Capital Punishment: Does the End Justify the Means?


If... he has committed murder, he must die. In this case, there is no
substitute that will satisfy the legal requirements of legal justice.There is no
sameness of kind between death and remaining alive even under the most miserable
conditions, and consequently there is no equality between crime and the
retribution unless the criminal is judicially condemned and put to death."
Immanuel Kant.

About 2000 men, women, and teenagers currently wait on America's "Death
Row." Their time grows shorter as federal and state courts increasingly ratify
death penalty laws, allowing executions to proceed at an accelerated rate. It's
unlikely that any of these executions will make the front page, having become
more and more a matter of routine in the last decade. Indeed, recent public
opinion polls show a wide margin of support for the death penalty. But human
rights advocates continue to decry the immorality of state-sanctioned killing in
the U.S., the only western industrialized country that continues to use the
death penalty. Is capital punishment moral?
Capital punishment is often defended on the grounds by the government,
that society has a moral obligation to protect the safety and the welfare of its
citizens. Murderers threaten this safety and welfare. Only by putting murderers
to death can society ensure that convicted killers do not kill again.
Second, those favoring capital punishment contend that society should
support those practices that will bring about the greatest balance of good over
evil, and capital punishment is one such practice. Capital punishment benefits
society because it may deter violent crime. While it is difficult to produce
direct evidence to support this claim since, by definition, those who are
deterred by the death penalty do not commit murders, common sense tells us that
they will die if they perform a certain act, they will be unwilling to perform
that act. If the threat of death stays in the hand of a would-be murder, and we
abolish the death penalty, we will sacrifice the lives of many innocent victims
whose murders could have been deterred. But if, in fact, the death penalty does
not deter, and we continue to impose it, we have only sacrificed the lives of
convicted murderers. Surely it is better for society to take a gamble that the
death penalty deters in order to protect the lives of innocent people than to
take a gamble that it doesn't deter and thereby protect the lives of murderers,
while risking the lives of the innocents.
Finally, defenders of capital punishment argue that justice demands that
those convicted of "heinous" crimes be sentenced to death. Justice is
essentially a matter of ensuring that everyone is treated equally (excluding
criminals). It is unjust when a criminal deliberately and wrongly inflicts
greater losses on others than he or she has to bear. If the losses society
imposes on criminals are less than those the criminals imposed on their innocent
victims, society would be favoring criminals, allowing them to get away with
bearing fewer costs than their victims had to bear." Justice requires that
society impose on criminals losses equal to those they imposed on innocent
persons. By inflicting death on those who deliberately inflict death on others,
the death penalty ensures justice for all." (Berns)
The case against capital punishment is often made on the basis that
society has a moral obligation to protect human life, not take it. The taking of
human life is permissible only if it is a necessary condition to achieving the
greatest balance of good over evil for everyone involved. Given the value we
place on life and our obligation to minimize suffering and pain whenever
possible, if a less severe alternative to the death penalty exists which would
accomplish the same goal, we are duty bound to reject the death penalty in favor
of the less severe alternative.
There is no evidence to support the claim that the death penalty is a
more effective deterrent of violent crime than say, life imprisonment. In fact,
statistical studies that have compared the murder rates of jurisdictions with
and without the death penalty have shown that the rate of murder is not related
to whether the death penalty is in force: There are as many murders committed in
jurisdictions with the death penalty as in those without. Unless it can be
demonstrated that the death penalty, and the death penalty alone, does in fact
deter crimes of murder, we are obligated to refrain from imposing it when other
alternatives exists.
Further, the death penalty is not necessary to achieve the benefit of
protecting the public from murderers who may strike again. Locking murderers
away for life achieves the same goal without requiring us to take yet another
life. Nor