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Capital Punishment: Does The End Justify The Means? Essay, Research Paper

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 is the death penalty necessary to ensure that criminals “get what they

deserve.” The interpretation of justice through the eyes of human rights

activists does not require us to punish murder by death. It only requires that

the gravest crimes receive the severest punishment that our moral principles

would allow us to impose.

While it is clear that the death penalty is by no means necessary to

achieve certain social benefits, it does, without a doubt, impose grave costs on

society. First, the death penalty wastes lives. Many of those sentenced to death

could be rehabilitated to live socially productive lives and possibly become

somewhat good citizens under supervision from a parole officer. Carrying out the

death penalty destroys any good such persons might have done for society if they

had been allowed to live. Furthermore, juries have been known to make mistakes,

inflicting the death penalty on innocent people. Had such innocent parties been

allowed to live, the wrong done to them might have been corrected and their

lives not wasted.

In addition to wasting lives, the death penalty also wastes money.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, it’s much more costly to execute a person than

to imprison them for life. The finality of punishment by death requires that

great procedural precautions be taken throughout all stages of death penalty

cases to ensure that the chance of error is minimized. As a result, executing a

single capital case costs about three times as much as it costs to keep a person

in prison for the rest of their remaining lives.

Finally, the death penalty harms society by cheapening the value of life.

Allowing the state to inflict death on certain of its citizens legitimizes the

taking of life. The death of anyone, even a convicted killer, will not stun us

because we are so numb to the subject of death. Society has a duty to end this

practice which causes such harm, yet produces little in the way of benefits.

Opponents of capital punishment also argue that the death penalty should

be abolished because it is unjust. Justice, they claim, requires that all

persons be treated equally. And the requirement that justice be served is all

the more rigorous when life and death are at stake. Of 19,000 people who

committed willful homicides in the U.S. in 1987, only 293 were sentenced to

death. Who are these few being selected to die? They are nearly always poor and

disproportionately black. It is not the nature of the crime that determines who

goes to death row and who doesn’t. People go to death row simply because they

have no money to appeal their case, or they have a poor defense, or they lack

the funds to bring witnesses to court.

The death penalty is also unjust because it is sometimes inflicted on

innocent people. Since 1900, 350 people have been wrongly convicted of homicide

or capital rape. The death penalty makes it impossible to remedy any such

mistakes. If, on the other hand, the death penalty is not enforced, convicted

persons later found to be innocent can be released and compensated for the time

they wrongly served in prison.

In conclusion, the case for and the case against the death penalty

appeal in different ways, to the value we place on life and the value we place

on bringing about the greatest balance of good over evil. I believe that one

cannot make a total decision unless you are in the shoes of the victims’

survivors. If this type of situation would ever happen to me, as cold and severe

as it may seem to be, I would without hesitation opt for the death penalty,

because I believe in an eye for an eye. Although vengeance would be a strong

issue, I still have a respect for human life and suffering and it seems only

logical in the long run after careful rationalization that the points of

opposition against the death penalty would benefit society and the economy.

Therefore, I must decide against the death penalty and turn the other cheek and

hope that the criminal will receive his fair share of suffering through guilt

and isolation in the end.


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