Moral Permissibility of Death Penalty

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Reason/Evidence (1): One key argument for the death penalty is its deterrence against crime (Davis, 1996). However, this treats offenders as a means to an end, which is an affront to their dignity, as defined by Kant (1785/2011).

According to Kant, everything either has a price or dignity. Things with a price have no absolute worth; they can be substituted with another object of equal value. Conversely, things with an intrinsic, absolute worth are irreplaceable and have dignity. Kant (1785/2011) claims that humans have this inherent worth by virtue of our rationality. He explains that rationality gives us the ability to set ourselves as ends, to assign value to things used to reach such human ends, and to establish morality and moral behaviour. This demonstrates that rationality has “incomparable worth”, and is irreplaceable (Kant, 1785/2011). It thus follows that humans, as rational beings, have dignity. Kant (1785/2011) concludes by asserting that, to respect such dignity, humans should never be purely treated as a means to an end, but as an end itself. However, capital punishment violates this dignity as it treats a person as a ‘tool’ to achieve deterrence (Bruers, 2016; Tadros, 2011). In using offenders’ lives to achieve a human end, such lives are given a price and are treated as interchangeable, which undermines human dignity.

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Reason/Evidence (2): Retentionists argue that, in principle, capital punishment aims to be humane and avoid unnecessary suffering (Pojman, 1998; Van den Haag, 1986). However, the practice itself is not as dignified as intended. Death row convicts are confined in small, solitary cells for over 20 hours a day, with little opportunities for physical and social activities (Yuzon, 1996). Adjudication and appeal processes are often protracted, lasting about 10 years; the resulting lack of surety over the date of execution is thus anguishing (Bojosi, 2004). Johnson (1981) expressed how prison wardens ridiculed and treated him as inferior while under confinement. These conditions lead to adverse effects on the psychological wellbeing of inmates, known as the ‘death row phenomenon’ (Lyon & Cunningham, 2005). Pojman (1998) defends that the principle and implementation of the death penalty are two different issues, and that such degrading practices can be improved upon.

However, Reiman (1998) criticises such views for failing to look at both aspects holistically; instead, he proposes that such demeaning practices are necessary, and are embedded in the idea of the death penalty. He justifies the long appeal process through the need for careful evaluation to prevent wrongful executions; speeding up appeals forces convicts to accept a hastily-made, questionable decision over their lives.

Furthermore, Reiman (1998) and Vogelman (1989) suggest that the dehumanisation of inmates is necessary to relieve the psychological burden of killing someone; this detachment from the humanity of inmates aids the process of execution. Hence, Reiman (1998) claims that it is unlikely for the application of the death penalty to ever be dignified and respectful towards offenders.

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