The use of capital punishment has been a permanent fixture in society since
the earliest civilizations and continues to be used as a form of punishment in
countries today. It has been used for various crimes ranging from the desertion
of soldiers during wartime to the more heinous crimes of serial killers.

However, the mere fact that this brutal form of punishment and revenge has been
the policy of many nations in the past does not subsequently warrant its
implementation in today’s society. The death penalty is morally and socially
unethical, should be construed as cruel and unusual punishment since it is both
discriminatory and arbitrary, has no proof of acting as a deterrent, and risks
the atrocious and unacceptable injustice of executing innocent people. As long
as capital punishment exists in our society it will continue to spark the
injustice which it has failed to curb.

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Capital punishment is immoral and unethical. It does not matter who
does the killing because when a life is taken by another it is always wrong. By
killing a human being the state lessens the value of life and actually
contributes to the growing sentiment in today’s society that certain individuals
are worth more than others. When the value of life is lessened under certain
circumstances such as the life of a murderer, what is stopping others from
creating 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 up
with the Categorical Imperative, which is a universal command or rule that
states that society and individuals “must act in such a way that you can will
that your actions become a universal law for all to follow” (Palmer 265). There
must be some set of moral and ethical standards that even the government can not
supersede, otherwise how can the state expect its citizens not to follow its own
example.

Those who support the death penalty believe, or claim to believe, that
capital punishment is morally and ethically acceptable. The bulk of their
evidence comes from the Old Testament which actually recommends the use of
capital punishment for a number of crimes. Others also quote the Sixth
Commandment which, in the original Hebrew reads, “Thou Shall Not Commit Murder.”
However, these literal interpretations of selected passages from the Bible which
are often quoted out of context corrupt the compassionate attitude of Judaism
and Christianity, which clearly focuses on redemption and forgiveness, and urges
humane and effective ways of dealing with crime and violence. Those who use the
Bible to support the death penalty are by themselves since almost all religious
groups in the United States regard executions as immoral. They include,
American Baptist Churches USA, American Jewish Congress, California Catholic
Council, 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 of
America, Southern California Ecumenical Council, Unitarian/Universalist
Association, United Church of Christ, and the United Methodist Church (Death
Penalty Focus).

Those that argue that the death penalty is ethical state that former
great leaders and thinkers such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin
Franklin, Kant, Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau, Montesquieu, and Mill all supported it
(Koch 324). However, Washington and Jefferson, two former presidents and
admired men, both supported slavery as well. Surely, the advice of someone who
clearly demonstrated a total disregard for the value of human life cannot be
considered in such an argument as capital punishment. In regard to the
philosophers, Immanuel Kant, a great ethical philosopher stated that the motives
behind 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 with
violent crime,” are not of good will, thereby making capital punishment immoral
according to ethical philosophy (Bruck 329).

The question of whether executions are a “cruel” form of punishment may
no longer be an argument against capital punishment now that it can be done with
lethal injections, but it is still very “unusual” in that it only applies to a
select number of individuals making the death penalty completely discriminatory
and arbitrary. After years of watching the ineffectiveness of determining who
should be put to death, the Supreme Court in the1972 Furman v. Georgia decision
“invalidated all existing death sentence statues as violative of the Eighth
Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment and thus depopulated state death
rows of 629 occupants” (Berger 352). This decision was reached not because it
was believed that the death penalty was intrinsically cruel and unusual but
because, as Justice Stewart put it, the “death penalty as actually applied was
unconstitutionally arbitrary” (Berger 353). Local politics, money, race, and
where the crime is committed can often play a more decisive role in sentencing
someone to death than the actual facts of the crime. According to Amnesty
International, the “death penalty is a lethal lottery: just one out of every one
hundred 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 this
country have been of white defendants convicted of killing black victims, while
black defendants convicted of raping white women were commonly sentenced to
death (Death Penalty Focus). Stephen Nathanson, a professor of philosophy at
Northwestern University addresses the problems of discrimination and randomness
best by saying, “as long as racial, class, religious, and economic bias continue
to be important determinants of who is executed, the death penalty will continue
to create and perpetuate injustice” (Nathanson 346).

