Controversial Philosophical View on Death Penalty

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In most other situations, the long-unsolved Westfield Murder would have been a death penalty case. A 57-year-old legal secretary, Lena Triano, was found tied up, raped, beaten, and stabbed in her New Jersey home. A DNA sample from her undergarments connected Carlton Franklin to the scene of the crime. However, fortunately enough for Franklin, he was not convicted until almost four decades after the murder and, in an unusual turn of events, was tried in juvenile court.

Franklin was fifteen at the time of the crime, too young to be waived into an adult court by 1976 laws. This case becomes even more challenging because of Franklin’s record. Franklin spent 17 years in prison for other offenses and this time seemed to be rehabilitative: in the 14 years prior to his conviction in the Triano murder, Franklin had a clean slate- a steady job and no criminal record since his release.

Considering all of these circumstances under the laws of 1976, a jury sentenced Franklin to ten years in prison for the brutal rape and murder of Lena Triano (McArdle). Although this case poses unique sentencing challenges and controversies for contemporary society, myself included, some historical perspectives may think otherwise. For the influential Enlightenment philosophers, Immanuel Kant and Cesare Beccaria, it is fair to assume, considering their prior work, that they would have east in determining a sentence for Franklin.

Immanuel Kant’s Perspective

For Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher during the Age of Enlightenment (“Immanuel Kant”), deciding the imposition of punishment upon the guilty is straightforward: if an individual has committed a crime, a punitive response is required. Kant qualifies as to what this punishment must entail, both in theory and in practice. While punishment is the only appropriate response for someone guilty of breaking the law, this approach must be based only within “crime” itself; retribution must be the sole motivation to penalize.

Kant argues boldly against popular purposes of punishment, such as deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation, that seek to reap the greatest amount of good from a sentence. He rejects these “benefits” of punishment in his rigid commitment to retribution. A human must not be made into a case study about deterrence or rehabilitation since it is only the act of penalizing crime for soley the crime itself that punishment derives its purpose. Punishment is meaningless if crime is not at the center.

When viewing the Franklin case through a Kantian lense, it is clear that infliction of punishment would be required by Kant. Evidence of Franklin’s semen was found on the underwear of Triano leading the jury to conclude that Franklin was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, despite his claim to have not known anything about Triano or her murder (Haydon). Thus, a punishment is appropriate. Moreover, Kant would support the retributive motivation for imposing a punishment. That is, the period between the crime and punishment has been too prolonged to have a meaningful deterrent effect, the offender has already been rehabilitated by a prior sentence, and incapacitation is unnecessary since he is no longer a threat. Retribution is the only acceptable reason to penalize Franklin.

But, to what degree unfolds another realm of this philosopher’s theories. Kant was among the first to articulate a “scientific approach” regarding the death penalty (Avaliani). Broadly, Kant adopts lex talionis, the right of retaliation that specifies the quality and quantity of punishment. Based on this principle, a person must receive the equal pain, suffering, or moral evil that he has inflicted on his victim. In other words, the crime must match the punishment in mode and in measure. It can be thought that whatever the perpetrator did to their victim, they were actually inflicting upon themselves. This passage of quality and quantity is the only way to fully restore the balance that was disturbed by the crime (Kneller 172).

While a direct application may not always be possible, when it comes to capital cases, Kant is clear: “Whoever has committed murder must die” (Mandery 5). The death penalty is the only likeness to an offense of murder. No other punishment is sufficient for someone who takes the life of another, except that their own life be taken in response. For Kant, considering any other punishment, even life in prison, would be an insufficient response to Franklin’s crime. In fact, to not murder would mean to be complicit and to even participate as an accomplice of the crime.

While Kant may seem inconsiderably harsh in comparison to the Enlightenment thinkers around him who placed heavy emphasis on humaneness within contexts of crime and punishment, the basis for his theory is rooted in respect for persons. Recognizing the autonomy and dignity of an individual means to hold them accountable for their actions through a proportional punishment. Moreover, to give the option of life- a lifetime of shame- is worse. Imposing the death penalty for murderers is the only way to preserve human dignity. Reflecting upon the Franklin case, I can confidently say that Kant would prescribe the death penalty. Since Franklin is guilty of murdering Triano, there is no other punishment that would be appropriate. In fact, I feel as though he would be disappointed (at the least) with the jury’s sentencing for Franklin given his belief that society would not be cleansed of its blood-guiltiness until the “last murderer lying in the prison” is executed (Mandery 5).

