Arguments for and against capital punishment

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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?

Arguments pro

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.

Arguments con

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”?

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5 thoughts on “Arguments for and against capital punishment

  1. Dear Krisha,
    some points I’d like to add:
    I. about the money argument: with the exception of countries who don’t have a complex legal system (I think of some hang-them-right-after-verdict justice systems in Africa and also China) the execution of the death penalty is more cost-intensive than the life sentence. This is because there are lots special requirements for it to be unappealable, the killing procedure is quite costly etc. The money argument is a superficial one, but cannot weather a substantial analysis.
    II. Your argument con, that we should never kill anyone, is not really an argument, it lacks substantiation. Why should we never kill anyone? Don’t get me wrong, I also think no one should kill, but this is not an argument, this is an opinion and maybe the conclusion of arguments. Arguments could be:
    – that violence always results in more violence in the end (experimental argument)
    – from an Eastern point of view: Karma
    – from a Christian point of view: that only God has the right to take a life
    – constitutional: Art. 2 Grundgesetz: everyone has the right to live
    – The humanist concept of the dignity of man as a universal principle.
    III. In addition to your question, how you can dare to extract someone from a society that is not unadulterated? Well, society may not be perfect, but I’m pretty sure most people don’t murder or rape or abuse children. If we’d follow your argument, you’d have to set everyone free, and there’d be no punishment at all, because we’re all not pure and innocent angels. This would lead basically to legal anarchy, and if you know Thomas Hobbes, you know what follows the natural state: a new Leviathan. Not a real alternative to our legal system (just my opinion).
    IV. I’d like to encourage you to read John Locke and Rousseau, where you’ll find a lot about the legitimation of souvereign power and also the death penalty.

    I hope I was not too rude here, just wanted to add some points.
    Your former classmate
    Christiane

    • Dear Chrisi,
      Thank you profusely for sharing your opinion. You are not being rude at all. On the contrary, what is a blog without the vivacious exchange of arguments – nothing but dead, digital anti-matter? You are much in the spirit of J.S. Mill as well as adding to the putative democratic momentum of the internet.
      First and foremost, you have to know that most of my articles are restricted to 620 words for publishing reasons. Therefore, I cannot dissertate profoundly, even though I want to. Certain topics, such as this ticklish one, can and deserve certainly to be philosophized about in extendo. In addition, I believe that you read the article I bit hurriedly.
      Concerning you first point: I very much agree with you, and I am aware of the fact. However, I found it more important to point out that the money argument should not be an argument at all. Hence I wrote: “I think, it is obvious that we should not weigh life with matter – neither in this case nor in any other.”
      Concerning the second point: this is not an erroneous observation of yours either, rather than an argument it is the conclusion of the argument. For the sack of brevity, I omitted the premises, whatsoever they may be. (E.g: A [you should treat every human as an end, not a means, for he as an intrinsic dignity]; B [Killing someone means treating him as a means]; therefore C [you shall not kill]) (By the way, it is not my argument).
      Concerning the third point: I agree with you here as well. Yet, I never penned down what you claim. I wrote: “Even though this argument would encumber every jurisdictive act, I understand Camus, when it comes to the death penalty.” As you can see, I am aware of the weakness of this argument. (Again, not my argument).
      Further, I do not quite clearly follow your train of thought (or understand how it is related to your argument), when you conclude from anarchy to Hobbes Leviathan to our judicial system.
      Concerning the fourth point: very true, there are many more valuable sources, if one writes a larger piece. For this piece, however, I believe that Lock and Rousseau arguments should not be exchanged for any of the above mentioned.
      Faithfully yours,
      Krisha

    • Dear Christiane,

      I would appreciate if you can send me your E-mail address, so that I can discuss the problems/ subjects that you were writing to krisha. I like your general and pervading view about the death penalty, but seem to have overlooked the imperatives that have led to the creation and imposition as well as incorporation of death penalty into the developed Anglo-saxon legal system. I agree with you that the killing of a person for a murder or a rape is not perceivably the ultimate, harshest choice of punishment- particularly, when we think that we were, at least, in parts of the world , till very recently cannibals; a life modus which was selbst-verstaendlich! Is death penalty , after prolonged arguments and quotations form the voluminous legal compilations and quotations, not an indulgence of civilization? A so called civilized way or indirect way of cannibalism? i say indirect way of cannibalism as the flesh of the deceased or killed is not consumed here by the deliverer of justice!

      There are , according to me a number of issues which are directly related to religion and civilization , which are incompatible to human life and existence and exigencies of 21st century living. law is static and the law should be changed or altered from time to time and commissions should be created to do this, as civilization is in a state of metamorphosis, which it always was! I suppose the evolving technologies, changing life styles and inter-human relation ships are giving different and divergent definitions to human lives and relationships- which, i consider should be incorporated into the legal definitions from time to time. The archaic status of the Roman Catholicism and it’s catharsis in 21st century is a striking example , an example of the growing irrelevance and incompatibility in today’s circumstances. Not only law, but also religion and our perceptions of law , religion ,God and the inter-human relationships have to change continuously , so that this dilemma and conflicts arising out of archaic laws and values do not afflict us in today;s changed circumstances.

