Abolish the Death Penalty
The only moral justification for killing a person is direct self-defense. When a criminal is confined in prison, he does not threaten society, so killing him is not justified by self-defense. And even if capital punishment deters others from committing similar crimes, this would be an indirect defense against murder rather than directly from the criminal being killed. Direct self-defense implies killing someone who himself, at that time, is a threat to other persons, and this precludes taking human life just for punishment.
by Fred E. Foldvary, Senior Editor
There are four morally justified purposes for punishment. First is the protection of society. A dangerous criminal may be confined to protect society from violence and theft. The need for protection does not give society or the government the right to go beyond the minimum of what is needed for protection. For example, torturing or killing the criminal is excessive, since these do not add to the direct protection of society from this criminal.
The second morally proper reason for punishment is to reform and rehabilitate the criminal. Rehabilitation is related to protecting society, since if we can really change the criminal's mentality so that he no longer wishes to harm others, then society is protected when the criminal is released. Good parents realize that a proper punishment of their children when they do something bad includes teaching them that such acts will be penalized and not benefit them, and even better, that they should not even want to do the bad thing because they should not want to hurt others. Some criminals will refuse to be rehabilitated, but at least we can try. Obviously, if the state kills the prisoner, it is no longer possible to make him a better person, so rehabilitation excludes capital punishment.
The third legitimate reason for punishment is deterrence. Having predictable punishment and swift enforcement prevents other potential criminals from committing a similar crime. Some studies have concluded that capital punishment is not a greater deterrent than imprisonment. Some prisoners even prefer death to a lifetime in prison. Even if the death penalty deters crime, deterrence alone does not justify the penalty. The death penalty might deter shoplifting, but most folks would agree this would be a rather excessive penalty for minor theft. Deterrence has to be balanced with the human rights that even criminals have.
The fourth reason for proper punishment is the restitution of the damage. If a thief steals property, he is morally obliged to return the property to the victim, or property of similar type or value. If society kills the criminal, this cuts off any possible restitution. If the criminal has committed murder, restitution to the victim is not possible in any way. Killing the murderer will not restore the life of the victim.
None of these four morally legitimate reasons for punishment includes revenge. Vindictive killing and infliction of pain might make the victim or his relatives feel better, but this goes beyond what is morally justified for restitution and protection. Two wrongs do not make a right. In the Bible, God says "To me belongeth vengeance" (Deut. 32:35), repeated in Romans 12:19, "Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord." The Bible thus recognizes that any vengeance belongs to God, not to man.
Since, as I argue, capital punishment is morally wrong, then to deliberately kill someone, who has already been captured and no longer a direct threat to society, is murder. Capital punishment gives the government the legal right to commit first-degree murder. What kind or moral message does that send? That murder can be proper. We might debate over the circumstances of when murder is proper, but having established the principle that murder is not absolutely wrong, the state is brought down to the level of the criminal: both are murderers. But society and government should be nobler and more righteous than a murderer.
The U.S. Constitution forbids "cruel and unusual" punishment. It would benefit society to amend this vague wording with the more specific prohibition of excessive punishment, including capital punishment, torture, the forced removal or impairment of the human body and its functions, and cruel treatment.
Some types of harm are never justified, even for despicable criminals. An ethical government must defend the nobility and dignity of justice. Government must refrain from inflicting punishment just to satisfy vengeful and sadistic desires, for this exceeds what is needed for social justice.
Copyright 2000 by Fred E. Foldvary. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieval system, without giving full credit to Fred Foldvary and The Progress Report.
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