Example Of Term Paper On Death Penalty Under Utilitarianism And Deontology

Type of paper: Term Paper

Topic: Crime, Punishment, Criminal Justice, Death, Penalty, Death Penalty, Ethics, Deontology

Pages: 8

Words: 2200

Published: 2021/02/17


Death penalty is certainly one of the most controversial and debated topics. However, until today, no consensus has been reached on whether death penalty is ethically correct or not. Public opinion is divided on the issue. Abolitionists, for example, argue that that death penalty is morally incorrect while proponents argue that death penalty is necessary to promote justice. While the abolitionists have been quite vocal about their arguments, public opinion contradicts as revealed by surveys that shows the general public’s support for death penalty. Evidently, there is a moral and ethical dilemma regarding the issue of whether or not death penalty should be used for certain crimes and whether it should be abolished. For the same reason, this paper would like to investigate the ethical nature of death penalty by analyzing it through two of the most utilized ethical theories: utilitarianism and deontology.

Brief History of the Death Penalty

The death penalty is one of the oldest penal practices in the world. In fact, tracing its genesis is quite futile as it appears that it has been practiced since the earliest human societies even before any known historical can be established. One of the earliest recorded accounts of death penalty in history is that stated in the code of Hammurabi. Hammurabi is one of the kings Babylon in ancient Mesopotamia who is believed to have lived around eighteenth century B.C. His code stipulated the death penalty for several crimes such as accusing a person of a crime that could not be proven, stealing the property of the temple and many others. Aside from Hammurabi and the Babylonians, the Jews were also known to use death penalty as punishment for several wrong doings as stated in their written laws and traditions. Among the most common methods of execution are hanging, stoning to death, and drowning. The death penalty as punishment for certain crimes persisted and was eventually adopted by the succession of human societies. The Romans, for example, were known to issue death penalty in the form of crucifixion, burning at the stake, beating and other methods. Even the Catholic Church, whose influence and power dominated the early European societies in the middle Ages where known to use death penalty as the ultimate punishment for heresy and other church offences during the inquisitions. Early European monarchs have also adopted the death penalty in their penal codes. In Britain, for example, as early as tenth century C.E., hanging has been the most common method of execution for capital offenses. The United States, being a former British colony, has adopted British Laws together with the death penalty as one of its capital punishments. According to researchers, the death penalty has been employed in the United States in James town colony as early as 1600s and has been used ever since as a punishment for several offenses stipulated in its constitution. Not only is death penalty an old practice but also one of the most persistent features of society’s penal code. It is also notable that the methods used in its execution has also developed through time although some methods such as stoning and hanging are still practiced in some countries. Since it was invented, Guns, for example, have been used to perform executions and several years earlier, most countries have employed electrocution as their official method for execution. Nazi Germany is one of the most notorious states to have performed the death penalty during the inclusive years of World War I and II. One of the most common methods used in the mass execution of Jews and imprisoned enemies is the gas chamber or lethal gas. This method was later on adopted by the United States in their execution system by using cyanide gas in their lethal gas chambers. Later on, the lethal gas has been replaced by the lethal injection, which was first adopted in Oklahoma in 1977 and is still being used today not only in the United States but also in other countries.

