The use of capital punishment has been a permanent fixture in society sincethe earliest civilizations and continues to be used as a form of punishment incountries today. It has been used for various crimes ranging from the desertionof soldiers during wartime to the more heinous crimes of serial killers. However, the mere fact that this brutal form of punishment and revenge has beenthe policy of many nations in the past does not subsequently warrant itsimplementation in today’s society. The death penalty is morally and sociallyunethical, should be construed as cruel and unusual punishment since it is bothdiscriminatory and arbitrary, has no proof of acting as a deterrent, and risksthe atrocious and unacceptable injustice of executing innocent people.
As longas capital punishment exists in our society it will continue to spark theinjustice which it has failed to curb. Capital punishment is immoral and unethical. It does not matter whodoes the killing because when a life is taken by another it is always wrong. Bykilling a human being the state lessens the value of life and actuallycontributes to the growing sentiment in today’s society that certain individualsare worth more than others. When the value of life is lessened under certaincircumstances such as the life of a murderer, what is stopping others fromcreating their own circumstances for the value of one’s life such as race, class,religion, and economics.
Immanual Kant, a great philosopher of ethics, came upwith the Categorical Imperative, which is a universal command or rule thatstates that society and individuals “must act in such a way that you can willthat your actions become a universal law for all to follow” (Palmer 265). Theremust be some set of moral and ethical standards that even the government can notsupersede, otherwise how can the state expect its citizens not to follow its ownexample. Those who support the death penalty believe, or claim to believe, thatcapital punishment is morally and ethically acceptable. The bulk of theirevidence comes from the Old Testament which actually recommends the use ofcapital punishment for a number of crimes. Others also quote the SixthCommandment which, in the original Hebrew reads, “Thou Shall Not Commit Murder.
“However, these literal interpretations of selected passages from the Bible whichare often quoted out of context corrupt the compassionate attitude of Judaismand Christianity, which clearly focuses on redemption and forgiveness, and urgeshumane and effective ways of dealing with crime and violence. Those who use theBible to support the death penalty are by themselves since almost all religiousgroups in the United States regard executions as immoral. They include,American Baptist Churches USA, American Jewish Congress, California CatholicCouncil, Christian reformed Church, Episcopal Church, Lutheran Church in America,Mennonite General Conference, National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA,Northern Ecumenical Council, Presbyterian Church (USA), Reformed Church ofAmerica, Southern California Ecumenical Council, Unitarian/UniversalistAssociation, United Church of Christ, and the United Methodist Church (DeathPenalty Focus). Those that argue that the death penalty is ethical state that formergreat leaders and thinkers such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, BenjaminFranklin, Kant, Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau, Montesquieu, and Mill all supported it(Koch 324).
However, Washington and Jefferson, two former presidents andadmired men, both supported slavery as well. Surely, the advice of someone whoclearly demonstrated a total disregard for the value of human life cannot beconsidered in such an argument as capital punishment. In regard to thephilosophers, Immanuel Kant, a great ethical philosopher stated that the motivesbehind actions determine whether something is moral or immoral (Palmer 271). The motives behind the death penalty, which revolve around revenge and the”frustration and rage of people who see that the government is not coping withviolent crime,” are not of good will, thereby making capital punishment immoralaccording to ethical philosophy (Bruck 329).
The question of whether executions are a “cruel” form of punishment mayno longer be an argument against capital punishment now that it can be done withlethal injections, but it is still very “unusual” in that it only applies to aselect number of individuals making the death penalty completely discriminatoryand arbitrary. After years of watching the ineffectiveness of determining whoshould be put to death, the Supreme Court in the1972 Furman v. Georgia decision”invalidated all existing death sentence statues as violative of the EighthAmendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment and thus depopulated state deathrows of 629 occupants” (Berger 352). This decision was reached not because itwas believed that the death penalty was intrinsically cruel and unusual butbecause, as Justice Stewart put it, the “death penalty as actually applied wasunconstitutionally arbitrary” (Berger 353).
Local politics, money, race, andwhere the crime is committed can often play a more decisive role in sentencingsomeone to death than the actual facts of the crime. According to AmnestyInternational, the “death penalty is a lethal lottery: just one out of every onehundred people arrested for murder is actually executed” (Death Penalty Focus). In regards to racial discrimination in sentencing, it has been found that”racial bias focuses primarily on the race of the victim, not the defendant”(Berger 355). Only 31 out of the more than 15, 000 recorded executions in thiscountry have been of white defendants convicted of killing black victims, whileblack defendants convicted of raping white women were commonly sentenced todeath (Death Penalty Focus). Stephen Nathanson, a professor of philosophy atNorthwestern University addresses the problems of discrimination and randomnessbest by saying, “as long as racial, class, religious, and economic bias continueto be important determinants of who is executed, the death penalty will continueto create and perpetuate injustice” (Nathanson 346).
Proponents of capital punishment believe that the argument that thedeath penalty is discriminatory and arbitrary does not give support to theabolition of capital punishment, but rather to the extension of it. Edward Koch,the former mayor of New York from 1978 to 1989 and death penalty supporter,states that the discriminatory manner of the death penalty “no longer seems tobe the problem it once was,” yet in 1987, the Supreme Court case of McCleskey v. Kemp established that in Georgia someone who kills a white person is four timesmore likely to be sentenced to death than someone who kills a black person(Death Penalty Focus). In response to this, supporters of the death penaltybelieve that the death penalty should be extended to all murders. This is whatwas attempted after the Furman decision. A number of states sought to resolvethe discriminatory and arbitrary nature of the death penalty by simplysentencing to death everyone convicted of first-degree murder, but the SupremeCourt rejected this proposal saying that “mandatory death sentence laws did notreally resolve the problem but instead ‘simply papered it over’ since juriesresponded by refusing to convict certain arbitrarily chosen defendants of first-degree murder” (Berger 353).
