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The death penalty as a form of punishment

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 1356 words Published: 1st May 2017

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The death penalty has been used throughout all of history as a form of punishment. In the past it was used by leaders to keep citizens in line. There are currently 35 states in the US that have the death penalty in place. This particular social issue is still under a lot of debate in the United States and around the world. Some of the questions it raises is what happens if the wrong person is sentenced, what are the financial costs of the process, how should it be done? However, the main question that is raises is whether it is morally acceptable. Today the death penalty is used in about 70 different countries, a number that has been rapidly declining in the past few decades. In society’s effort to be just and to protect the rights of criminals in the justice system, a reasonable effort, let them not ignore or diminish the rights of the victims. Capital punishment is an instrument that insures the murderer will not cause harm to another victim and it authenticates the sacredness of human life. There are many philosophers that think capital punishment is morally acceptable if it is done for the right reasons. Two such philosophers are Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill. By analyzing Kant’s ethical theories it can be said that he is for the death penalty as he comes right out and says he is, however there have been objections to this as part of his ethical theory can be interpreted as hypocritical. John Stuart Mills is more straight forward as seen in his book entitled Utilitarianism and also his speech on capital punishment.

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Kant is an avid believer in the old saying an “eye for an eye” as evidence by his statement that if someone “has committed murder, he must die. In this case, no possible substitute can satisfy justice”. He believes a victim has the right to have their accuser inflicted with the same pain that they had. Therefore, if a person commits murder then that person in return should be subject to the death penalty. He goes on to specify that a person must be judged by a court first, but if they are found guilty of murder and the court does not sentence them to death, then they themselves are contributing to the crime. He also believes that a murder does not deserve a worse punishment than the crime they committed. To Kant a life in prison, which in his mind is a life of embarrassment, is worse than a death sentence. In the end Kant believes in the death penalty, but not in the case of all crimes. The punishment must be fitting to the crime itself. If a person is sentenced to death for something like stealing then the legal system has failed to achieve its rightful intention.

Even though Kant comes right out and says he is in favor of the death penalty, with regard to his ethical theories the line is more blurred. One of the main points of his theory is the idea of a universal law. In the Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals he talks about the categorical imperative. One of the keys to this theory is that one should act so that their maxims can become a universal law. He believes that an immoral action cannot become a universal law. The universal laws in his mind make up what he calls the Kingdom of ends. This is an ideal moral community where everyone is held to the same moral standards, or laws. Universal laws should be followed by everyone, including, and especially those in power. This is where the contradiction can come in. In his defense of the death penalty Kant states that it is the head of states obligation to fulfill this and that as a result of their job they should be exempt from the punishment, however, in his theory of the categorical imperative he believes that no one including the head of state should be allowed to break a universal law.

Another contradiction regarding Kant’s ethical theory is seen in his “respect for persons” theory. Kant believes that each person has intrinsic value and this makes them deserving of moral respect from others. Is killing someone giving them moral respect? The argument against this objection is that if a person kills another, not in self defense, do they in return deserve moral respect? Kant’s answer is no. People who have dignity and reason are the ones who are priceless to society and deserve respect. In order to achieve the ideal Kingdom of Ends there has to be laws, and if people don’t follow those laws they need to be punished. This is the only way in which to ensure that people act in moral ways.

Another theory that can be used to advocate the death penalty is Utilitarianism. Utilitarianism was written by John Stuart Mill in 1878. Though on the surface it might seem to say capital punishment is not morally right, Mill is actually for the death penalty, as long as it is for the betterment of society as a whole. What is considered right and wrong in society is dependent not on the motive of an action, but the incentive. The difference between the two is a motive is the feeling that makes a person act, while an incentive is what the agent wills as an ultimate end of that action. An example of this distinction can be found in the scenario of saving a drowning man. If someone wants to save the man in the hopes of getting a reward that is still considered the right thing to do. The greed would be the person’s motive but the intention would still be to save the man’s life. However, if someone wants to save the man in order to torture him afterwards this would be considered wrong. The motive here would be power and the incentive would be to bring pain to the drowning man. Utilitarianism does not evaluate people, but only the actions. It is then the actions that are judged by their consequences. Any consequences that, in the end, betters society as a whole is acceptable. There are many ways that society would benefit from the death penalty. Keeping prisoners locked up for life is expensive, especially when there is overcrowding in prisons and money must be spent on the construction of new ones. Instead this money could be spent on education and healthcare, which in the end would hopefully decrease murders that occur. There is also the possibility that a person will get released from prison. A person who has already committed a crime is much more likely to repeat it which would cause more harm to society.

John Stuart Mills not only advocates the death penalty through his ethical theory of Utilitarianism, but directly in his speech to the British Parliament in 1868 in defense of it. He believes, as does Kant, that sentencing someone to life in prison is worse than sentencing someone to death.(footer). This is the basis of his argument, that the death penalty is a more humane form of punishment than a person serving a life in a “tomb”.

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Capital punishment has been used throughout all of history but the real question is does the death penalty really work in modern times? The death penalty can be morally acceptable if it is used for the right reasons and not abused by people who just want power. When it is for the betterment of society as a whole it can be a justifiable action as said by two of the most respected philosophers Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mills. Through their ethical theories, though Kant’s has been scrutinized, and in direct quotes they have supported the death penalty. It is a declining form of punishment in the modern world, and continues to be one of the most heated issues in the United States and around the world. The death penalty can be morally justified if it is not abused and used in the right way. When it is used in such a way it can actually be a more humane, though still affective, form of punishment that protects the sanctity of human life and betters society.

“I defend this penalty, [the death penalty] when confined to the atrocious cases, on the very round for which it is commonly attacked- on that of humanity to the criminal; as beyond comparison the least cruel mode in which it is possible adequately to deter from the crime”(65).


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