Ethical Dilemma of Death Penalty

Contemporary debates regarding death penalty circles on three aspects: the aspect of death as a cruel and unusual punishment; death being a violation of human dignity; and death being an effective deterrence to crime. Apparently, one of the major ethical and moral concerns posed by those opposed to the death penalty is because of its cruel and brutal nature. In Europe, for example, the executions are criticized as it is often conducted in public view using barbaric methods. There was also a time when the death penalty is exercised to punish even less serious offenses. Also, the death penalty is a convenient tool being used by tyrants and dictators to purge one’s political enemies. So even if death penalty is one of the oldest punishments for offenses, it is also one of the most controversial and debated penal practice. However, opposition to death penalty has not been extensive until the 18th century when people in Europe began to condemn death penalty as being a cruel and unjust punishment. Several intellectuals during the enlightenment period began to criticize death penalty. Among the early abolitionists are Montesquieu, Voltaire, Howard and Beccaria who argued that the taking of life by the state is not justified. Influenced by European thinkers, attempts to reform the legislations regarding death penalty in the United States were also initiated. Thomas Jefferson, for example, tried to revise Virginia’s laws on death penalty by proposing that it should only be exercised for crimes involving murder and treason.
The brutal and cruel nature of death penalty is one of the most emphasized aspects of capital punishment by its opponents. In the United States, for example, conflicting views regarding the provision of the eighth amendment where it mentions ‘brutal and unusual punishment’ in its clause. There was a time when the court approves of death penalty by firing squad as well as through electrocution in the U.S.. And though they are now considered as cruel and unusual, back then, the court believes that they are necessary for the cause of justice. Despite intensive opposition, the death penalty is still a persistent penal punishment. However, attempts to make the methods of execution less brutal can be observed. From public executions, for example, the death penalty is now conducted in most countries in closed doors with selected witnesses to the execution. Tracing the development of the methods of executions, it is quite evident that the primary purpose of such development was for making the executions more efficient and to make the death penalty as less cruel and brutal as compared to the primitive methods of execution. The use of lethal gas in Nevada in 1924, for example, was an attempt to make the execution process more humane. However, some people especially those who are opposed to the death penalty questions the humanitarian aspect of the new methods of executions. One of the prevailing arguments regarding death penalty as a capital punishment is not only with the act of execution itself but the emotional and psychological implications that a convicted felon undergoes before he is subjected to execution. Researchers refer to the mental ordeal and the eventual psychological deterioration of the death row inmates as the ‘death row syndrome’. Accordingly, it is not only the execution itself that makes the death penalty inhumane but the “solitary confinement and the mental anxiety that prisoners experience whilst waiting for their death”.
Debates regarding the effectiveness of death penalty as a deterrent to crime have also been one of the most argued aspects behind using death penalty for capital offenses. Proponents believe that death penalty is a special deterrent to the commission of crime than just restricting the freedom of a criminal through imprisonment. Critics of the death penalty, on the other hand, believe that crime is not deterred by death penalty. While both parties could not agree on whether death penalty deter crimes or not, in order to make death penalty more acceptable, the issue of deterrence is an important consideration since it represents factual evidence necessary for policy making. However, studies regarding the deterrent effect of death penalty has been inconclusive and revealed confusing results. Initial studies regarding the deterrent effect of death penalty, for example, has showed no significant results while some are even contradictory to the assumption that death penalty does deter crimes. As observed by Lamperti, “Data from 1973 to 1984 show that murder rates in the states without the death penalty were consistently lower and averaged only 63% of the corresponding rates in the states retaining it”. However, Lamperti also argued that the nature of deterrence of death penalty could be masked by other factors. Dezhbakhsh and Shepherd, on the other hand, concluded that death penalty may have an effect on deterrence but the inconsistencies of the results do not help resolve the deterrence argument.

