Capital punishment is the practice of ending someone’s life as a method of punishment for serious crimes after a legal trial. While many countries urge an ethic rehabilitation or life imprisonment of hardcore criminals, many jurisdictions in the US support capital punishment for serious crimes such as rape, robbery with violence and murder. Even a Federal jury in Massachusetts recently re-introduced the death penalty to people found guilty of mass murder in the Boston Marathon bombing. Although the UK abandoned the death penalty in 1964, nearly half of the British citizens feel that it should be reintroduced to deal with serious crimes. Capital punishment poses a moral and ethical dilemma among nations that force people to commit uncritically to the preservation of life, irrespective of the intellectual and practical implications. This paper will critically analyze and evaluate ethical and moral dilemmas by applying arguments from philosophers Aristotle and John Stuart Mill.
The execution of political opponents and criminals has been used by almost all nations to discipline and suppress political opponents. Various primitive tribal practices and historical records show that their justice systems were in support of capital punishment. The ancient forms of capital punishment were particularly violent and repulsing. Some methods of historical punishment include being buried arrive, crucifixion, burning decapitation, drowning and stoning to death among others.
In developed countries like the US, capital punishment today is carried out in the form of electrocution, hanging and injection with poisonous chemicals. However, electrocution and toxic chemicals injection are the most common today. It is true that in the US, the modern methods of capital punishment are more suitable than the old ones. The current techniques, however, are not still humane, for instance, electrocution is inhuman since it exposes one to pain until he/she becomes unconscious and brain death occurs. In some occasions, there have been problems in the electrocuting chair thus prolonging the electrocution period.
Having looked at the inhumane nature of capital punishment both in ancient times, now it is essential to look at the chief arguments that support it. The US judicial system supports capital punishment for two reasons; retribution and deterrence (Nagin, Daniel, & Pepper, p99). According to many people, it is okay to execute those found guilty of murder and robbery with violence. Besides, capital punishment should be supported since it prevents future serious crimes from taking place. Capital punishment makes the society feel safe and is therefore accepted as the best form of deterrence. It makes the family of the victim live in peace since the criminal cannot come back to harm them.
Those against capital punishment argue that the government should hold criminals in prisons for life rather than ending their lives. Human beings are virtuous and prone to committing crimes (Kant, Immanuel 158).
They argue that life imprisonment would keep the criminals for as long as they are alive with death acting as the only form of release. By keeping the criminals in prisons for life, the same objective would be met; deterrence, retribution, and closure. Besides, the cost of capital sentence may even be higher than that of keeping the prisoner alive since it takes many years and the effort of many lawyers until the criminal is convicted to death. The judicial process may be costly at the end of the day. Besides, the appeal systems are expensive.
In the end, the most significant argument against death sentencing is that it is immoral. No matter how citizens and the judiciary may look at it, capital punishment is ending someone’s life just like murder, and murder is always wrong. Five types of ethical theories may help to look at the ethical and moral dilemma surrounding the capital sentence. These theories included utilitarianism, relativism, virtue ethics, and Kantianism.
Utilitarianism theory coined by John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham would view capital punishment as moral. The theory looks at what most members of the society are happy with. Utilitarianism is primarily concerned with the effects of an act and what increase overall utility and makes the society happy (Smart & Bernard Williams, 15). Many philosophers view utilitarianism theory as flawed, one it has a blind concern for the consequences and disregards the views of the minority. As such, although the result of capital punishment is ending the life of the offender, utilitarianism view this as moral as the community would be happy upon the elimination of a criminal. By ending the life of a prisoner, the victim’s family and the rest of the society would feel safe as the criminal cannot come back to harm them (Smart & Bernard Williams, 100). The utilitarian view still views life imprisonment as an alternative since the prisoner is denied freedom and continues to suffer.
Virtue ethics founded by Aristotle is the only non-flawed theory of ethics. One way that a philosopher can look at the death sentencing through Aristotle’s point of view is to apply the end of the process matter. The main aim of a capital sentence is to take the life of a person as a way of punishing him/her. However, there can be another understanding of the ethical issues surrounding capital punishment and that finally, capital punishment prevents crime in the first place. Thus, according to teleology or end of a process, death sentencing can be reflected to have two diverse ends. Aristotle’s’ theory uses the inspiration, the act itself, and the effect of choosing what is moral and what is not moral. In my opinion, virtue ethics would at last find executing of criminals to be immoral.