      The philosophers, legal experts and sociologists are not considering these points and evolve a system which is as dynamic as the current world is! The faster communication is linking people and giving scope to communicate; There is scope to improve or even destroy the human relationships– crime is an inevitable part of human relationships arising out of sexual ambitions, possessiveness, material ambitions, possessiveness and religious ambitions and possessiveness.. A solution could perhaps lie in the eastern philosophy of killing the desire and longing for possessions , unlike the compassion and love for the neighbor that is the foundation of most of the western religions and philosophies. Kant or Camus, the essence of the human problem is in desire and the desire for possession . Indubitably the driving forces of crime; Marx, perhaps found this superficially, but as long humans are different the problems will exhist and crime will pervade. How a dynamic society defines what crime is and deals with it is purely an intellectual and social definition.

      We will talk about the reasonableness of crime , the intensity and the human frailty etc.., i.e when you like to discuss these things! But, I must admire your information, inquisitiveness and propensity for philosophy and concern for the problems of human existence. Pl accept my compliments for delving into such matters!

      Cheers

      RR

  2. Hello again,
    I didn’t know about the restriction of lenght of your posts, my apologies.
    To the arguments again.
    I. I think we have the same outcome about the money argument, we just have different ways to get there. You’re objecting to the money argument because of the incomparableness of a human life and monetary considerations, so for higher ethical reasions. I’m on your side on this, however my approach was to disprove the correctness of the argument itself. I read your post and just had to point that out, because it is a very common misconception that the death penalty is a cheap solution, and I was not sure whether you knew that. So I was luckily mistaken :-)
    II. Nothing to add here.
    III. The part “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?” sounds to me like “the death penalty must not be imposed because society is not pure.” I thought you meant that you see the weakness of the argument concerning other verdicts than the death penalty, but agree with it when it comes to it (the death penalty). My mention of the Leviathan was a bit rushed, I’m sorry. Let me explain:
    The problem I see about your agreement (if you don’t agree, this doesn’t apply of course) to Camus when it comes to the death penalty is the following: If we follow Camus’ argument in this matter (the DP), it would be illogical not to when it comes to other delicts. I think if one lets this be an argument at all, it has to be applied to all delinquencies. Saying “the death penalty must be practically abolished because the society is not ethically healthy (or however it is described)” but on the other hand, that this cannot be valid to other crimes because there wouldn’t be any valid jurisdictive acts left, is inconsequent. Ether, society is unadulterated or not. So, if we followed Camus into a mental experiment, and let the jurisdictive acts of any kind go, what would be the result? Imagine a modern society without any state-run, democratically legitimated jurisdiction. For a while, the so-called natural rights like the right to live would be followed, but in case of conflicts, anarchy would develop. I meant that this would come very close to the natural state described by Hobbes and many other legal philosophers. From history and also those theoretical philosophers we know what results: some individuals or small groups (I think here also about the mafia in some southern party of Italy that don’t have any effective state-run control anymore, or also Islamists in closed Pakistani valleys) become violent and take control. This resembles Hobbes’ Leviathan, and this was my conclusion: if Camus’ argument would be followed consequently, in my mental experiment, we would get there. Again, my explanation was marginal, but I hope the train of thought is a bit more traceable this time.You’re right, this was not a real argument, it was more of an intellectual game. Maybe my legal philosophy professor, who is such a fan of Hobbes that he has the book cover of Leviathan on his website, has implanted this into all of his student’s brains ^^

    Christiane

    • Hi,
      agree with you that we cannot follow Camus all the way. Nevertheless, I still understand where he is coming from and I like the idea, although we cannot take it as such. Such is philosophy and indeed many arguments like this are existing. Obviously Camus argues much smoother here than my mediocre rephrasing of his argument. A state itself is probably much more gory than any murderer…
      Anyhow, now I have a ticket on your train of thought. I, personally, believe that philosophies such as those of Rousseau, Lock and Hobbes have an innert weakness by stipulating a state of nature, which they have no empirical evidence of. Their philosophy, no matter how great, is a castle build on matches, for if their premises break, so do most of their corrolaries. I do not entirely agree with Kropotkin, however, I think anarchy is not per se bad, rather it is a demographic problem. The same way I stay a democrat who has at his foundation the principles of anarchy, because if I do not like what the states asks for – like in our Camus case – I follow my anarchcs heart, although I wish the domocratic state to prevail. Maybe my castle is built on even thinner matches than those of Hobbes.
      All the best
      Krisha

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