described as duty based ethics, because deontologists believe that ethical rules are bound by duty. This theory is flawed because it only looks at intentions and not the act or consequences. Many times good intention can have unintentional bad consequences and vice versa. This is called the double effect principle. Deontologist view capital punishment as being wrong by its nature, a violation of the right to life, which is a universal law for them. They also look at the inhumane ways that capital punishment is carried out. An argument that they make against capital punishment is that by killing the prisoner, it causes the prisoner’s family and friends to become victims themselves. On the other hand, Deontologists can view capital punishment as moral by saying that it is only natural for the families of the victims to seek retribution for the loss of life, that the punishment fits the crime. The belief is that without proper retribution, the judicial system further brutalizes the victim or victim’s family and friends, which amounts to secondary victimization. In the context of deontology, life imprisonment cannot be used as a substitute for the death penalty, since any length of incarceration is a violation of the right to liberty. In deontological terms, nothing is gained by substituting the violation of one type of right (the right to life) with that of another (the right to liberty).
From the egoism perspective, capital punishment may be viewed as moral. Egoism states that all individual conduct has a motivation. This primary motivation is self-interest. By this theory, everything is fair game. Egoism looks at the motivation as the sole determinate for morality. In egoism, an act is moral if the motivation is for one’s own self-interest. That is why it is a flawed theory of ethics. The individual who commits the crime does so out of self-interest, even if it merits capital punishment. I believe that egoism would say that since one person can act out of self-interest and take away the life of another, then equally capital punishment should be an acceptable response. Egoism would also allow for life imprisonment to be an alternative for capital punishment.
The final flawed theory of ethics is relativism. Relativism believes that capital punishment is both moral and immoral. Moral relativism is an extreme form of Individualism. Individualism is the belief that all actions are determined by, or at least take place for, the benefit of the individual, not of society as a whole. Moral relativism can also be view as a form of Solipsism, the theory that only the self exists, or can be proved to exist. Relativism does not only have to apply to an individual but it can be a cultural relativism, in which the moral beliefs of a culture is deemed to be correct. If two culture’s or people’s beliefs are in direct contradiction, then moral relativism would state that both beliefs are correct. This would make it impossible for anything to be immoral. Therefore, the morality of capital punishment to a relativist depends on who is being asked.
Virtue Ethics is the only non-flawed theory of ethics and was founded by Aristotle. One way of looking at capital punishment through Aristotle’s eyes is to apply Teleology to the issue. Teleology means the end of the process. The end to capital punishment is to put to death the person guilty of the crime. Capital punishment is intended to punish a person by taking his or her life. But there can be a second interpretation of the ethical issue of capital punishment and that is that the end of capital punishment is the prevention of a crime in the first place. Thus according to teleology, capital punishment could be considered to have two different ends. However, this is not the complete picture. Virtue ethics uses the motivation, the act itself, and the consequences to decide morality. I believe that virtue ethics would ultimately find capital punishment to be immoral. The motivations of capital punishment are punishment, retribution, and deterrence. The first and last motives are positive ones, and the second is not. The act varies, but can be things such as lethal injection, electrocution, and hanging. The act of killing is a universal law and is always wrong. The consequence of capital punishment, death, does not only affect the prisoner who is losing their life, but also the person performing the execution. The consequences can also be viewed as wrong because it harms people. Since all three criteria combined is wrong, the act is immoral. But this is still not the whole answer. Thomas Aquinas came after Aristotle and revamped virtue ethics. Aquinas believed that although there were moral absolutes and universal laws, it is dangerous to apply it to everyone indiscriminately. He believed that exceptions to all rules are needed since people live in very different conditions. Through this theory, one could argue that the death penalty is immoral but there can be circumstances in which capital punishment is moral.
Therefore it is clear that one could reach different conclusions when determining the morality of capital punishment using the five different theories of ethics. Yet a strong case can be made that it is immoral because the motivations (punishment or revenge) the act itself (killing the person by electrocution, lethal injection, or any other way) and the consequences (death of the prisoner, the pain and suffering of the prisoner’s family, and the psychological effects to the executioner) are all immoral. In conclusion capital punishment is an inhumane form of punishment that has been around for a very long time and should be abolished in these modern times. The execution of a person is cruel, and even lethal injection has not been proven to be painless. Although there are good arguments both for and against capital punishment, the arguments against it whether financial, moral, or other, far outweigh the arguments for it. My personal opinion of the capital punishment is that it is a just punishment for the crime committed but should be banned because it is immoral and life in prison offers an alternative punishment that can obtain the same goals. There are also financial ramifications. I believe that the prisoners who are sentenced to death row belong there. In many cases, the way that they are executed is way more humane than how they murdered their victims. It is unfortunate that the process takes so long. As a result, many of the prisoners on death row die of natural causes before their execution date. The prisoners are often kept too comfortable while waiting for their executions. For example, the prisoners have televisions in their cells, and are kept away from other prisoners who may want to bother them. Some prisons even allow the death row inmates to keep cats as pets, and in others, the inmates eat so well that they become obese and are then not allowed to be executed because the lethal injection or electric chair protocols are not equipped for people of their size. Finally I believe capital punishment should be banned because of the cost. I do not think it is right or fair to pump so much money into executing a prisoner.
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