Capital Punishment

Capital punishment, often referred to as the death penalty, is matter of great moral debate. It is one of many topics that full into the Life Issues category of ethics.

In his book Doing Ethics, Lewis Vaughn defines capital punishment as “punishment by execution of someone officially judged to have committed a serious, or capital, crime” (354).

Merriam-Webster defines the death penalty as “death as a punishment given by a court of law for very serious crimes.” reports that as of 2018, the death penalty is legal in 31 U.S. states in addition to the United States federal government and the United States military. Four of these states—Colorado, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Washington—have gubernatorial moratoria. This means the governors of these states have halted the death penalty by executive order, but the moratorium is not permanent law.

As moral philosophers, we are called to look beyond legal statutes and objectively and logically decide whether or not capital punishment is morally acceptable.


The Hypocrisy Argument

This argument breaks down the issue to its core elements and asserts the following premises:

  1. Killing is wrong.
  2. Those who kill deserve punishment.
  3. Punishment is death.
  4. The death penalty is carried out by someone killing the guilty party.

It is hypocritical to kill someone as punishment for killing someone. The punishment itself is equal to the crime in this argument. This is also an argument that creates an infinite cycle of killing. Consider the above with the following premises applied:

  1. The punisher kills the guilty party.
  2. Killing is wrong.
  3. Those who kill deserve punishment.
  4. Punishment is death.
Capital Punnishment Hipocracy Cycle

The Hypocrisy Argument can be used in opposition to the Eye for an Eye argument, positioning that if every guilty party is punished by his own crime, then everyone would be killed eventually. When an eye is taken for an eye, the whole world goes blind.

An opposition to the Hypocrisy Argument places different value on different lives. One can argue that the life of the guilty party is less valuable than that of the person carrying out the punishment. After all, he punisher is only doing his job. The guilty party is a criminal. This begets the question of who decides the value of each life.

The Pro-Life Argument

As we established in the Human Rights lecture, the philosophical and nonpolitical definition of “pro-life” is respecting the sanctity and dignity of all human life from conception to natural death. This position validates the Hypocrisy Argument in that all life is valued equally to the pro-life philosopher.

The Pro-Life Argument asserts that the death penalty is morally unacceptable because of the sanctity and dignity of all human life. No man may decide when another’s life ends, regardless of what the other may have done during that life. Killing in any way is a violation of a strict pro-life philosophy.

From a theological standpoint, one would argue that only God decides when life enters and exits the world.


The Revenge Argument

This position hardly stands up to logical scrutiny as it is self-serving and driven by emotion. It posits that a person deserves to die in exchange for doing something bad. It is a fine example of subjective relativism. Composer John Kander and Lyricist Fred Ebb examine this argument through their song “Cell Block Tango” in the musical Chicago.

The Eye-for-an-Eye Argument

“You shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” (Exodus 21:23-25). This verse from the Torah and the Bible is the source of the commonly-employed phrase for which I have named this argument. The argument takes many forms.

Some argue An Eye for an Eye as a revenge scenario. One who kills should be killed because one who takes a life forfeits his own. When we discussed Human Rights, we agreed that rights have limitations and that a person’s rights end when they infringe upon another person’s rights. The Eye for an Eye argument asserts that one’s right to life ends when he infringes on another’s right to life. This can be countered, however, by acknowledging the infringement argument is not necessarily right-to-right. For example: A person’s right to free speech ends when he infringes on another’s right to security of person. That doesn’t mean the speaker loses his right to security of person.

Some argue An Eye for an Eye from a religious standpoint. The Bible and the Torah clearly state, “eye for eye” (above). The Bible and Torah, however, also clearly state “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:13). One can take a line of scripture out of context and defend virtually anything. When arguing from a religious point of view it is necessary to consider the whole of the particular religion’s teachings.

For Christians, the “eye for eye” statement is in the Old Testament, but in the New Testament Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on [your] right cheek, turn the other one to him as well” (Matthew 5:38-39).

The Deterrent Argument

This argument asserts that the prospect of the death penalty is daunting enough to dissuade people from killing. The punishment frightens people into compliance with rule. This argument can be proven and disproved with historical data.

The Socratic or Social Contract Argument

Ancient philosopher Socrates was sentenced to death for corrupting youth and preaching monotheism in the polytheistic Greek city of Athens. Though the charges were at best political in nature, and hardly concrete, Socrates declined the state’s offer for him to leave the city and live in exile. He opted to stand trial, knowing he would be found guilty (Plato, Apology).

We learn through Plato’s Socratic dialog Crito that Socrates was presented with an opportunity to escape from prison and avoid his death sentence. In the dialogue, Socrates presents many arguments supporting his decision to submit to execution. One of these arguments is an example of a social contract obligation.

Socrates argues that he owes his existence to the state in that he was conceived in a marriage licensed by the government. Furthermore, Socrates was educated by government-funded schools, so he believed his vocation and success were the result of the state. So, if the state was responsible for Socrates’ birth, development, and success—essentially his life—then the state has the right to terminate his life at their discretion (Plato, Crito).

One can apply this argument to modern society. While western societies do not necessarily hold government-licensed marriage as a prerequisite for conception and birth of a child, people do get much directly and indirectly from the government. Many are educated in public schools, have freedoms assured through the law, and are protected by military and police. These are a few examples that lead us in the direction of a modern-day Socratic argument in favor of capital punishment.

Works Cited

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