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Case Study: Capital Punishment

Case Study: Capital Punishment

Author: Glenn Kuehn

Recognize and analyze ethical considerations for capital punishment and related topics

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Hello. My name is Glen. And this is the ethics tutorial on capital punishment. The thing we need to keep in mind for this tutorial is a key term, which is capital punishment. And it is the governmental execution of a citizen found guilty of a capital crime in a court of law.

In this tutorial, we will be looking at a few basic statements about capital punishment and also some general ethical considerations that address the topic of capital punishment. Some will relate directly to ethical perspectives we've considered already, and some will be new. However they are all relevant to current discussions regarding capital punishment.

When talking about capital punishment, it's important to keep in mind the definition, and specifically for our purposes, the definition given in this tutorial-- so go back to the key term-- and also, perhaps you've noticed, but it is very clear that capital punishment is an ethical topic that crosses easily and quickly into the area of political philosophy. And the reason for this is that ultimately what is at issue is whether or not it's permissible for a state, rather than the individual, to engage in this act.

It's an issue of the state, really. Because what's happening in capital punishment is the state is legally killing someone. And the idea behind it is the state is doing this out of its own self-preservation. So you have the ethical issues of self-preservation and self-flourishing and self-interest. So you've got a little bit of egoism in there, you've got a little bit of character ethics, you probably have some deontology as well. There's a mixture. But it's really the state's self-preservation that is at issue.

So the ethical issue of killing in self-defense can certainly apply to an individual person. And when ethics mixes over with political philosophy, it becomes the topic of can the state also kill out of self-defense.

For the ethical considerations regarding capital punishment, we're going to go through several, I believe six total. So there will be a couple regarding consequentialism, both consequential and non-consequential considerations. We're going to look at a couple of issues regarding justice, the application of false positives, where innocent people are found guilty of capital crimes, and then also the topic of the possible sanctity and inviolable value of human life and whether or not capital punishment is, therefore, inappropriate.

So first, consequentialism. From a general sense of consequentialism, capital punishment is usually found to be impermissible. And the reason is that the overall consequences tend to be negative. Utility does go down, from a utilitarian consequentialist perspective. And a primary reason for this is expense.

The time and effort and legal expense that it takes to get someone through all of the appeals that are available from the time of conviction to the time of execution is immense. So overall, it is more expensive to take someone through to the point of execution, than to keep them in prison for the rest of their lives without the chance of parole.

Also related to this is that capital punishment is not effective as a deterrent. So the consequences that are available to see that, well, if you commit these crimes, you're going to get this punishment, they don't work. So from a consequentialist perspective it's not worth it, and capital punishment is impermissible.

Now from a non-consequentialist consideration, the discussions take a different focus. They tend to center around whether or not it is fundamentally wrong simply to execute someone. Also it addresses the topic of whether it is useful. This is a difference in focus, rather than strictly on the consequences and how do those work. But whether or not, instead, is this even an appropriate punishment, period. Is that something that we need to discuss?

Now both consequentialist and non consequentialist perspectives apply identically in the ways that I've just identified to also the idea of torturing for information. So they can be applied there as well. Now let's look at a couple of issues having to do with justice. And for our purposes, the idea of justice really is linked to the basic idea of fairness or a sense of rightness-- justice being the right thing to do or that fairness has been applied.

And so in that sense, justice comes up in terms of capital punishment, in the sense that we can compare justice of capital punishment versus the justice of capital punishment as it's currently practiced. Justice as a method of discussion brings out these two differences. There's the justice of the punishment itself and the justice of its application, especially in its current practice. And when we look at the application, further issues come up like the inequal application of it, which usually is along racial and income lines. So the topic of justice brings those out.

Now, if we were to say that capital punishment is unjust or its application is unjust-- that is, where there are clear instances of innocent people being executed under the capital punishment system, and of course, this does happen-- then it would be rejected, clearly, by both deontological and character ethics. It would be rejected by deontology because it's a clear violation of the foundation of humanity. And it would be rejected by character ethics because it exemplifies, then, the vice of malice. But notice, both of these are rejections that come retrospectively.

First, there needs to be the improper execution of an innocent person. Then it is clear that both deontological and character ethics goals have not been met. And if we look at them in back-looking sense, we can see that what is in place is not an instance of justice, but an instance of a violation of the humanity, of a person and of killing out of malice, rather than out of rightness.

There is also a concern about what are called false positives. And this relates to the previous point in that innocent people are found guilty. This happens. And what this points out in terms of ethical discussions is that courts are not perfect because courts are made up of people. It is inevitable that innocent people will be executed so long as capital punishment is enforced.

And our final concern is that we need to address the question of whether or not human life is somehow inviolable, if it is intrinsically valuable, if it is something that cannot be taken away from another person under any circumstances, whatsoever. It cannot be a punishment, no matter what they've done.

That's a possible idea and certainly a topic that needs to be discussed. And given our previous discussions, that tactic, that perspective is something that is involved typically from a deontological point of view, which holds the foundation of humanity to be one of the pillars in ethical considerations and reason.

So in this tutorial, we have looked at a couple of basic statements regarding capital punishment and also a wide array of ethical considerations relevant to discussions about capital punishment that we need to go through in order to have reasonable, intelligent, discussions regarding this topic that is a part of our culture.

Terms to Know
Capital Punishment

The governmental execution of a citizen found guilty of a capital crime in a court of law