Proponents of capital punishment believe that the argument that the
death penalty is discriminatory and arbitrary does not give support to the
abolition 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 to
be 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 times
more likely to be sentenced to death than someone who kills a black person
(Death Penalty Focus). In response to this, supporters of the death penalty
believe that the death penalty should be extended to all murders. This is what
was attempted after the Furman decision. A number of states sought to resolve
the discriminatory and arbitrary nature of the death penalty by simply
sentencing to death everyone convicted of first-degree murder, but the Supreme
Court rejected this proposal saying that “mandatory death sentence laws did not
really resolve the problem but instead ‘simply papered it over’ since juries
responded by refusing to convict certain arbitrarily chosen defendants of first-
degree murder” (Berger 353).

An argument against the death penalty which to sensible and decent
persons should seem undeniable is the fact that innocent people have been
murdered by the state in the past and in all probability more will follow. The
wrongful execution of an innocent person is such an awful injustice that in any
civilized society could never be justified, yet this is the message that the
United States is willing to pronounce. Simply put by Professor Nathanson, “to
maintain the death penalty is to be willing to risk innocent lives.” In 1987, a
study conducted by Hugo Bedau and Michael Radelet appeared in the Standford Law
Review concerning the execution of innocent people. The study concluded that in
the period between 1900 to 1980, about “350 people were wrongfully convicted of
capital offenses, 139 of the 350 were sentenced to death, and 23 were actually
executed” (Nathanson 344). Over this eighty year period this figure averages
out to the death of an innocent person about every 3.4 years. This fact is
extremely disturbing and rightfully so, yet death penalty advocates blatantly
disregard the information or attempt to justify it in some way.

Those who support capital punishment claim that such cases of innocent
people being executed have never occurred. For instance, Edward Koch quotes
Hugo Bedau in support of his claim that such cases are not true, saying “it is
false sentimentality to argue that the death penalty should be abolished because
of the abstract possibility that an innocent person might be executed.” Koch,
in an attempt to gain political support, acted quite unethically by quoting
Bedau out of context and implying that such cases have not occurred. According
to David Bruck, a prominent lawyer for South Carolina Office of Appellate
Defense, “all Bedau was saying was that doubts concerning executed prisoners’
guilt are almost never resolved.” Koch also failed to relate in his essay that
Bedau, who had not yet released the 1987 study, had already comprised a “list of
murder convictions since 1900 in which the state eventually admitted error” in
about 400 hundred cases.

Another response to the fact that innocent people have been executed is
that the small number of innocents executed outweighs the number of lives that
will be saved since the possibility of being executed will deter others from
committing a murder, and also lives will be saved since that murderer cannot
kill again. Scientific studies have failed to prove that executions deter other
people 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 been
proved statistically that the death penalty does deter more than alternative
penalties” (Haag 338). However, Haag supports his stand on the death penalty by
stating that, “when they have the choice between life and death, 99 percent of
all prisoners under sentence of death prefer life in prison.” This statistic
proves nothing but the fact that man has an innate desire for survival. Those
asked the question have already committed the crime and thus does not reflect
the sentiment of those considering a crime. Also, people often kill when under
great “emotional stress or under the influence of drugs or alcohol – times when
they are not thinking of the consequences” (Death Penalty Focus). Career
criminals and those that plan a crime do not expect to get caught, thus making
the 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 risk
killing an innocent person when an alternative such as life imprisonment without
possibility of parole exists. In California since 1978, more than 1,000 people
have received this alternate sentence which includes no appeals process. The
public can be assured that those who commit heinous murders and receive this
sentence will never be free again. According to Death Penalty Focus, “a recent
Field Poll showed support for the death penalty plummeted when alternative
sentencing is available. Just 29 percent favored death over life without parole
plus requiring the defendant to work in prison and give part of his earnings as
restitution to the families of his victims.”
The use of capital punishment has endured throughout the ages, yet its
use today in a “civilized” society should no longer be acceptable to morally and
ethically conscience individuals. The vast majority of countries in Western
Europe and North and South America – more than 80 nations worldwide – have
abandoned capital punishment, yet the United States remains an avid supporter in
company with countries such as Iran, Iraq, and China as one of the major users
of capital punishment (Death Penalty Focus). The use of the death penalty in
its discriminatory and arbitrary methods “only magnifies inequalities of race
that 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 even
Edward 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 country
when we are willing to accept the avoidable death of an innocent man and allow
the “death penalty to continue to create and perpetuate injustice.”
Works Cited
Berger, Vivian, “Rolling the Dice to Decide Who Dies,” New York State Bar
Journal, 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,”
pamphlet
Koch, Edward, “Death and Justice: How Capital Punishment Affirms Life,” The New
Republic, April 15, 1985.


Nathanson, Stephen, “What If the Death Penalty Did Save Lives?” An Eye for an
Eye? 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

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