The motivations of capital sentencing are punishment, deterrence, and retribution. Punishment and deterrence are positive ones while retribution is a negative one.
The act of capital punishment can be hanging, lethal injection or electrocution. The act of killing whether by mob justice or government law enforcers is always wrong (Kant, 168). The final results of capital punishment which are death affect both the person performing the execution and the prisoner who is losing his/her life. This justifies capital punishment to be morally wrong as it harms people.
According to the theory from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, it is wrong for nations to permit the death penalty (Aristotle, 10). It is wrong to ill no matter what the person has done. However, if the whole society does not agree with the rule like it is the case in Canada, this rule would not be applied thus the death penalty could be judged legal and moral. By using a golden mean, Aristotle defines justice as a virtue. Aristotle still believes in punishing those found guilty of serious crimes but more importantly, reforming criminals through correct treatments. Aristotle since all human beings can commit serious crimes, reason, and reform from mistakes (Aristotle 44). Aristotle would not like to see a person with a capacity to reform from mistakes being put on a death sentence.
Aristotle believes that those who commit serious crimes still have some value in our community and they do not deserve to die. In accordance with Aristotle’s ethics, it would be immoral to kill a person who still can change no matter what crimes they committed. Aristotle believes in justice which philosopher get the foundation of his ideas towards capital punishment. In his death penalty can never is immoral form whatever angle people look at it. It is also unconstitutional.
On the other hand, Mill supports capital punishment for offenders of serious crimes. If somebody is guilty of murder, then he or she has no any reason to live and should be killed (Smart & Bernard Williams, 10). Such a person does not even deserve life imprisonment but death. The person should not be allowed back into the society at all. Mill believes justice can only be achieved by exposing the offender to a punishment equal to the crime.
Neither Mill nor Aristotle is right or wrong since their ideas are based on what is morally permissible. Different individuals have different understanding and reason on “moral” topics/issues. This is because morals are not part of human nature but are brought up through experience and the environment we live in. Aristotle and Mill lived in different environment and times. Perhaps Mill lived in an environment where proper punishment of criminals was an order of the day thus making him view capital punishment as fair or moral. On the other hand, Aristotle may have grown up and lived in an environment where serious crimes were rare, and if any occurred, the punishment was not severe. Even today, the debate about capital punishment still exists as it is a controversial issue even in countries that practice it.
Many factors determine which side of argument people are. Almost any argument can be used to support each side of a death sentence. As such, if one had to consider what was important in the community during Mill’s lifetime in the late 1800s and Aristotle’s lifetime around 330 B.C, it would be quite shocking if the two argued similarly since they lived in different tow environments.
Another thing we should consider is the meaning of the phrase “morally permissible.” “Morally permissible” does not mean what is morally right. For instance, just because it is morally permissible to put serious criminals on the death sentence, it does not necessarily mean he would execute every individual he felt did something vicious. Neither Mill nor Aristotle is wrong or right, and their arguments are just based on their life experiences. Aristotle is mainly concerned with virtue, and according to him, if a person can be virtuous, there is no need to end their lives no matter the circumstance, whether they ‘are disabled, ill, old, or even vicious. Mill standpoint is on “eye for an eye” and feels a criminal should face a punishment equal to the crime he/she committed.
In conclusion, our society today’s, we see a few Mill and Aristotle’s theories when it comes to capital punishment. Capital punishment is not usually a method of punishment in modern society. However, it does exist in some nations if the crime is serious enough. I agree with Mill’s point of view since I think it is fair to get appropriate punishment. However, it all comes down to the moral of a person. The things that happen in the world around us shapes our values and morals. Individual opinions are never wrong, and neither are morals.
- Aristotle, 2006. Internet resource.
- Kant, Immanuel, and Lara Denis. The groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. Peterborough, ON Broadview Press, 2005.
- Nagin, Daniel, and John Pepper. Deterrence and the Death Penalty. Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2012. Internet resource.
- Smart, J J. C, and Bernard Williams. Utilitarianism: For and against. Cambridge: C.U.P, 1982.