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Ethics Of The Death Penalty

Philosophy Essay
Published: 23rd March, 2015

This essay has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work
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Sparking much controversy and anxiety in the hearts of American citizens is the
ethical dilemma of the death penalty. The death penalty, as a form of
punishment, is given to those who commit crimes deemed by society and
government as deserving the infliction of death. Termed "death penalty", "death
sentence", and "execution", the issue is not a newfangled idea, rather a form of
punishment that actually dates back to the ancient laws of China. Actively
controversial, the death penalty serves as a divider among many political
ideologies, religions, and cultures. This essay will assess the ethical issues
associated with the death penalty from the views of ancient thinkers, as well as
modern principles.
Historically, the first recorded punishment of death was sentenced to a man of
nobility who was accused of magic. Punishment by death was frequently cruel
and included crucifixion, drowning at sea, burial alive, beating to death, and
impalement (Reggio). The most infamous death sentence in BC was given to the
Greek philosopher Socrates, who was forced to drink poison for heresy and
"corruption of youth". Used by almost all societies, the death penalty has been
the consequence of many crimes, for example, the first crimes associated with
the punishment of death included: publication of libels and insulting songs, the
cutting or grazing of crops planted by a farmer, the burning of a house or a stack
of corn near a house, cheating by a patron of his client, perjury, making
disturbances at night in the city, willful murder of a freeman or a parent, or theft
by a slave (Reggio). The punishment for these crimes, though often cruel,
included: boiling to death, dismemberment, sawing, breaking wheel, crucifixion,
slow slicing, and decapitation. Some speculate that British influence of the time
can account for the large majority of countries that adopted the penalty. Up until
about the 1700's, Britain had named upwards to two hundred and twenty-two
crimes that were punishable by death, including cutting down a tree or
counterfeiting tax stamps (Reggio). Around 1823, many laws were passed
exempting crimes from capital punishment. Capital punishments were abolished
exponentially during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the era was
marked by a transition from cruel and violent punishment to humane forms of
"executions" in Britain and many other European countries.
The first recorded execution in America was documented in 1608 when officials
executed George Kendall of Virginia for alleged plots to betray the British to the
Spanish. The first legal execution occurred in 1620 for the crime of theft. The
severity and frequency of the death sentence varied from colony to colony. For
example, in Massachusetts, the only recognized capital crimes were these
seven: murder, sodomy, burglary, buggery, arson, rape, and treason; while in
other colonies, one could be executed for something as simple as stealing
grapes. By the late 1700s, the colonies in America shared common capital
crimes, with the exception of a few, and later reforms were foreseeable. The first
series of significant reforms arose during the period of 1833-1853 (Reggio). The
practice grew dangerously close to a spectator sport until this time. People would
flood the streets to get a glimpse at the hangings. As fights and brawls would
break out, the local merchants would feed the frenzy by serving alcohol and
offering souvenirs. During the era of reform, private hangings became the
alternative to the mayhem of public hangings. 1846 marked the first step toward
abolishment of the death penalty. Michigan abolished the death penalty (except
for treason), followed by severe limitations by Massachusetts, and abolishment
by Wisconsin.
The electric chair came in an odd way in 1888 after Edison Company began
public demonstrations by electrocuting animals. The reasoning was that if it could
kill animals, it could probably kill people. Hanging was almost unseen after a
hangman misjudged a drop and a woman's head was ripped from her body. The
majority of people from this era were opposed to certain forms of death
sentences, but few were opposed to the practice altogether. The majority of the
world has moved toward more humane forms of punishment in response to the
disorder associated with the dated forms of capital punishment. Currently, the
United Nations passed a nonbinding resolution to promote the abolishment of the
death penalty across the world, yet approximately 60% of the population of the
world lives in countries where executions take place (Reggio).
Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative seeks to act with accordance to a
general rule. The general rule applied here is very difficult, given the different
capital crimes in the world, and the vast forms of achieving death. He would also
pose the question of whether or not the death penalty is using a human as a
means to an end. According to the categorical imperative, "society and
individuals must act in such a way that you can will that your actions become a
universal law for all to follow" (Kant on Capital Punishment) (Kant, 2004). Kant's
view on crime is that society makes laws that, if they are broke, punishment must
follow. The purpose of punishment is not to benefit anyone (deterrence or to
teach a lesson), but rather a form of penalization. It is essential to see Kant's
view with regard to only murder. He works on the basis that we cannot punish for
the sake of the benefit of society, because some innocent people can be deemed
unnecessary for society and still remain innocent of crime. Kant works on the
view that society and government have laws - and should those laws be broken,
there will be penalization. Laws that are broken without punishment are flimsy
(Kant, 2004). A weak law is then an indication of a weak society.