Death Penalty under the Utilitarian View

The utilitarian ethical theory suggests that in considering an ethical dilemma, the consequence or outcome of an action must be the basis of one’s decision. The utilitarian view can be traced back to the philosopher Epicurus whose major principle about what is ethical and what is not is based on the ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’ of the consequences of an action. Utilitarian view on punishment is based on the argument that “a punishment, like any other legal practice, must be morally justified in terms of its conduciveness to the appropriate end”. The end, as observed by Bedau, is to control an action or to establish ‘general prevention’. In analyzing the ethicality of death penalty under utilitarian, it is therefore necessary that the end or the control and prevention aspect should be established. For the same reason, the deterrence aspect of death penalty is an important factor under the utilitarian view. Considering the deterrence aspect of death penalty, as discussed earlier, there are no conclusive results to empirical studies regarding this topic. For the same reason, if there is no apparent advantage or benefit from the use of death penalty, then under utilitarianism, the practice must be abandoned. Aside from the lack of apparent benefits, death penalty also offers several disadvantages, which is also an important criterion to consider under utilitarianism. Among the negative implications of death penalty is the possibility of making the wrong conviction. Accordingly, there were several cases of wrongful convictions that have occurred for the last twenty years and some of these wrongful convictions involved cases of rape and murder, which merits the capital punishment of death penalty. As observed, developments in DNA testing have exonerated more than 230 prisoners, which also draw attention to the irreversible nature of the death penalty. Evidently, when one is wrongfully convicted for a crime that merits a death penalty and the punishment has been consummated, then there is no way that the life of the exonerated convict can be compensated. Also, it defeats the purpose of serving justice if the person who is wrongfully convicted dies before he gets exonerated.
Aside from being result oriented, utilitarianism is also concerned about the good of the majority. And so in order to establish the ethicality of death penalty under utilitarianism then it has to be for the good of everybody. Public opinion is thereby a very important consideration for determining the ethicality of death penalty under utilitarianism. It should be noted though that public opinion regarding death penalty has been changing. In a survey conducted in California, for example, it is quite evident that since 1950’s, support for death penalty has fluctuated; peaking during the 1980s and gradually declining until a survey in 2014. Even so, it is also noticeable that support for death penalty has always been the majority’s decision while those who are not in favor of the death penalty has not even come close to a tie. It appears then that there will be more people that would become happy if death penalty is retained as a capital punishment as compared to the number of people who are against it. It follow then that under utilitarianism, death penalty is an ethical decision to make, which, evidently contradicts the previous assumption that death penalty has no practical uses. Another dilemma is thereby created if death penalty is analyzed under utilitarianism because the common good conflicts with the common happiness.

Death Penalty under Deontology

Just like utilitarianism, Deontology is one of the most utilized ethical theories in analyzing ethical dilemmas. But unlike utilitarian views, which regard the common good and the common happiness as its ultimate criteria for the ethicality of its decisions, the deontological view is concerned more on the implementation or accomplishment of duty. Deontologists tend to be absolutist and are guided by moral obligations as the basis of ethical reasoning. For deontologists, what is morally right is the ethical choice regardless of the consequence. However, there are several variants of deontological principles and analyzing death penalty under deontological principles can have varied outcomes. Absolutists, for example, regards death penalty morally impermissible as it is tantamount to killing. And so, regardless of how it is done or what the consequences are, death penalty is regarded as morally wrong, thereby it should not be used for punishment. It should be noted though that moral standard varies. It follows then that deontological principles may also vary depending on whom is viewing the situation. This particular element of deontology is revealed by Kant by explaining that “the rightness or wrongness of volition depends wholly on its nature or motive and not on its actual consequences or its intended consequences”. By general rule, in order to avoid conflict, deontologists abide by the mantra or the golden rule ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’ which is also similar with the common maxim, ‘an eye for an eye’. So as if to contradict the deontological principles, Immanuel Kant, one of the philosophers who have developed the theory of deontology has been openly agreeable to death penalty on the grounds of retribution. Kant believes that the notion of what is just is universal. Accordingly, what is just for one person is also just for another. For the same reason, Kant’s philosophy in punishment is to uphold the moral principles of justice and equality. For Kant, death penalty is moral if the crime committed is reasonable to warrant it. In the same way, Kant is agreeable to death penalty for the crime of murder because it justifies the moral principle of equality as stipulated on the common maxim ‘an eye for an eye’.


In analyzing death penalty under the ethical principles of utilitarianism and deontology, it appears that whatever theoretical approach is used, there are still conflicting views. For utilitarianism, the conflict lies between the common good and what the majority wants. Also, it is hard to establish the consequence of death penalty as to merit a convincing stand for utilitarianism. At this point, the utilitarian point of view can be disregarded as it does not offer a clear and convincing solution to the problem. On the other hand, while deontology has conflicting views as well, one of its variants provides a more reasonable ethical basis for death penalty. Basing on the argument of Kant, which seeks to uphold justice through equality, it can be deduced that death penalty can be ethical under certain circumstances. Kant’s deontology view on death penalty is thereby a more plausible approach to solve the dilemma regarding death penalty. Considering the possibility of wrongful conviction, deontology suggests that it can be ignored because the ultimate motive, which is to seek justice, has been accomplished. It can be deduced then that under certain deontology principles, the death penalty can be ethically correct.


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