Sample Capstone Project on Ethical arguments for death penalty

Ethical arguments for death penalty


 Capital punishment or what is commonly referred to as the death penalty defines a particular legal process where an individual is usually assassinated as a form of punishment for engaging in a particular type of crime. The legal decree that is usually given for this type of punishment is usually referred to as a sentence while the ultimate implementation of this decree is usually referred to as execution. Conversely, the various crimes attributing to the death penalty are usually referred to as capital crimes (Oliver, 2012). The term capital was derived from a Latin word “Capitalis”, which means the head and is usually applied to capital punishment to define a type of execution that takes place through beheading. As explained by Anski & Pepper (2012), capital punishment was traditionally carried out by most societies as a basic form of punishment for offenders as well as political and religious rebels. Today, only 58 countries have been actively exercising this type of punishment as many others have abolished it for contrasting with new laws relating to all forms of crimes while others have reserved it for special circumstances only (White, 1991).

With United States as the only western country that executes the capital punishment, 90% of all executions of capital punishment around the world take place in Asia. Almost all countries in other parts of the world prohibit execution of offenders by use of capital punishment. Research has however indicated that almost 60% of the global population lives in places where capital punishment is acceptable. Most crimes targeted by countries that execute the capital punishment mainly include treason, heightened kidnapping, perjury, assassination during terrorist acts, aggravated drug trafficking and aggravated sexual battery (Anski & Pepper, 2012). This paper aims at analyzing the various ethical arguments associated with the capital punishment. The paper will mainly look into various issues as well as theorists’ views and arguments associated with death penalty.

Theorist views and motivation for best practices concerning capital punishment

            Capital punishment has increasingly become a hot topic for discussion as most individuals have continued to perceive it as a cruel and discriminatory form of punishment that intrinsically dishonors the various constitutional provisions that prohibit cruel punishment. While this topic has been under scrutiny particularly in United States since 1608, various philosophical arguments that either support or condemn capital punishment have been put in place. While certain arguments have been put in place in the attempt to prove the fact that killing is wrong in disregards the universal human rights, others have been put in place in the attempt to portray death penalty as a necessary means for perpetuating the type of justice that they deem necessary (Oliver, 2012).

John Stuart Mill is one of the major scholars that have put in place strong arguments relating to the capital punishment. Mill is particularly renowned for his interpretation of the concept of utilitarianism that was primarily formulated by Jeremy Bentham. According to Mill’s interpretation, utilitarianism should refer to actions of morality that would ultimately perpetuate absolute happiness. Mill argued that a person could promote utilitarianism when he acts in a manner intended to perpetuate the overall good of the wider society (White, 1991). He viewed suffering as very bad and, hence, non-acceptable thing and should only be accepted when the overall ultimate benefit outweighs the amount of pain perpetuated by this suffering. He thus exhibited his ultimate support for capital punishment by stating that this would ultimately reduce crime thereby perpetuating a greater overall benefit for the wider society compared to the little suffering that an offender would eventually incur (Oliver, 2013).

He further claimed that significant consideration should as well be put in place when one is choosing the type of punishment that he/she will adopt in the attempt to reduce crime. On this note, Mill argued that legal agencies should consider the overall balance of happiness that will be perpetuated when a particular form of punishment is adopted. He argued that adopting immediate death through capital punishment might be fairer compared to lifelong confinement behind bars. Although he was equally supportive of capital punishment on dreadful crimes, Mill argued that the offenders’ guilt must be proven by motivation drawn from their own character decay and not from motivations perpetuated by external pressures (Oliver, 2012).

Immanuel Kant’s retributive theory is equally important in exhibiting his support for capital punishment. Through this theory, Kant argued that punishment could not be evaluated by the good consequences that it might render but should be measured by the need to punish a criminal’s guilt. Depending on the type of crime committed, punishment should be rendered on criminals so they can pay for their crimes, as failure to do that would perpetuate some form of injustice (Potter, 2002). He asserted that the crime of murder should be punished through murder since there is no possible alternative that can satisfy justice if a murderer does not pay with his own life. Kant further argued that any give society that does not demand to take the life of a person that may have taken another person’s life could simply be termed immoral (Mysliwiec, 2011). On this note, Kant argued that giving offenders what they deserve could be the only way through which justice can be promoted. In supporting his reason for advocating that murder should be punished through murder, Kant stated that criminals should not be punished as a mere means of promoting happiness, as this would mean that criminals are only being used as a mere a means of perpetuating a certain end. He thus argued that criminals should be punished simply because they committed crime and not for any other purpose (White, 1991).

As a way of identifying the most appropriate course of action that can enhance the most appropriate actions for the wider society, Mill, who in this case is the utilitarianism theorist, follows one simplistic idea, which states that right actions are those actions that can be able to perpetuate the greatest good for the largest number of people. For this to be achieved, everyone in a given society would have to ensure that his/her actions are strictly governed by good intensions while on the other hand having the desire to multiply the good intentions to the greatest number of people. Although it is obvious that the issue of happiness may have different meanings to different people, Mill argued that any action intended to decrease pain would be worthwhile since a broad concept of happiness is always possible (Anski & Pepper, 2012).

