Good Research Paper On Ethical Arguments Against Capital Punishment
The ethical arguments associated with capital punishment are vast, making the issue a heavily contested one. Despite the list of arguments in favour of the death penalty, it is doubtful that there are any circumstances in which ending a person’s life as a result of punishment for a crime is suitable. The United States is renowned as being a respectable, fair democracy among the globe and it seems nonsensical that parts of it can still be supporting, and practicing, such an out-of-date punishment as the death penalty. Despite strong arguments in favour of capital punishment, it can rarely be justified.
The Oxforddictionaries website (2015) defines morality as, “Principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behaviour.” A popular argument against capital punishment is based on the value of human life. Many people consider human life to be of significant value and some abolitionists feel that even the most prolific of murderers do not deserve to lose their lives. The theory is that no degree of bad behaviour can devalue a person’s life.
Critics of capital punishment often believe that every person has the basic human right to life, regardless of crimes they may have committed and that sentencing them to death is an infringement of their basic human rights. The contrasting outlook, therefore, is that a person who commits murder is conscious of their wrong doing and is knowingly giving up their human right to life.
A common case against capital punishment is that there are likely to be mistakes and wrong convictions within the criminal justice system that lead in innocent people being put to death. Jurors and witnesses make errors. There are countless examples of convicts appealing against their verdicts and then eventually being acquitted. For obvious reasons, if the death penalty has been implemented there will be no opportunity to correct such errors.
Many believe the idea and practice of revenge to be morally unsound. However, advocates for capital punishment uphold that for justice to be served, criminals need to suffer proportionately, depending on the nature of their crimes. Working with this theory, it seems sensible that a person who has murdered another person should also be killed by way of punishment.
An important question when discussing capital punishment is whether it is effective in deterring crime. Studies show that it doesn’t appear to; what does appear to act as a deterrent is an increased chance of being caught and convicted. A 1988 study into correlation between the death penalty and homicide rates was carried out for the United Nations. The study was then updated in 1996. It reported:
“research has failed to provide scientific proof that executions have a greater deterrent effect than life imprisonment. Such proof is unlikely to be forthcoming. The evidence as a whole still gives no positive support to the deterrent hypothesis. The key to real and true deterrence is to increase the likelihood of detection, arrest and conviction. The death penalty is a harsh punishment, but it is not harsh on crime” (Death Penalty).
Regardless of the ethical position of capital punishment, it could be argued that to cause significant pain to a person is verging on torture and can not be justified. Some execution methods are likely to cause pain to the individual, for example, strangulation, lethal gas and electrocution. Some practices, for example beheading and the use of firing squads, were outlawed because they were thought too brutal, or because the executioner was too directly involved in the killing.
The matter of passing the death sentence to people with learning disabilities is an especially controversial one. The Penry v. Lynaugh case serves as a solid example of the concerns around this subject. In 1989, in Texas, Pamela Carpenter was raped and stabbed to death in her home (Chan). Prior to her death in hospital, Carpenter managed to describe her attacker to the police, which in turn allowed the police to track and arrest Johnny Paul Penry. Penry confessed and was charged with capital murder.
This conviction was the beginning of a long and complex case. Penry was deemed as “mentally retarded” (Chan) and this led to a lawsuit with many more twists and turns than a typical murder trial. A clinical psychologist, Dr Brown, assessed Penry as having an IQ of fifty-four and the learning age of six, despite being twenty-two at the time of the trial. He was also assessed as having the social maturity level of a ten-year old. Brown testified that “there’s a point at which anyone with [Penry’s] IQ is always competent, but, you know, this man is more in the borderline” (Chan 1121).
What followed was a lengthy trial in which the Justices struggled to agree on key aspects. The primary difficulty was in assessing Penry’s comprehension level and his culpability level with regards to the crime. Ultimately the court ruled that it was not cruel and unusual punishment to sentence a mentally retarded person to death under the eighth amendment.