Although Kant has never explicitly mentioned his opinions on sentencing juveniles or a rule of swiftness in imposing punishment, I can predict how he would approach these factors. In “The Right of Punishing”, he describes how convoluting sentencing with other principles apart from quality and quantity would be “unsuited for a sentence of pure and strict justice because extraneous considerations are mixed into them”. (Kneller 172) Thus, even while considering the unusual circumstances in Franklin’s case, I still have no reason to believe that Kant would recommend any other punishment than the death penalty for Carlton Franklin.

Cesare Beccaria’s Perspective

Cesare Beccaria, an Italian philosopher living in the late eighteenth century, lands on the opposite end of the spectrum from Kant. For a utilitarian like Beccaria, the purpose of crime is simple: to serve the greatest public good. If no public benefit is derived from the punishment of an offender, a punishment is meaningless and should not be imposed. Unlike Kant, Beccaria argues that only deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation should be considered when sentencing, not retribution or vengeance. Crime is solely penalized to enhance the safety and well-being of a community by discouraging others from committing crimes and preventing the convicted person from repeating their crime. Therefore, retribution has no appropriate purpose in punishment.

In order for punishment to be an effective deterrent, Beccaria places a strong emphasis on the swiftness of punishment by the Theory of Association of Ideas. This theory essentially describes how associations are strengthened when individuals learn the rules through which the mind connects different ideas. Within the context of criminology, it means that when a punishment promptly follows a crime, the ideas of “crime” and “punishment” will be more readily associated. The more swift the punishment, the stronger the affiliation it will have to lawbreaking, and the greater deterrent effect it will have on society. However, in the Franklin case, swiftness would be impossible.

Considering the murder occurred decades prior, Beccaria would most likely fail to see any chance for a meaningful deterrence; being punished at age 52 for a crime committed at age 15 is not likely to dissuade someone from breaking the law. Therefore, Beccaria would not support punishing Franklin in the name of preventing future crime, since the chance of a successful deterrent effect would be unlikely. While the opportunity for rehabilitation and the guarantee of incapacitation would normally give a strong purpose for punishing an offender, Franklin’s case poses another challenge. Since Franklin has arguably rehabilitated during his prior prison sentence, it would be excessive to send him back. And since he is no longer dangerous, given his clean record since his return, incapacitation would be meaningless.

Following the elimination of all three of Beccaria’s purposes for punishment, I would suggest that he would resolve to not punish Franklin at all. Doing so would be worthless through Beccaria’s utilitarian lense. However, even if Beccaria were to find punishment for Franklin to be appropriate, he would still distinctly diverge from the opinion of Kant. Beccaria takes a strong stance against severe punishments, arguing that they desensitize the public to harsh penalization and, ultimately, human suffering. Considering the most severe punishment- the death penalty- Beccaria makes even more compelling allegations against its use.

Politically, Beccaria first highlights the contradictions that are inherent in the government’s imposition of the death penalty. He contends that since individuals have no right to take their own life, then it is impossible for them to consent to the government taking it from them. Moreover, it is simply illogical that in order to prevent murder, that law should murder. These two blatant contradictions are built upon by his defense that in a democratic society in a time of tranquility and union, it is not necessary to take life. To breech these contracts would be to submit to tyranny. Ethically, the death penalty is not only excessive, but unnecessary.

Punishment should be just enough to deter, that being, any jury should choose the least severe punishment that will still accomplish its purpose. For Beccaria, the less severe, yet more effective punishment to the death penalty, is perpetual slavery. While executions only represent a short-lived spectacle and leave a quickly-fading impression, life imprisonment creates a long-lasting example of crime and punishment. The death penalty would have to become extremely frequent and publicized in order to be a useful deterrent, but even then, is still excessive in comparison to a less severe punishment of life in prison that could accomplish the same goals.

