Moral Legality of Capital Punishment

March 11, 2011
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In the United States legal system, the debate over capital punishment is a largely controversial issue. When looking at this issue, it is often helpful to think of a great leader instructing his followers not to eat certain berries on the road, then taking the berries for his own personal consumption. The leader, while quite clever, seems like less of a great leader and more of a hypocritical, nonsensical entity in charge. The same holds true when applied to the United States government and its institution of capital punishment. It asserts that killing is wrong, then designs a system in which they may kill in order to punish that initial killing; making them—morally justified murderers by their own subjective justification. And absurd though it may be this further begs the question of how the punishment deemed appropriate for the crime can be the exact same action as the actual crime. The only logical response is that it is an effectual “pay-back” to the criminal, not unlike common bickering amongst children where upon one child hits another and the second child retaliates, only with the much more severe result of a second dead body. And while it is tempting to call this out as a classic “tu quoque” fallacy of basic reasoning, I would like to take this a step further and also comment on the actual process the system uses to deal out its death sentences. The two major topics that the debate over the death penalty centers around are the ethical and moral implications of taking a human life, and the ability of the justice system to give death sentences without any reasonable doubt, both of which, when properly evaluated, seem to indicate that in a righteous society, there is no room for an institution of capital punishment whatsoever.
In the moral area of this debate, the question is asked whether the grand old Biblical quote, “An eye for an eye,” can be something to shape modern day culture around; that is to say, whether or not vengeance can be taken out in a just and humane society. And while some proponents of capital punishment would like to reinstate the Hammurabi codes here in America, I think it is pretty clear that in a society that is not completely barbaric and insane, the taking of a human life is completely unacceptable and unforgiveable, even in the most extreme cases; we are not children, we do not require some romantic ceremonial revenge against a murderer. Punishments, such as life imprisonment or a limited prison sentence, are one thing, and hold a key role in the rehabilitation process that the justice system strives to achieve, but in killing an inmate, by definition apprehended, and in sentencing him to death, society is in effect not only turning its back on the criminal and admitting that there is no hope for a person by dubbing him a lost cause, but also attempting to take some sort of revenge on that person to help ease the suffering of the victims and to set some sort of example for other potential criminals. For a government responsible for keeping peace, stability, and order, there can be no revenge, all things done must be in the pursuit of good for all parties, and while proponents can argue that a murderer being slain will keep him from murdering ever again, and that this would be an ultimate good, the same can be said of putting the same murderer in prison for the amount of time deemed necessary to rehabilitate and reintegrate the individual back into society. And if there truly is no hope for the individual to be rehabilitated, there is the option of life imprisonment, which would keep the criminal separate from society peacefully resolving the issue without the need for some bizarre ritual sacrifice to give victims closure and somehow deter future crime, when in truth, the death penalty seems to be about as successful as a deterrent to crime as rain dancing is to actually causing rain. This point is made clear in an online article entitled “Point: Capital Punishment Should Be Abolished,” by claiming that “in recent years, the evidence has shown that the death penalty process […] fails to deter criminals. FBI Uniform Crime Report data show no statistical difference in crime rates based on the existence or frequency of use of the death penalty in a particular state” (Ballaro). The death penalty does little more than satisfy some lust with vengeance that occupies the human condition.
Moving to the next main portion of the issue, how certain a death sentence really is, it becomes clear that there is a huge risk of executing an innocent person, or someone for whom the death penalty is extremely harsh and unnecessary as a punishment. There is always reasonable doubt for any person accused of murder or crimes of the like, and no matter how hard we try there is no way to be absolutely certain that a person is guilty every time, or even that there weren’t extenuating circumstances in the events that took place. And if there is even the slightest risk for an innocent individual to be subjected to warrantless murder at the hands of the very government he trusts to protect him and his individual rights, though mainly the one about being allowed to live his life without chemicals being injected into him in a gas chamber, then society as a whole should be working day and night to reform the system to make this impossible. The reality is, however, that American society is actually working to make capital punishment more applicable in more cases, easier to deal out, and even mandatory in some cases. Even as the rest of the civilized world watches content that they shall never be mistakenly murdered for a crime they did not commit, “in the United States, despite a national trend toward scaling back the use of capital punishment, it remains largely popular with the American people, and several states have recently attempted to broaden its scope […] Virginia is poised to make accomplices to murder […] eligible for the death penalty. Missouri may pass a mandatory death penalty for the murder of law enforcement officers. Georgia lawmakers are considering legislation that would permit a judge to impose the death sentence, which currently requires a unanimous vote of jurors […]” (Ballaro). This indicates that while mistakes are commonly made and are in fact easily made, as evidenced by the Innocence Project’s exoneration of about 201 inmates (Ballaro), it could soon become even easier. If the system cannot guarantee that no innocent people will be killed as a result of the strange infatuation with punishment in the form of death, then a just society cannot allow for even one person to be penalized in this fashion.
The common concession made by all involved in these debates is that the system must be resolved to lessen the margin of error, to allow a person on trial appeals, and better council, and much other similar nonsense that only draws out the trial period, and by simply adding to the bureaucracy, can anyone really expect any improvements to be made? I think the answer to that question can be quite easily observed with a trip to the Department of Public Safety on a Monday afternoon. And even if we could have a perfect system that could weed out all offenders that did not meet all criterions to be revenge killed to satisfy some lust with sacrifice and sadistic punishment, who would set the criterion? Who gets to determine when it is just to take a man’s most precious investment from him? The conclusion to this over-argued debate is clear: the institution of capital punishment is as ridiculously unjust as it is hypocritical. If we expect to have a society of individuals following the laws and respecting the rights of their fellow men, then we cannot have our government turn right around and start killing criminals left and right for crimes that may never have been committed or else that weren’t terrible enough to be killed for in the first place. To do so is such a complete slap in the face and huge disrespect to human life that this sad attempt at a justice system becomes little more than a facade of a system so heinously flawed that we’d be better off settling our disputes with guns, because at least then the offender would almost never be innocent.

Works Cited
Ballaro, Beverly, and C. Ames Cushman. “Point: Capital Punishment Should Be Abolished.”
Points of View: Death Penalty (2009): 2. Points of View Reference Center. EBSCO. Web 27 Jan. 2011 <>

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Treefiddy said...
Mar. 18, 2011 at 9:54 pm

Do you honestly believe that we should "rehabilitate" murderers back into society?

Also I find it amazing that you believe that not executing murderers shows a reverence for human life. It is the exact opposite! If we do not uphold justice for somebody who was innocently slain by a vicious murderer by allowing them to keep their life as they have stolen another, then that is a complete disregard for life. The value of your life ceases to be equal when you have stolen the life of an inn... (more »)

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