Another example of questioning levels of culpability is when sentencing minors. A study researched the eighth amendment of societal consensus and proportionality when sentencing juveniles to death (Crosby). A selection of previous jurors were invited to vote on whether to execute a defendant in an theoretical situation. The defendant’s age and level of remorse shown were varied. Most of the participants voted to execute the defendant in all of the cases. However the fictitious defendant’s age and the participant’s views on juvenile culpability reduced the chance of them voting to execute. The researcher reported that “the large percentage of our sample of former jurors voting to execute even the youngest defendant was unanticipated. A high rate of death sentences for the 15, 16, and 19-year-old defendants may not be quite so startling; the finding that a majority of our sample of former jurors, specifically 60.5%, voted to execute a 10-year-old child is striking” (Crosby).
In 1972 the U.S. Supreme Court sustained the structure of the death penalty. In 1987, the Court addressed this structure regarding juvenile offenders. The Thomson v. Oklahoma case provided the opportunity for this reassessment; the Court, ruled by majority, decided that sentencing a fifteen-year-old to death amounted to cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth amendment (Crosby). However, only two years later in the Stanford v. Kentucky case, a majority of the Court decided that sentencing a defendant of sixteen or seventeen-year-old to death was not unconstitutional (Crosby).
Further to allowing and practicing capital punishment, America has gone further and deemed televised executions appropriate. Robert Bryan (Bedau 385) comments on his career defending people facing the death sentence. He reports that “as the debate on televising executions became a hot topic, clients began to express their feelings about becoming a source of public entertainment. Many were strongly against such a notion, while others felt it might help the struggle to end capital punishment” (Bedau 386).
Bryan sees the broadcasting of executions as a way to satisfy America’s desire for violent entertainment, using real life defendants. He argues that throughout history, executions have brought out an unpleasant side in people, and is no different today. There are countless movies showing fictional scenes of capital punishment; the on-screen audience shout and throw items at the defendant about to be killed, and then at the moment of death the crowd cheers. Bryan confirms that these fictional scenes are historically correct.
William Bailey looked into the validity of the argument of televised capital punishment being a deterrent for committing murder (Bailey). He studied the monthly homicidal rates together with the degree of television exposure of executions between 1976 and 1987. He found that, “despite the power of television as a source of news in the United States, the results of this study do not support either the deterrence argument, which contends that capital punishment reduces killings, or the brutalization argument, which contends that capital punishment promotes killings. Homicide rates were not found to be related to either the amount or the type of execution publicity over the period” (Bailey).
Bailey concluded that there was no real evidence that the degree of television exposure of executions had a noteworthy deterrent on the homicides during the timeframe in question; numbers of executions or broadcasts of such neither deter nor increase rates of murder (Bailey).
Capital punishment is a topic which rouses much debate in the United States and throughout the world. American citizens invest money, time and trust into the government to manage the nation and to uphold its democracy and human rights. However, a government who could permit and endorse the carrying out of capital punishment cannot truly be preserving either standard.
The moral and ethical arguments against capital punishment are wide-ranging, from philosophical views on the value of life to the intricacies of which individuals have can be deemed truly culpable of their crimes and therefore whether they deserve to be put to death. What’s more, the frequency of disagreements within the Courts is worrying. The John Penry case highlights that a court comprises various people who will often disagree. It is an embarrassment that The United States of America, one of the most esteemed nations in the globe, can still be implementing this dated ritual.
Bailey, W.C. “Murder, Capital Punishment, and Television: Execution Publicity and Homicide”. American Sociological Association. American Sociological Review, Vol. 55, No. 5 28. Feb. 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2095860
Bedau, H.A. (1998) “The Death Penalty in America: Current Controversies". OUP USA.
Chan, P. “Eighth Amendment: The Death Penalty and the Mentally Retarded Criminal: Fairness, Culpability, and Death”. The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology. Vol. 80, No. 4. Northwestern University. 28 Feb. 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1143696
Crosby, Catherine, Preston Britner, Kathleen Jodi and Sharon Porwtood. “The Juvenile death Penalty and the Eighth Amendment: An Empirical Investigation of Societal Concensus and Proportionality”. Law and Human Behavior, Vol. 19, No. 3. 28 Feb. 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1394003
“Death Penalty”. Amnesty International. 28 Feb. 2015. http://www.amnesty.org/en/death-penalty
“Morality”. Oxford Dictionaries. 28 Feb. 2015. http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/morality