` Considering these arguments posed by Beccaria, it is clear that he would not support imposing a punishment on Franklin. Not only would Beccaria harshly oppose the death penalty in this case, but he would undoubtedly find ethical issues in sentencing Franklin at all. Franklin’s belated conviction and his recently clean record expire the potential for deterrence and make rehabilitative and incapacitating measures unnecessary and unuseful. Furthermore, since Beccaria does not find retribution, the only remaining reason to punish Franklin, appropriate, punishment would be meaningless. Although Beccaria never directly confronts the intricacies this case includes, I believe Beccaria would not sentence Franklin to a punishment despite the gruesomeness of the crime and challenges it offers.

My Perspective

Unlike my strong-headed predecessors, I find no such ease in determining a sentence for Franklin. Still, I most immediately empathized with Beccaria. Spiritually, I find the case for retributivism to be uncompelling and I believe that when punishment is imposed, it should be done so for the sake of rehabilitation when possible, incapacitation when necessary, and deterrence, if and when it exists. I wanted to agree with my assumptions about Beccaria’s position to impose no punishment, and yet, something made me very uneasy: Franklin not only failed to confess to Triano’s rape and murder, but blatantly lied, against all evidence and reason, about having had any associations with her at all. I tried to ease my concerns with his 14 years of spotless behavior.

I even tried to empathize with Franklin, knowing that a long sentence would retrogress all of his perceived rehabilitation. However, something in me said, “He needs to realize the desert of his deeds”. And then I realized the Kant inside of me, the Kant that yearns for retribution. While I still heavily oppose many of Kant’s ideas about the death penalty and retaliation, I discovered just how difficult sentencing can be. We are neither Kant nor Beccaria, but we are both Kant and Beccaria. We seek both justice and mercy.

We both express and suppress our most intrinsic views on crime and punishment. We land on extremes and everywhere in between at the same time. We are both confident about our beliefs but also wholly overwhelmed by just how complicated people and situations can become. Reflecting on the jury’s decision to sentence Franklin to ten years in prison, I wrestle with the Kant in me, who says it is too short for such a heinous act of murder. I also wrestle with the Beccaria in me, who questions the purpose that will come from any punishment at all. In the end, I give into Beccaria. “Dear friends, never take revenge. Leave that to the righteous anger of God. For the Scriptures say, ‘I will take revenge; I will pay them back,’ says the LORD”.

Works Cited

  1. Avaliani, Archil. “Kant-The Death Penalty.” Philiosophos, 2004, philosophos.org/philosophy_article_78.html.
  2. Haydon, Tom. “10-Year Prison Term Imposed in Cold Case Murder of Westfield Woman.” NJ.com, NJ.com, 1 Feb. 2013, www.nj.com/union/index.ssf/2013/02/10_year_sentence_for_cold-case.html.
  3. “Immanuel Kant.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 28 July 2015, www.biography.com/people/immanuel-kant-9360144.
  4. Kneller, Jane and Sidney Axinn, editors. Autonomy and Community. SUNY Press, 1998.
  5. McArdle, Megan. “What is Punishment for?” The Washington Post, 18 Sept. 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/what-is-punishment-for/2018/09/18/95e2f8ce-bb88-11e8-bdc0-90f81cc58c5d_story.html?utm_term.72486531ea3b.


Cite this paper

Controversial Philosophical View on Death Penalty. (2021, Jun 14). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/controversial-philosophical-view-on-death-penalty/



What do philosophers say about the death penalty?
Most philosophers agree that the death penalty is wrong because it is a form of cruel and unusual punishment. They also believe that the death penalty does not deter crime and that it is often used in a discriminatory way.
What does Aristotle say about the death penalty?
Aristotle says that the death penalty is an effective way to deter crime and protect society.
What Plato thinks about death penalty?
Plato thinks that the death penalty is a just and fair punishment for those who have committed serious crimes. He also believes that it is a necessary part of maintaining law and order in society.
Which philosopher was against the death penalty?
Philosophic defenses of the death penalty, like that of Immanuel Kant , opposed reformers and others, who, like Beccaria, argued for abolition of capital punishment.
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