In the words of Jeremy Bentham, "All punishment is mischief; all punishment in
itself is evil. (Bentham)" The utilitarian view of punishment is that punishment
causes unhappiness and pain, therefore it, for the most part, is a bad thing.
Punishment can only be justified if the benefits outweigh the costs. For example,
does the punishment of a man who has broken into several houses cause good
for a society? The answer is yes because he will no longer break into houses if
he is punished by being thrown in jail. Most utilitarians would oppose any form of
punishment, especially the death penalty because it causes suffering. Principally,
the main standard that utilitarianism is based on is that pleasure should outweigh
pain. On this cost benefit analysis, the death penalty can go either way. Capital
punishment reduces crime in some aspects, but it also is taking the life away
from the criminal. The argument that capital punishment deters crime is hard to
prove, but would be an argument in favor for utilitarianism, but just as the
categorical imperative fails logically, the execution of the innocent can be justified
in utilitarianism as well.
In the Aristotelian tradition, humans should act rationally accompanied by
appropriate amounts of courage, self-control, and fairness (Aristotle, Nico.) He
strongly believed in the necessity for society to enact laws with teeth in them, for
the purpose of creating citizens with good habits of character. When a crime in
enacted, Aristotle believes that the balance must be restored between the one
doing the harm and the victim. I believe that capital punishment can be justified in
the Aristotelian tradition because no other justification can be explained. Aristotle,
like Immanuel Kant, believes that governments and societies need laws and no
action against those laws should go unpunished. "It is in justice that the ordering
of society is centered (Aristotle)," in other words, every human should act in a
just manner, and those who act unjustly should be chastised accordingly by their
society. Retributive justice, or if the punishment is an acceptable form of
response to a crime, Aristotle believed was essential to a good society.
Ron House, the faculty of Sciences at the University of Southern Queensland,
offers a new prospective by which we can look at all the death penalty using a
principle known as the "Principle of Goodness" (House, 2007). His theory
beautifully encompasses the philosophers that preceded him. "We must act so as
to accord with a general rule, and the Principle of Goodness is a general rule (Or
becomes one as soon as we say "act such as to avoid evil and pursue
goodness"); stricter because not any general rule satisfies the Principle (House,
2007)." The theory assumes that the world is not perfect, just as utilitarianism
does. There will always be exceptions to every rule, just as murder in self-
defense has now been accepted as ethically acceptable. House points out that
the critics of the death penalty often claim that it is simply a form of retribution,
but if retribution, or eye for an eye, was the only factor, wouldn't we give terrible
torture for torture or mutilation for mutilation? We seem to stop short somewhere,
but where do we draw the line - a difficult question to answer. House also points
out that societies are ever changing, and one solution is never the answer to a
problem like the death penalty. The principle of goodness helps us make clear
the important considerations and proposals to the issue. Tremendous protection
of the innocent must be present along with logic based arguments absent of
emotions based on the race of an offender or outrage towards her/him (House,
2007). Today, the absence of bias or irrational emotion is impossible. Other
factors, although irrational and illogical, will always play a part in the decisions of
a courtroom.
From a moral point of view, Steffen Lloyd stresses the problem with the death
penalty. How do we know 100% that every man on death row is guilty? He also
allows the viewer to relate the unjust crucifixion of Jesus Christ to the possibly
innocent individuals on death row. His argument was that there can be just
execution, but the American legal system prevents just execution (Lloyd, 1998).
Despite whether or not it is ethical or moral, as Bill Mears points out in his CNN
study, some states just cannot afford the death penalty. "Thirty-five states still
retain the death penalty, but fewer and fewer executions are taking place every
year," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information
Center. "But the overall death row population has remained relatively steady. At a
time of budget shortfalls nationwide, the death penalty is turning into an
expensive form of life without parole." The same information center conducted a
study that suggested capital punishment costs can average $10 million more per
year per state than life sentences. He suggests that the death sentence provokes
more plea bargaining and appeals than any other sentence, there for driving up
the cost of such a penalty (Mears, 2009).
Whether you are a proponent of the death penalty, or an opponent, there
remains to be several difficult questions to answer with regards to this
controversial practice. How can one be certain the cost of the death penalty? Or
the cost of life in prison? Whether it actually deters crime or not? Does race play
a factor or not? Or whether we can be certain enough that someone committed a
crime? The answer to these questions can go either way and it seems difficult to
prove with absolute certainty any of them, but the death penalty remains to be
agreed upon and disagreed upon everywhere in the world. Rasmussen reports
that as of June of 2010, 62% of Americans supported the death penalty, but were
unsure of its effectiveness and its ability to deter crime. The truth of the matter
remains to be that we will never universally agree on any one item, especially the
death penalty, but the great thinkers I have described before help us to assess
the ethical perspectives that help us form a stance on the debated issue.

