The death penalty is a highly controversial practice in modern times. While many governments have outlawed it, some practice capital punishment on the state level. This sample expository essay explores those governments and how the death penalty plays a part in society.
The United States is more or less the only advanced nation on the planet that still has the death penalty as a component of its judicial system. The first part of this essay will provide a conceptual definition of the death penalty. The second part will then consider arguments against the death penalty, and the third part will consider arguments for the death penalty. Finally, the fourth part will engage in a considered reflection on whether the death penalty meets pragmatic needs within society, especially in relation to the concept and practice of vigilante justice.
Conceptual definition of the death penalty
The death penalty can be defined as the legal practice of executing (or putting to death) a person who has broken the laws of society in certain ways. In principle, any crime could be punished by the death penalty (as it is in the U.S. Constitution and legally available as a remedy). For example, until recently in China, it was legal, albeit seldom actually done, to put people to death for economic crimes such as:
“tax fraud, the smuggling of cultural relics or precious metals, tomb robbing and stealing fossils” (paragraph 4).
Likewise, throughout the history of much of Europe, it was fairly common to consider it justifiable to punish certain forms of theft by death. As the world grew more modern and civilized, however, nations increasingly abolished the death penalty for all but the crime of murder and perhaps also of rape; and many nations, especially the nations of Europe, abolished the death penalty altogether, making life in prison the most severe punishment that could be given to any purpose, regardless of his crime.
U.S. slow to join Europe in abolishing death penalty
While the ethicality of the death penalty is debatable, The United States, is a highly developed modern nation that still has the death penalty as a part of its judicial system—or at least, it leaves the decision up to the individual states of the nation, which means that the death penalty has not been outlawed at the federal level. Many advocacy groups, including Amnesty International, have considered this a travesty and argued that the United States should join the rest of the civilized world in doing away with the death penalty once and for all. Yet, other stakeholders within the United States and beyond insist that the death penalty fulfills an essential function within the fabric of the judicial system and that it would be a grave error to do away with this aspect of criminal justice altogether in the name of high idealistic considerations. The present essay will now turn to a consideration of arguments against and arguments in favor of the death penalty.
Argument against the death penalty
One of the most compelling arguments against the death penalty as mentioned in a previous blog from Ultius, probably consists of the fact that its application is not always accurate: that is, it is possible that death penalty could be applied against an innocent person, and that people may not find out about this mistake until it is too late. The relevant statistical data on this subject, as well as actual cases of people having been given the death sentence only to be pardoned later on the basis of further evidence, strongly suggest that the number of innocent people being executed for capital crimes they did not commit is in all likelihood considerably higher than anyone knows or would even want to imagine (Pilkington). It is such a consideration, for example, that led former Illinois governor to commute the sentences of all the inmates on his state’s death row:
“Condemning the capital punishment system as fundamentally flawed and unfair, Gov. George Ryan commuted all Illinois death sentences today to prison terms of life or less, the largest such emptying of death row in history” (Wilgoren).
The main idea was that if even one mistake could be made in one case, then the entire system itself must surely be condemned as untenable.
Inability to apply uniform punishment
The above discussion points toward the fact that it would be more or less impossible to systematically apply the death penalty in an accurate way that is protected from human error, which implies that it would be problematic to apply the death penalty at all; this could be called the pragmatic case against the death penalty. It is also possible, though, to make a moral case against the death penalty, based on the inherently problematic nature of the practice itself, irrespective of whether it could or could not be applied in an accurate way. The main point here would be that the applying the death penalty against any human being at all, even someone who has been absolutely confirmed to be a murderer, would be a grotesque violation of all moral standards and completely unbecoming of a civilized society.
The writer Camus, for instance, has eloquently argued that the very idea of the death penalty—according to which a man is told that he will for certain die at a certain appointed day and hour, in accordance with the workings of a bureaucratic apparatus—is far more cruel than the relatively random way in which the murderer may have taken another human life in the first place. Camus not only feels the death penalty is unjust, he has suggested that this is tantamount to a form of psychological torture that was likely never experienced by the original victim himself, and that the punishment of the death penalty is thus out of proportion with the nature of the crime committed. Of course, it can also be simply argued that two wrongs do not make a right, and that by murdering someone who himself has committed murder, one merely contributes to the perpetuation of an ongoing cycle of violence. If the baseline moral premise is that no person should kill another person, then it is surely also true that society as a whole would not be exempt from this law, insofar as society itself is nothing other than an amalgamation of actual persons.
Arguments for the death penalty
The main argument in favor of continued use of the death penalty surely consists of the sheer emotional appeal of the practice. In the abstract, it is perhaps easy for anyone to speak of forgiveness and moving on, with respect to the crimes committed by a murderer. However, if a criminal were to directly hurt a given person’s loved ones, then that person would almost certainly want to see blood; in such a situation, it would seem to be emotionally self-evident that there is no possibility of talking about forgiveness until after justice has been dealt (justice in the sense that the person cannot repeat the crime). There would seem to be a direct, immediate justice in people being allowed to punish those who have hurt their loved ones; and the practice of the death penalty could then be understood as simply an extrapolation of this basic principle to the societal level. Although one would perhaps discourage a murder victim’s family member from pursuing vengeance, one would likely also not condemn that person for wanting to pursue vengeance. Something similar could perhaps be said about the practice of the death penalty.
