Capital Punishment And Ethics

     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. 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.

Bibliography

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.