The execution of Mohammed Kasab rekindled an emotional discussion about capital punishment. But what are the true philosophical and spiritual arguments for and against a death penalty, which cost the lives of at least 680 people (excluding China) worldwide in 2011, according to Amnesty International?
Mostly, there are three arguments for the death penalty. The first, which states that it is a measure of prevention, as it frightens potential future delinquents, has no empirical evidence. Therefore, no one really considers it any longer.
The second argument claims that capital punishment would protect citizens from convicted criminals, who would commit crimes again.
However, this argument does not hold either, for the same could be achieved, if the person is incarcerated for a lifetime. In addition, the means of killing someone is out of proportion to the ends of public protection.
Someone could countervail that lifelong imprisonment would cost the innocent public too much money. I think, it is obvious that we should not, neither in this case nor in any other, weigh life with matter.
The very same argues the philosopher Immanuel Kant. Yet, although Kant believes that humans have dignity, an intrinsic endless worth, he believes such an endless worth can be weighed with another endless worth. Hence, Kant argues that capital punishment could be allowed to be used against a murderer.
He supports his argument by pointing out that justice is rules by the “principle of equality” and retribution demands the death penalty. The philosopher Stephen Nathanson saw two problems with this argument. Firstly, do consequently rapist have to be raped? Secondly, what to do with someone who committed tax-fraud?
What it is rather applicable is proportionality, whereby this only implicates that the worst crimes has to be punished with the worst sentence. This does not necessarily imply execution.
So far, if we believe in the concept of retribution, a death sentence might be justifiable. However, we should ask ourselves, whether capital punishment is not rather an act of vengeance.
An argument against capital punishment is that we should never kill anyone. Unfortunately, this argument cannot hold, since there is at least one cases where we do have to kill: self-protection.
A stronger ethical argument against capital punishment is phrased by the philosopher Albert Camus: “Can one tell us with certainty that every executed person was beyond remedy for society? Can we even swear that no one is innocent?”
Maybe in Kasab’s case we can vow for his guilt, but in general there are too many cases, where innocent people were executed, in order to make it a law. Further, Camus argues that a state, which is never innocent either, cannot rightfully sentence someone death. “Without absolute innocence, there is no highest judge,” he writes.
Even though this argument would encumber every jurisdictive act, I understand Camus, when it comes to the death penalty. Because, as Camus argues, how can you extract someone bad from a society that is by no means unadulterated either?
Religion and Spirituality
Religious arguments go to and fro. While there is no official Hindu perception of capital punishment, the West, which decisively influenced the Indian law, used to refer to the biblical quote „an eye for an eye”. At the same time, already the Decalogue states “you shall not murder” and especially Christianity was supposed to be a religion of compassion and forgiveness.
In my opinion, the arguments against capital punishment outweigh. At the end of the day, we have to ask ourselves, whether the “the most premeditated of murders”, as Camus calls it, has any benefit for this world. What do we gain spiritually from retaliation? Was Gandhi not right, when he said: “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”?