In short, then, the death penalty could be justified on the grounds of emotional catharsis. For example, Rosenbaum has quoted Foreman, the father of a murder victim who now faces the impending release of the murderer from prison, as having stated the following:
“If this man is released anywhere in my vicinity, or if I can find him after the fact, I do intend to kill this man” (paragraph 10).
Considering that these are the words of a father whose young son was brutally murdered, it would be difficult for most to not sympathize with the basic ethos expressed in that statement. The death penalty could then be justified as the official vindication of such basic feelings of loyalty, pain, and vengeance: it is the doctrine that someone who has committed the ultimate crime also deserves the ultimate punishment; it is the doctrine that society no longer has moral obligations to a person who has violated the social contract in such a final way.
Pragmatic reflection on capital punishment
The quote by Foreman (the father of a murder victim) above calls attention to the rather intriguing concept of vigilante justice. That is, in the absence of the death penalty, it is quite plausible that at least some of the family members of murder victims would likely take it upon themselves to mete out final justice to the criminal who hurt their loved ones. it is a moral tragedy regardless of how you look at it. Moreover, it is not clear that such persons should be condemned for society for having taken such a course of action upon themselves; indeed, there would even seem to be something intrinsically morally appropriate about such a form of vigilante justice becoming an acceptable mode of retribution for the crime of murder. However, the implications of this would clearly be frightening, at the pragmatic level; and it is close to impossible to imagine a modern civilized nation seriously considering the integration of vigilante justice into its criminal justice system.
Aside from this, though, it is perhaps also worth considering whether any form of vengeance against a murderer really does produce the kind of catharsis that it is expected to produce. The research evidence in this regard would seem to point toward the negative. As Jason Marsh from CNN has indicated,
A 2008 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that people who were taken advantage of financially by someone else though they would feel better if they exacted revenge. In fact, punishing the offender actually made them feel worse, apparently because meting out a punishment caused them to think about the offender more and dwell on the negative incident. (paragraph 9)
In other words, vengeance would seem to a paradoxical emotion that does not necessarily have the effects that it is expected to have. For most people, vengeance would not seem to produce an emotional catharsis that causes them to feel that the crime has been avenged; rather, it merely makes them feel confused and/or empty inside; and it definitely causes them to dwell on some of the darkest moments of their lives.
Finally, it is worth reiterating that given that the implementation of the death penalty cannot be done with perfect accuracy, it would be pragmatically impossible to hold on to the practice in a way that is congruent with basic principles of justice. Among other things, the very idea that an innocent person could be executed for a crime he did not commit is intolerable within a just and civilized society; and given the nature of human error, such a risk will always necessarily exist. This risk would perhaps be somewhat diminished in the case of vigilante justice. And indeed, if retribution for murder were to be an accepted part of the justice system, then vigilante justice would seem to have several moral advantages to the death penalty, chief among which are personal responsibility for vengeance, lack of abstraction, and acknowledgement that murder as punishment is always a more or less extra-judicial solution and could never be an integrated part of the legal code of moral and civilized society.
Review of the death penalty debate
This essay has defined the concept, considered arguments both against and for the use of the death penalty, and engaged in a pragmatic reflection regarding the death penalty and its effects. A key conclusion that has been reached here is that given the impossibility of guaranteeing the systematic accuracy of the death penalty, it is pragmatically unfeasible for the United States to hold on to this practice in a way that would be in line with principles of justice (even if the assumption were to be made that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the practice). The feelings of the loved ones of murder victims are surely justified; but one way or the other, implementation of the death penalty likely will not give them the closure they want.
Amnesty International. “End Capital Punishment.” 2016. Web 29 Mar. 2016.http://www.amnestyusa.org/our-work/campaigns/abolish-the-death-penalty.
Camus, Albert. Resistance, Rebellion, and Death: Essays. New York: Vintage, 1995. Print.Hogg, Chris. “China Ends Death Penalty for 13 Economic Crimes.” BBC. 25 Feb. 2011. Web.29 Mar. 2016. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-pacific-12580504
Marsh, Jason. “Does the Death Penalty Bring Closure?” CNN. 20 May. 2015. Web. 29 Mar. 2016. http://www.cnn.com/2015/05/20/opinions/marsh-tsarnaev-forgiveness/.
Pilkington, Ed. “US Death Row Study: 4% of Defendants Sentenced to Die Are Innocent.” Guardian. 28 Apr. 2014. Web. 29 Mar. 2016. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/apr/28/death-penalty-study-4-percent-defendants-innocent
Rosenbaum, Thane. “Justice? Vengeance? You Need Both.” New York Times. 27 Jul. 2011. Web. 29 Mar. 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/28/opinion/28rosenbaum.html?_r=0
Wilgoren, Jodi. “Citing Issue of Fairness, Governor Clears Out Death Row in Illinois.” New York Times. 12 Jan. 2003. http://www.nytimes.com/2003/01/12/us/citing-issue-of-fairness-governor-clears-out-death-row-in-illinois.html.
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