An argument against the death penalty which to sensible and decentpersons should seem undeniable is the fact that innocent people have beenmurdered by the state in the past and in all probability more will follow. Thewrongful execution of an innocent person is such an awful injustice that in anycivilized society could never be justified, yet this is the message that theUnited States is willing to pronounce. Simply put by Professor Nathanson, “tomaintain the death penalty is to be willing to risk innocent lives. ” In 1987, astudy conducted by Hugo Bedau and Michael Radelet appeared in the Standford LawReview concerning the execution of innocent people. The study concluded that inthe period between 1900 to 1980, about “350 people were wrongfully convicted ofcapital offenses, 139 of the 350 were sentenced to death, and 23 were actuallyexecuted” (Nathanson 344).
Over this eighty year period this figure averagesout to the death of an innocent person about every 3. 4 years. This fact isextremely disturbing and rightfully so, yet death penalty advocates blatantlydisregard the information or attempt to justify it in some way. Those who support capital punishment claim that such cases of innocentpeople being executed have never occurred.
For instance, Edward Koch quotesHugo Bedau in support of his claim that such cases are not true, saying “it isfalse sentimentality to argue that the death penalty should be abolished becauseof the abstract possibility that an innocent person might be executed. ” Koch,in an attempt to gain political support, acted quite unethically by quotingBedau out of context and implying that such cases have not occurred. Accordingto David Bruck, a prominent lawyer for South Carolina Office of AppellateDefense, “all Bedau was saying was that doubts concerning executed prisoners’guilt are almost never resolved. ” Koch also failed to relate in his essay thatBedau, who had not yet released the 1987 study, had already comprised a “list ofmurder convictions since 1900 in which the state eventually admitted error” inabout 400 hundred cases. Another response to the fact that innocent people have been executed isthat the small number of innocents executed outweighs the number of lives thatwill be saved since the possibility of being executed will deter others fromcommitting a murder, and also lives will be saved since that murderer cannotkill again.
Scientific studies have failed to prove that executions deter otherpeople from committing crime. According to Dr. Ernest van den Haag, a well-known scholar in favor of the death penalty, “one cannot claim that it has beenproved statistically that the death penalty does deter more than alternativepenalties” (Haag 338). However, Haag supports his stand on the death penalty bystating that, “when they have the choice between life and death, 99 percent ofall prisoners under sentence of death prefer life in prison. ” This statisticproves nothing but the fact that man has an innate desire for survival.
Thoseasked the question have already committed the crime and thus does not reflectthe sentiment of those considering a crime. Also, people often kill when undergreat “emotional stress or under the influence of drugs or alcohol – times whenthey are not thinking of the consequences” (Death Penalty Focus). Careercriminals and those that plan a crime do not expect to get caught, thus makingthe consequences an invalid issue. In response to the fact that a executed murderer will never kill again,society must ask itself whether it is morally and ethically acceptable to riskkilling an innocent person when an alternative such as life imprisonment withoutpossibility of parole exists.
In California since 1978, more than 1,000 peoplehave received this alternate sentence which includes no appeals process. Thepublic can be assured that those who commit heinous murders and receive thissentence will never be free again. According to Death Penalty Focus, “a recentField Poll showed support for the death penalty plummeted when alternativesentencing is available. Just 29 percent favored death over life without paroleplus requiring the defendant to work in prison and give part of his earnings asrestitution to the families of his victims. “The use of capital punishment has endured throughout the ages, yet itsuse today in a “civilized” society should no longer be acceptable to morally andethically conscience individuals. The vast majority of countries in WesternEurope and North and South America – more than 80 nations worldwide – haveabandoned capital punishment, yet the United States remains an avid supporter incompany with countries such as Iran, Iraq, and China as one of the major usersof capital punishment (Death Penalty Focus).
The use of the death penalty inits discriminatory and arbitrary methods “only magnifies inequalities of racethat persist in the criminal justice system and in American society generally(Berger 355). Even with the death of a guilty man, innocence is lost, for evenEdward Koch admits that “the death of anyone – even a convicted killer -diminishes us all. ” But it is a sad commentary on the state of this countrywhen we are willing to accept the avoidable death of an innocent man and allowthe “death penalty to continue to create and perpetuate injustice. “Works CitedBerger, Vivian, “Rolling the Dice to Decide Who Dies,” New York State BarJournal, October 1988.
Bruck, David, “The Death Penalty,” The New Republic, May 20, 1985. Death Penalty Focus (DPF), “Myths and Facts about California’s Death Penalty,”pamphletKoch, Edward, “Death and Justice: How Capital Punishment Affirms Life,” The NewRepublic, April 15, 1985. Nathanson, Stephen, “What If the Death Penalty Did Save Lives?” An Eye for anEye? The Morality of Punishing by Death, 1987. Palmer, Donald, Does the Center Hold? An Introduction to Western Philosophy,Mayfield Publishing Company, London, 1996. Van den Haag, Ernest, The Death Penalty Pro and Con: A Debate, 1983. Category: Law