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Case Study: Capital Punishment

Case Study: Capital Punishment

Author: John Lumsden

Recognize and analyze ethical considerations for capital punishment and related topics

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In this tutorial we will be looking at various issues in the ethical evaluation of capital punishment. Our discussion will break down like this:
  1. Consequentialist Approaches
  2. Non-Consequentialist Approaches
  3. Issues in the Implementation of Capital Punishment

1. Consequentialist Approaches

Before we consider some of the different ethical approaches to the issue of capital punishment, we should familiarize ourselves with the definition of this form of punishment.

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

It should be noted that this is typically addressed by political philosophy. That’s because political philosophy asks what it is the state should do, whereas ethics asks what it is the individual should do. Nevertheless, ethics can still address it in the broader sense of the morality of killing as such.

How would the consequentialist evaluate capital punishment?

If the overall outcome of capital punishment is morally desirable, then it’s permissible from the perspective of consequentialism. But if it’s undesirable, then it’s impermissible.

To answer, then, we need to know what the consequences of capital punishment are.

Many people argue that it ends up costing more to execute someone than it does to sentence them to life in prison. They also claim that it’s no more of a deterrent to crime than life in prison.

If these empirical claims about cost and deterrence are true, then capital punishment is impermissible from the perspective of consequentialism. Similar claims are also made about torture (whether for information or punishment), in which case it’s also impermissible for a consequentialist.

2. Non-Consequentialist Approaches

Now we’re asking whether or not execution is right, independent of the overall benefit or harm that this action brings. Some deontologists, for instance, argue that human life is inviolable. In this case, it’s wrong to kill someone no matter what they’ve done.

Some other deontologists, however, argue that there are some circumstances in which taking a human life is permissible.

If someone has killed a human, then you could think that they have not only taken away someone else’s humanity, but in the process degraded their own humanity.

It could be argued that the killer has thus given up their right to be treated equally to all other people. This makes capital punishment permissible. But it still doesn’t mean we must execute someone for being a murderer. A deontologist could say it’s permissible, but then say there isn’t much use in doing it anyway.

Sure, they’ve made themselves less than human by being a murderer, but do we need to take away their life after they’ve already lost their humanity?

Some would argue that we do need to. Their reasoning is that a murderer hasn’t simply lost their humanity, they’ve degraded it. And it’s sometimes better to destroy something important then let it be degraded.

The reverence for the American flag has led to the practice of completely burning it if it’s made unserviceable through damage or wear. The idea is that it’s better to destroy it than to leave it in its degraded state and let its dignity be tainted.

So it’s through respect for humanity that we should execute murderers on this account.

Kant held a position like this. He even uses the following metaphor to make clear how rigorously he thought this idea should be enforced: if everyone on an island was about to abandon it, they should execute any murderers before they left.

3. Issues in the Implementation of Capital Punishment

Even if we assume that capital punishment is permissible, you could still object to the way that it’s actually carried out in the world. For instance, you might point out that many innocent people are executed.

This is often referred to as “false positives.” In other words, it’s where a guilty verdict is falsely given.

So you could say that capital punishment would be fine if they only executed the guilty, but since they don’t, the practice isn’t worth it.

Another problem with the actual implementation of capital punishment is that it’s unfairly sentenced to some people but not others. In particular, the worry is that it’s applied unevenly, especially across racial and income lines.

If these are real problems, then most philosophers working in ethics (whether they are deontologists, virtue ethicists, etc.) would say that’s enough to make the practice impermissible.

Even if you agreed with capital punishment in principle, you could still reject it in practice because of its unfairness or inaccuracy.

We started this tutorial by seeing how capital punishment relates to ethics in general and consequentialist approaches in particular. If it’s accepted that the results aren’t good, then the consequentialist will say that it’s impermissible.

We then saw that non-consequentialist approaches can come up with different evaluations. They generally hold that human life deserves the highest respect, but take different conclusions from this. Finally, we saw that problems in the actual practice of capital punishment provided reasons to reject it.
Terms to Know
Capital Punishment

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