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Ethics and the Death Penalty

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The next few blogs will be about Ethics and Society, where the last few have been about Ethics and Individual Rights. Today’s topic is the Death Penalty, and will be discussed from both sides with a deontological perspective. Deontology basically sets forth rules that should always be followed, the main, basic principle being the Golden Rule. As always, the first few sections will be notes from my textbook, with my additions in green, then under “My Thoughts” will be… you guessed it! My thoughts. The text I am using is:

Mosser, K. (2010). Ethics and Social Responsibility. (E. Evans, Ed.) Retrieved from https://content.ashford.edu/books/

The argument against abolishing the death penalty:

All humans have unalienable rights. Thomas Jefferson said they include “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” To murder someone is to deprive them of life, and society must punish the person responsible in a way to show its commitment to that right. If the punishment for murder is not harsh enough, it may seem that the government does not regard murder as a crime serious enough for the harshest penalty. The death penalty is the harshest punishment, and thus fits murder as the harshest crime. The murderer is punished, and the commitment to the right to life is upheld. The death penalty is actually a symbol for society’s respect for life, and of the humanity of both victim and murderer.

How? Because all members of society abide by the rules of that society. A murderer violates those rules, and thus shows he does not belong in that society. Thus, he has forfeited the right to live among others. At one point, the murderer had the same right to life, but by taking another’s, he has given up his right. By acting on the notion that the victim did not deserve to live, society must insist that the murderer forfeits his own right.

The death penalty sends a harsher message to those who may consider murder. It will prevent at least some potential murderers from acting on their desires. It is a deterrent.

-affirms the humanity of the victim and the murderer

-sends a message to the rest of society that by taking one life, you forfeit your own

-what punishment do you give someone who kill another while already in prison?

(I’d like to add that the death penalty, as a whole, is cheaper on tax-payers than keeping convicted killers in prison for life. There would be less over-crowding, less money spent on food, clothing, etc. It may seem harsh to bring the argument down to dollar figures, but let’s face it, once you are convicted of killing another human being, you are no longer afforded the privilege of being treated with dignity.)

The argument for abolishing the death penalty:

The death penalty reflects racial, class, and ethnic bias. It is too expensive. Innocent people have surely been executed. It isn’t effective as a deterrent. It is barbaric, and reflects poorly on the United States. Many religions and religious leaders reject it. But it all comes down to one question: is it morally acceptable to execute a human being?

If Thomas Jefferson is right, the right to life cannot be taken away. A murderer already has, but do two wrongs make a right?

If the state can be justified in taking the murderer’s life, then it is not unalienable. If the right to life is unalienable, then society is violating the murderer’s right. If killing a person is wrong, and the death penalty is intentionally killing a person, isn’t it also wrong? Or is the murderer no longer a human being because he has taken a life? The United States recognizes a murderer cannot be tortured because it violates his constitutional rights. Therefore, he is still a human being.

Instead of the death penalty, the penalty should be life without parole. It removes the murderer from society, protecting its members from threat. Life in prison, without parole, is as effective as the death penalty as a deterrent. It also avoids mistakenly executing an innocent person.

All human life deserves respect and dignity, no matter how evil or horrendous that person’s acts are. Society shows real respect for life by abolishing the death penalty. The death penalty is not required as a tool in the punishment box.

The Theories

Deontologists look at ethics in terms of rules, as opposed to consequences like utilitarians. A utilitarian may argue that the ends justify the means. A deontologist says the means are what matters.

The most famous deontologist was Immanuel Kant. He was a strong advocate of the death penalty. However, using the same logic and ethical view, many deontologists are against the death penalty.

Kant was a believer of retributivism- punishment should fit the crime, eye for an eye, life for a life, etc. By violating another’s right to live, the murderer forfeits his right to live. The act of murder is so fundamentally immoral that the murderer gives up his right to live. Execution, then, is not more murder but the consequence of the crime.

The Golden Rule says I shouldn’t kill someone if I don’t want someone to kill me, so the inverse should also be true. (A utilitarian would say that since the death penalty deters other murderers, it is the greatest good for the greatest number, and thus moral.) Since Kant is a deontologist, the deterrent part of the argument would have no bearing. He is only interested in the rules and means, not the eventual outcomes.

