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.
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?
To answer, then, we need to know what the consequences of capital punishment are.
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.
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.
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.
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.
So it’s through respect for humanity that we should execute murderers on this account.
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.
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.
The governmental execution of a citizen found guilty of a capital crime in a court of law