Arguments in favor of capital punishment

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A breakdown of the arguments given in favor of keeping (or reintroducing) the death penalty.

First a reminder of the basic argument behind retribution and punishment:

• all guilty people deserve to be punished

• only guilty people deserve to be punished

• guilty people deserve to be punished in proportion to the severity of their crime

This argument states that real justice requires people to suffer for their wrongdoing, and to suffer in a way appropriate for the crime. Each criminal should get what their crime deserves and in the case of a murderer what their crime deserves is death.

The measure of punishment in a given case must depend upon the atrocity of the crime, the conduct of the criminal and the defenceless and unprotected state of the victim.
Imposition of appropriate punishment is the manner in which the courts respond to the society's cry for justice against the criminals.

Justice demands that courts should impose punishment befitting the crime so that the courts reflect public abhorrence of the crime.

Many people find that this argument fits with their inherent sense of justice.

It's often supported with the argument "An eye for an eye". But to argue like that demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of what that Old Testament phrase actually means. In fact the Old Testament meaning of "an eye for an eye" is that only the guilty should be punished, and they should punished neither too leniently or too severely.

The arguments against retribution
• Capital punishment is vengeance rather than retribution and, as such, is a morally dubious concept

• The anticipatory suffering of the criminal, who may be kept on death row for many years, makes the punishment more severe than just depriving the criminal of life

•  That's certainly true in the USA, but delay is not an inherent feature of capital punishment; some countries execute people within days of sentencing them to death

Some people are prepared to argue against retribution as a concept, even when applied fairly.

Capital punishment is often justified with the argument that by executing convicted murderers, we will deter would-be murderers from killing people.
The arguments against deterrence

• The statistical evidence doesn't confirm that deterrence works (but it doesn't show that deterrence doesn't work either)

• Some of those executed may not have been capable of being deterred because of mental illness or defect

• Some capital crimes are committed in such an emotional state that the perpetrator did not think about the possible consequences

• No-one knows whether the death penalty deters more than life imprisonment

Deterrence is most effective when the punishment happens soon after the crime - to make an analogy, a child learns not to put their finger in the fire, because the consequence is instant pain.
Executions, especially where they are painful, humiliating, and public, may create a sense of horror that would prevent others from being tempted to commit similar crimes...

...In our day death is usually administered in private by relatively painless means, such as injections of drugs, and to that extent it may be less effective as a deterrent.

Some proponents of capital punishment argue that capital punishment is beneficial even if it has no deterrent effect.

Of course capital punishment doesn't rehabilitate the prisoner and return them to society. But there are many examples of persons condemned to death taking the opportunity of the time before execution to repent, express remorse, and very often experience profound spiritual rehabilitation.

Thomas Aquinas noted that by accepting the punishment of death, the offender was able to expiate his evil deeds and so escape punishment in the next life.

Prevention of re-offending
It is undeniable that those who are executed cannot commit further crimes.

Many people don't think that this is sufficient justification for taking human life, and argue that there are other ways to ensure the offenders do not re-offend, such as imprisonment for life without possibility of parole.

Closure and vindication
It is often argued that the death penalty provides closure for victims' families.

This is a rather flimsy argument, because every family reacts differently. As some families do not feel that another death will provide closure, the argument doesn't provide a justification for capital punishment as a whole.

Incentive to help police
Plea bargaining is used in most countries. It's the process through which a criminal gets a reduced sentence in exchange for providing help to the police.
Where the possible sentence is death, the prisoner has the strongest possible incentive to try to get their sentence reduced.
This is a very feeble justification for capital punishment.

A Japanese argument
This is a rather quirky argument, and not normally put forward.

Japan uses the death penalty sparingly, executing approximately 3 prisoners per year.

A unique justification for keeping capital punishment has been put forward by some Japanese psychologists who argue that it has an important psychological part to play in the life of the Japanese, who live under severe stress and pressure in the workplace.

The argument goes that the death penalty reinforces the belief that bad things happen to those who deserve it. This reinforces the contrary belief; that good things will happen to those who are 'good'.

In this way, the existence of capital punishment provides a psychological release from conformity and overwork by reinforcing the hope that there will be a reward in due time.
Oddly, this argument seems to be backed up by Japanese public opinion. Those who are in favour currently comprise 81% of the population, or that is the official statistic. Nonetheless there is also a small but increasingly vociferous abolitionist movement in Japan.

From an ethical point of view this is the totally consequentialist argument that if executing a few people will lead to an aggregate increase in happiness then that is a good thing.

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