Other deontologists say Kant is correct in saying all humans have dignity that must be respected, but reject retributivism and say that the murderer also has dignity. To treat a person like an object is to treat another human as a means, rather than a person. Capital punishment is a means to an end (justice?), and we do not respect human dignity by killing other humans.

The main difference seems to be determining whether the murderer is still a human being. Kant believes the murderer has forfeited that part of his dignity/humanity by taking another life. The opposition says that murderers are still people.

My Thoughts

So in the last few paragraphs of the text, it mentions my earlier addition about cost-effectiveness. According to the text, it is actually more expensive to execute a person than to imprison them for forty years. I find this hard to believe because of guard salaries, food, over-crowding of the prison system, etc., but if it is true, it takes one of my main arguments away. At this website, the arguments seem to say that the reason the death penalty is so much more expensive is because the court costs are at least doubled, and the method of execution is expensive. If we were to execute by hanging or firing squad, it would be less expensive, but would likely be considered more barbaric.

I’ll admit that when I started reading this section, I was pro-death penalty. Most of that reasoning was because of the “eye for an eye” argument and the fact that (I thought) it is cheaper to take someone out of society permanently via execution than to house them somewhere for the rest of their lives.

It also goes on to compare the United States with other countries. England, France, Germany, and Japan have all abolished the death penalty, and are usually countries we like to associate ourselves with in terms of success. On the other end are states that advocate the death penalty- Iran, Congo, North Korea, and Yemen. Obviously there are many differences among all the countries listed, but it is interesting to point out.

Overall, I find myself newly conflicted. I’d thought about the fact that two wrongs don’t make a right, that we shouldn’t kill because a person has killed, etc. However, I also consider the fact that our prison system is extremely over-crowded. I suppose you could say I am a proponent of retributivism. I think we should find a way to make it less expensive than life imprisonment (and not by raising the cost of imprisonment). I really do find it extremely hard to believe that with all the costs associated, including new prison facilities and guard salaries when prison populations go up, that execution is more expensive.

Also, people who are sentenced to life in prison, without parole, are likely doing nothing for society, whereas society has to take care of them, provide food and shelter, and medical care, for the rest of their lives. They will never be a member of society again. Why delay the inevitable? I suppose I do believe that convicted murderers should no longer be treated with the same dignity of “normal” human beings.

Hello, my name is Jennifer, and I agree with the death penalty.


06/03/2011 - Posted by | College Papers, Learning, Thinking | , , ,


  1. The very last line made me smile. I like how you were basically talking to yourself trying to reach a decision on whether or not you agree :). I’m also pro-death penalty. I can think of one case getting National attention right now where I hope the defendant recieves that sentence, and I would not feel one bit of sympathy or remorse. I, too, find it hard to believe that it’s cheaper to house criminals for decades than to execute them – but what do I know? Maybe if we changed our way of thinking from Innocent until proven Guilty to Guilty until proven Innocent, court proceedings would move a long a little quicker and not be so costly. That might seem a little much, but really how many people that make it all the way to trial for murder are actually innocent?

    Comment by beckyspringer | 06/13/2011 | Reply

    • I don’t think it works ethically if you flip Innocent until proven Guilty. As for trying to figure out where I stand, that’s one major reason I used to journal, and find myself doing it again now. I’ve always been able to slow down and think about things better when writing, or typing, it out in fully formed sentences. The things I’ve learned about myself just from picking up a pen amaze me. I’m not sure what case you are referring to, but as for those who don’t believe in the death penalty, I’d be curious to find out what they think about bin Laden. I mean, essentially, instead of capturing him, putting him in prison and trying him, we just skipped all the legal mumbo-jumbo and executed him. Death penalty with Obama essentially acting as judge, jury, and his Seal Team as executioner. Not that I think that was a bad idea, quite the opposite. Think of the money saved just on court costs since you know the ACLU or some other nutjob lawyer’s firm would try to make a name of themselves trying to get the guy acquitted. Sometimes evil just has to be removed from the world, and in my eyes, and many others, murderers are evil, whether they be mass murderers, serial murderers, or just that guy that killed that girl.

      Comment by Jennawynn | 06/13/2011 | Reply

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