22 April 2021

Death Penalty – Capital Punishment


Death Penalty – Capital Punishment

Topic by Norma

Essay by Lawrence



Capital punishment is a big subject and one that involves many opinions and many disciples. The issue itself is also wide ranging and complex beyond any attempt to bring all the relevant ideas together.


Hence, my intention is quite simple here, and my objective is to provide some ideas for the meeting although, of course, there are no limits during our discussion. In principle, capital punishment involves the state taking away the life of someone who infringed some rule or law: and usually murder is the ultimate infringement of law. I will refer to murder only as an example of an act that attracts capital punishment. But just because capital punishment is performed by the state it does not follow that the state is a legitimate state, or that laws governing capital punishment are constitutional, legal or moral. And then there is murder by terrorists, kidnappers and religious zealots who complicate the issue by claiming legitimacy to take away the life of someone.


The most compelling argument for capital punishment is that it serves as a deterrent against the most heinous crimes. This idea is not a very strong argument on the grounds that some people still commit murder in countries where they do have capital punishment. This does not mean that some people do not deserve the capital punishment, or that people do not feel emotional about the deeds of the murderer, but it does mean that there no causal moral relationship. However, there is a difference between wanting the population to follow the law and stopping a person from murdering someone.


The majority of people in a population are law abiding people, and even within the criminal community, murderers are relatively few in number. Hence this suggests that the majority of people do not need to learn any lessons about murdering others. But there are two clear factors that tempt murders or make murder easier to commit.


For example, in the USA homicide by firearms was 13,958 for 2020 (Wikipedia: Gun violence in the United States); in Switzerland who have a very liberal gun laws, there were 13 firearms homicide in 2018 (1). But Switzerland has a population of 8.5million and the USA 328.2million so we expect a numerical difference, but Switzerland have abolished capital punishment. My point here is that it might be argued that having access to the tools for murder, might lead people to murder. But I am more inclined to think that people who have easy access to the tools of murder would be more inclined to commit murder if they intend to murder someone; even if they commit murder by accident or in the heat of the moment.


Making draconian rules that attract capital punishment is another way of increasing or having a high number of people who are murdered by capital punishment. Dictators are very efficient at implementing this policy of using capital punishment as a political tool. These dictators are not interested in the safety of society but their own political survival. Two historical examples are the Nazis murdering their opposition and racial groups, and the Soviet Union under Stalin murdering many ethnic minorities and types of people with a certain background. Today China and North Korea offer modern examples of using capital punishment to support oppressive policies. Look at the entry “Death Penalty” in Amnesty.org for more background information (2).


Apart from mistakes, many people also argue that capital punishment should not be allowed because it is disproportional to the crime; capital punishment as retaliation is as immoral as murder; and asking executioners to perform an act of killing someone is equally repugnant. Whilst all these arguments and many more are valid arguments against capital punishment, they do not provide universalisable philosophical principles.


Usually, proponents of capital punishment employ emotional argument to defend the punishment: they deserve it; what about us, we should have a say; and if people cannot do their job they should leave it. I want to propose two arguments that address this universalisable condition against capital punishment.


The first universalisable principle is that the state has no moral or political authority to murder people other than in self defence and then to protect society in general. By definition a murderer who has been caught and appears in front of a court of law is no longer a danger to society. Once a murderer is in the custody of the state then the state is responsible for the actions of that person. This idea is extended, for example, in the Geneva Convention about prisoners of war who are afforded the rights of non-combatants. Indeed the Geneva Convention should be made applicable to all armed groups who identify themselves as fighting for a cause.


The state, however, does have a right to ask citizens to go to war to protect the country and in so doing some might die, but the state has no right to kill helpless people. This does not mean that the state should not sanction heinous criminals, but that is another matter.


The second universalisable principle is that capital punishment should never be used to implement oppressive policies. And this principle should apply to all countries by default. If the Holocaust has taught us anything is that murdering people for political means is just unacceptable and is inhuman. But looking at the historical development since 1945 the impression we have today is that six million Jews and a few more million people were murdered practically for nothing. State murder is still common in some countries in Asia and Africa, and even the US some states exploit capital punishment for political gain. Some countries still pass an inordinate number of laws that attract the capital punishment. So the second universalisable principle is that states should not be allowed to benefit from the murder of their citizens and people.


To conclude the matter it is not why or why not capital punishment but rather the state should never have the power to take away the life of people. They should address the issue of what to do with people who commit murder more humanely and intelligently.



(1 (1)  Switzerland — Gun Facts, Figures and the Law



(1 (2)  Death Penalty


Best Lawrence


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