Measuring fairness of Capital Punishment

            Kant views capital punishment as being executed fairy as it is usually intended to give a criminal what he/she deserves. Through his theory, Kant presents offenders as rational beings that are capable of thinking and making rational decisions on what they ought to do. He however argues that fairness of capital punishment would be measured by the type of crime committed. This is because an offender should be repaid with what he may have done, as death should be repaid with death while other types of crime should be repaid with similar types of punishment. He thus argued that punishing various types of crimes that do not involve murder with capital punishment is unfair as criminals would be getting what they do not deserve (Potter, 2002).

The utilitarian’s measure of fairness is however distinct as it exhibits capital punishment as a fair form of punishment that perpetuates the greater good of most people in the society. This is because capital punishment helps to deter crime within the society while on the other hand reducing the level of suffering that the offer undergoes. According to this theory, lifelong containment of criminals behind bars would perpetuate greater suffering to offenders, which would eventually reduce the overall happiness experienced by the wider society. Capital punishment however perpetuates immediate death, which is a fair way of avoiding long-term suffering (Mysliwiec, 2011).

Measuring Cost and Benefit of Capital Punishment

            Utilitarianism defines an ethical theory that states that morality of an action is usually determined by its ability to contribute to overall good for the wider society. In regard to capital punishment, utilitarianism ensures that a fair punishment that can promote the overall good for the wider society in employed. This is particularly because utilitarianism ensures that law enforcement agencies are able to weigh the possible consequences that might result from capital punishment, which ensures that crime is significantly reduced to benefit the greatest number of people in the society. Research has portrayed capital punishment as an important concept that can contribute to positive as well as negative consequences (Urbina, 2003). As explained by Dutoit (2012), capital punishment is beneficial as it ensures that individuals committing violent crimes that include treason, murder and rape get what they deserve, as there is no other punishment that can be as severe as death penalty.

Death penalty is equally important as it discourages others from engaging in crimes, as they fear for their lives. Employing a different type of punishment, which may for example include imprisonment, can give a criminal the opportunity of repeating his crime. This however is not the case in capital punishment since it ensures that the society is safe from repeated crimes (Manji, 2006). Capital punishment perpetuates the revenge of severe pain inflicted on the casualty. This is because capital punishment inflicts the severest type of revenge since a criminal that takes another person’s life does not deserve to live. Research has equally indicated that various disadvantages can as well be associated with capital punishment. According to Mysliwiec (2011), capital punishment may not always be just and fair, as the poor people constitute to the highest population that succumbs to death, as they tend to lack good lawyers that would otherwise save them from their situation. Capital punishment may also perpetuate death of an innocent person that might wrongly be prosecuted for a crime that he/she may not have committed. Research has equally indicated that capital punishment does not deter crime, as the rate of crime is not proportional to that of death penalty. This is because crime rates are as high in countries executing the capital punishment as they are in countries where it has been abolished (Urbina, 2003).

The proponents of death penalty often use economics to analyze the overall cost of capital punishment versus social reintegration so as to justify their ultimate choice for capital punishment. A study carried out by Dutoit (2012) showed that most legal agencies opt for death penalty as they argue that it is more cost effective compared to social reintegration. This is particularly because large amounts of resources would be spend while keeping a criminal in jail as well as when trying to reform his conduct before being reintegrated into the society. In cases where there would be no death sentence, criminals that commit outrageous offenses end up misusing taxpayers’ money that is usually used for housing and food. Various court hearings that waste time and money are equally carried out in the attempt to determine a criminal’s suitability for social reintegration. Social reintegration is equally costly compared to capital punishment as offenders are usually taken through probation that tends to be costly and time consuming.

Claims that deterrence of crime can be perpetuated through capital punishment do not exhibit any significant link with Foucault’s theory of power and knowledge. The constant debates over death penalty particularly in the United States indicate that there is a discourse of favoring this type of punishment as executions have proven to be effective compared to any other form of punishment. As explained by Manji (2006), capital punishment has proven to be more effective in lowering cases of murder as most people are compelled to consider the possible outcomes for committing certain offenses. This as a result indicates that a single execution can ultimately prevent a big number of overnight deaths, as potential killers would fear that they might pay for their crimes with their own lives. This however does not link with Foucault’s theory of power and knowledge, which states that modern penal practices employed in legal systems should solely be intended to maximize protection of human life. According to Foucault, capital punishment is a form of scandal that limits multiplication of life. This is because the modern day legal systems that perpetuate this type of punishment are no longer concerned about promoting the right to life but are just concerned about how they can exhibit their power over life. As a result, the type of power that should primarily be used to maximize multiplicity of life ends up being exhibited through death (Urbina, 2003).