Kant On Suicide
Paul Edwards disagrees with Kant in this recently-discovered

All Enlightenment thinkers who wrote on the subject Hume, Voltaire and
Rousseau among others agreed that the religious condemnation of suicide
was not only preposterous but also entirely lacking in charity. Kant, on the
other hand, denounced suicide in the most unqualified and indeed quite
furious terms. According to him suicide is in no circumstances permissible.
The man who commits suicide sinks lower than the beasts. We shrink
from him in horror. Nothing more terrible can be imagined. We look upon
the suicide as carrion. And if a man attempts suicide and survives, he has in
effect discarded his humanity and we are entitled to treat him as a beast,
as a thing, and to use him for our sport as we do a horse or a dog.
(from The Metaphysics of Morals, 1797.)

Kant maintains that man is Gods property, and hence has no right to
dispose of his own life. However, Kant also has a number of purely secular
arguments, two of which deserve some discussion. According to the first of
them, the suicide is abasing and degrading his humanity by treating himself
as no more than a thing:

Man can only dispose of things; beasts are things in this sense; but man is not a
thing, not a beast. If he disposes of himself, he treats his value as that of a beast.
He who so behaves, who has no respect for human behavior, makes a thing of

Kant is surely wildly wrong here. I am treating somebody as a thing (and

thus debasing his humanity) if I try to dominate him so that he will, under
the force of my superior will, automatically do what I want. And setting aside
the notion of treating somebody as a thing, it is unquestionable that people
do frequently debase other human beings. I am debasing a person if I
humiliate him, if I get him to the point at which, to preserve his job which I
control, he has to fawn and beg for mercy or to confess to wrongs he never
committed. In such circumstances I have no regard for his feelings,
especially for his pride and dignity. In reply to Kant, it must also be
emphasized that a great many cases in which people have committed or
have attempted to commit suicide do not at all resemble debasements of the
kind just described. If I commit suicide I may do so freely. I am not
necessarily the victim of the stronger will of someone else. Nor am I
indifferent to my own feelings or my own dignity; but on the contrary I
may compassionately decide to terminate what I regard as my pointless (or
even perhaps degrading) suffering. In such circumstances I have not
become a thing, and I have not at all debased myself.

Kants other argument is based on the undeniable fact that if a person

commits suicide he can no longer perform any moral acts. It cannot be
moral, in Kants words, to root out the existence of morality in the world.
The suicide robs himself of his person. This is contrary to the highest duty
we have towards ourselves, for it annuls the conditions of all other duties.
To this it must be replied that the person who commits suicide does not root
out the existence of morality itself from the world, any more so than when
he dies a natural death or is killed in battle. He roots out any new moral
acts on his own part, but presumably there would be other people left who
could engage in moral behavior. He would root out morality itself only if he
wiped out the human race.

This argument involves a confusion between the following two statements:

(1) I ought to do my duty as long as I am alive; and

(2) It is my duty to go on living as long as possible.

Kants basic value judgment that doing ones duty is the highest goal implies
(1) but it does not imply (2); and only (2) could serve as a basis for
condemning suicide. Let us suppose I live in Melbourne, Australia, next door
to a man by the name of Samuel Blau. During a visit to my house Blau has a
heart attack. In such circumstances it would clearly be my duty to call a
physician. However, it is not my duty to live in Melbourne, Australia, as a
next-door-neighbor of Samuel Blau.

It should be noted that in various places Kant himself rejects statement (2).
In one place he remarks that there is much in the world far more important
than life, and that it is better to sacrifice ones life than ones morality.
Furthermore, it is apparently entirely permissible and even laudable to risk
ones life against ones enemies, and even to sacrifice it, in order to observe
ones duties towards oneself. Kant also fully endorses the right of the
sovereign to call his subjects to fight to the death for their country. Those
who die in battle, Kant goes on, are not suicides but victims of fate. They
are to be admired as noble and high-minded, in contrast with soldiers who
run away to save their lives. It should be pointed out that the death of the
noble victims of fate roots out the existence of morality from the world just
as much as the death of people who commit suicide, while the cowardly
soldier who saves his life thereby preserves himself for further moral action.
Hence the mere fact of not preserving the conditions of future moral action
cannot be a sufficient reason for condemning suicide.