Immanuel Kant exhibits two contracting views relating to capital punishment. His first view exhibited his support for capital punishment where he stated that the crime of murder should be repaid with death since there is no better form of punishment that can ensure that a criminal gets what he deserves than putting him/her to death. He supports his view by declaring that any murder confined in prison should be executed, as this would be ensuring that he gets what he deserves, as failure to this would mean that law enforcement agencies are collaborating with violators of justice. Kant however disagrees with death penalty as a way of perpetuating the overall pleasure of the greatest number of people (Taylor, 2011). He argues that criminals should be punished because they have committed crime and not as a way of helping them to escape suffering. On this note, Kant argues that criminals should receive a type of punishment that complements their deeds. He thus disagrees with capital punishment in instances where a criminal may not have committed murder. He thus argues that capital punishment should only apply to cases of murder and not any other type of punishment. This therefore states that cases of rape, hijacking and drug trafficking should not be put under capital punishment (Dutoit, 2012).


            Research has shown that capital punishment is perceived to be an unethical practice particularly when it is intended to punish non-scandalous crimes as well as when it is imposed on an innocent person. Kant and utilitarianism theory however do not perceive capital punishment as a means of murder but a way of perpetuating justice. According to Kant, capital punishment is just a means of giving someone what he/she deserves as well as ensuring that a murderer is able to fairly pay for his/her crime. According to the utilitarianism theory, capital punishment is not murder but a means of maximizing the greater benefit for the wider society by helping to deter crime while on the other hand helping a criminal to escape lifelong suffering (Oliver, 2013).

Various arguments state that capital punishment is murder and it thus takes away God’s given rights to life. Research for example indicates that hundreds of men, women and young people wait in “death row” as their time to live grows shorter and courts continually intensify the capital punishment laws. This violates God given human rights as it supports state-sanctioned murder of people that have the right to live (Oliver, 2013). This however does not relate to Kant’s views on death penalty, as he perceives it as a fair way of giving criminals what they deserve. He in fact views failure to impose the capital punishment as itself violating God’s given right to justice as murderers are allowed to go unpunished even if they deserve to pay for their crimes with their own life (Taylor, 2011).

Arguments against Capital Punishment

Various arguments particularly those presented by Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill are supportive of capital punishment. According to Kant, capital punishment should be retained as it ensures that criminals are made to pay for their crimes by receiving what they deserve. This argument is however irrational as it perpetuates immoral actions by encouraging people to kill others. Repaying murder with murder does not deter crime but it increases chances for injustices. This is because corrupt and unjust ruling can lead to death of innocent people that would not have an opportunity to repeal their cases (Oliver, 2013). Mill’s argument in support of capital punishment is equally unfair since it perpetuates greater suffering for the offenders rather than employing corrective measures that would increase the overall benefit for all people. According to the utilitarianism theory, capital punishment is usually adopted as a way of maximizing the overall benefit for the wider society. However, killing does not increase these benefits but it increases suffering incurred by offenders. A better way to maximize the greater benefit for the wider society would be by use of other corrective measures that can include social reintegration and imprisonment. This is because such practices allow someone to have an opportunity to live while on the other hand reforming from his misdeeds (Taylor, 2011).


            Various scholars that include Foucault have portrayed capital punishment as an immoral practice that violates the human right to life while on the other hand failing to deter crime. Evidence has further indicated that capital punishment is an old-fashioned practice that has been founded on historical arguments particularly those presented by Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill. The two scholars portray capital punishment as a fair way of perpetuating justice by repaying criminals with what they deserve as well as helping to reduce the suffering impacted on the wider society. Such arguments are however unethical as they do not deter crime but they only violate the human rights to life by perpetuating state sanctioned murder. Legal systems should however adopt fairer means of punishment to allow criminals have an opportunity to live as well as reform from their misdeeds.


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Manji, R. (2006). Cost-Benefit Analysis, the Death Penalty and Rationales for Punishment, University of Tennessee: Tennessee.

Manski, C. and Pepper, J. (2012). Deterrence and the Death Penalty: Partial Identification Analysis Using Repeated Cross Sections, Journal of Quant Criminol, 29:123-141.

Mysliwiec, P. (2011). The federal Death Penalty as a Safety Valve, Brooklyn: New York.

Oliver, K. (2013). Technologies of Life and Death: From Cloning to Capital Punishment, Fordham University Press: New York.

Oliver, K. (2012). The Plight of Ethics, Journal of Speculative Philosophy, 26(2):118-133.

Potter, N. (2002). Kant and Capital Punishment Today, Journal of Value Inquiry, 36(5):267-282.

Taylor, R. (2011). Why Has Prison Emerged as a Prominent Form of Punishment for Most Crime and What are its Functions in Relation to Wider Society, Journal of Criminology, 2(3):1-25.

Urbina, M. (2003). Capital Punishment and Latino Offenders: Racial and Ethnic Differences in  Death Sentences, LFB Scholarly: New York.

White, P. (1991). Errors and Ethics: Dilemmas in Death, University of Tennessee Press: Tennessee.