It evidently never occurred to Kant that a person who committed suicide

may have been suffering acutely from physical or mental pain, or both, and
was not injuring anybody by his act. I wonder how he would have reacted if
one of his best friends or one of his favorite students had committed suicide.
Kant greatly admired Hume, who had awakened him from his dogmatic
slumbers. But he was referring only to his epistemological slumbers. It is
unfortunate that Kant did not have access to Humes essay on suicide.
Perhaps it would have made him a little less fierce.

Ethic of paternalism
1. Introduction
The government requires people to contribute to a pension system (Social
Security). It requires motorcyclists to wear helmets. It forbids people from
swimming at a public beach when lifeguards are not present. It forbids the
sale of various drugs deemed to be ineffective. It forbids the sale of various
drugs believed to be harmful. It does not allow consent to certain forms of
assault to be a defense against prosecution for that assault.
The civil law does not allow the enforcement of certain kinds of contracts,
e.g., for gambling debts. It requires minors to have blood transfusions even
if their religious beliefs forbid it. Persons may be civilly committed if they
are a danger to themselves.
Doctors do not tell their patients the truth about their medical condition. A
physician may tell the wife of a man whose car went off a bridge into the
water and drowned that he died instantly when in fact he died a rather
ghastly death.
A husband may hide the sleeping pills from a depressed wife. A
philosophy department may require a student to take logic courses.
A teacher may be less than honest about telling a student that he has little
philosophical ability.
All of these rules, policies, and actions may be done for various reasons;
may be justified by various considerations. When they are justified solely
on the grounds that the person affected would be better off, or would be
less harmed, as a result of the rule, policy, etc., and the person in question
would prefer not to be treated this way, we have an instance of
As the examples indicate the question of paternalism is one that arises in
many different areas of our personal and public life. As such, it is an
important realm of applied ethics. But it also raises certain theoretical
issues. Perhaps the most important is: what powers it is legitimate for a
state, operating both coercively and in terms of incentives, to possess? It
also raises questions about the proper ways in which individuals, either in
an institutional or purely personal setting, should relate to one another.
How should we think about individual autonomy and its limits? What is it
to respect the personhood of others? What is the trade-off, if any, between
regard for the welfare of another and respect for their right to make their
own decisions?
This entry examines some of the conceptual issues involved in analyzing
paternalism, and then discusses the normative issues concerning the
legitimacy of paternalism by the state and various civil institutions.
Truth-telling, Disclosure, Privacy and Confidentiality
The ethical problem: the problem of the professionals power to control communication and patient-
related information The durability of the traditional commitment to respect privacy and maintain
confidentiality By contrast: the checkered history of truth telling Truth-telling Hippocratic Paternalism:
Rationale for concealment medicine had little to offer but hope and it was believed that bad news
destroyed hope --->concealment was in the patients best interests since the physician and medicines
reputation was at stake concealment was in the physician and professions best interests Long-standing
physician policy of concealmentsometimes motivated by self-interest Long-standing institutional
policy of concealmentoften motivated by self-interest Truth-telling Simple Autonomy Model:
Rationale for disclosure: informed consent grounded in strong notion of autonomy duty to tell linked to
right to know: rights-based ethic prompted reversal of the prior policy of concealment positive and
negative aspects of rights language 1) positive: stakes a claim and affords social protection 2) negative:
invites adversarialism and minimalism; distorts the moral issue of communication [dumping bad news
versus communicating the truth..] Truth-telling Expanded Autonomy Model Grounded in Rich Notion of
Beneficence: Rationale for compassionate disclosure commitment to authentic autonomy: patients
receive the information and support they need to make the decision that is right for them corrects the
problem of the non-interference model of autonomy which limits the health care professionals
responsibilities to the negative duty not to interfere in the choices patients make; imposes the positive
duty to communicate the knowledge patients need and to provide the support they need Reflection Do
you agree with Subrata Chattopadhyay? In traditional Hindu teaching, truth has three qualities or
attributes -- satyam, shivam, sundaram -- and thus for something to be regarded as the truth it has to be
true in fact (satyam), good in nature (shivam), and beautiful or aesthetically appealing (sundaram).
Disclosure of the painful reality of a fatal disease to a suffering patient -- honoring individual autonomy
but with total disregard for his or her emotional state of mind or the role of the family -- might be
neither good nor appealing. In the art of compassionate medicine, telling the truth might thus demand --
at least in some cases -- disclosure of some of the factual information about a disease, and
communication of the limited information that is true, good, and appealing. Reflection Nursing has often
been guilty of at the very least deceiving patients in order to bring them some benefit. Under what
conditionsif any would you find it justified to crush medications and conceal them in applesauce?
Do you agree or disagree with Doug Olsens recommendations? Olsen, D. P. (March 2012). Putting the