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Utilitarianism: Death Penalty – View on Capital Punishment Essay

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Updated: Jul 21st, 2020

Introduction

The death penalty is arguably the most controversial legal punishment imposed by the Criminal Justice System of our country. This form of punishment stands out from the rest due to its harshness and severity. There is general agreement that capital punishment is the most severe punishment that a judge can give an offender.

Due to the perceived severity of the death penalty, there has been intense controversy surrounding the issue. Opponents of the death penalty declare that it is barbaric and inhumane hence the government should do away with it. On the other hand, its supporters maintain that the death penalty is a necessary form of punishment that should be used on the most vicious offenders in society.

The highly polarized debate on the death penalty has continued to exist for decades. Ethical theories can be used to come up with a solution to this highly controversial issue. Ethics determine what is the right course of action in a given situation. A number of solid ethical theories have been proposed by scholars and philosophers over the years. This paper will make use of one of the most widely applied ethical theories, which is utilitarianism, to demonstrate that the death penalty is indeed justified.

Overview of the Utilitarian Theory

Utilitarianism is a popular and widely applied ethical theory that was first proposed by John Stuart Mill. According to this theory, the moral nature of an action can be deduced by calculating its net utility. According to the utilitarian, an ethical action is one that “maximizes the happiness for the largest number of people”. Actions are viewed as having either benefits or negative consequences.

Individuals should act in a manner that increases the benefits since if the consequences outweigh the benefits, the action will be considered unethical. From a utilitarian perspective, actions that promote the happiness of the majority in society should be pursued while those that deter this happiness should be avoided. The utilitarian theory can be applied to the issue of capital punishment since this form of punishment produces both positive and negative consequences.

Analysis using the Utilitarian Approach

Net Benefits

The first major benefit offered by the death penalty is that it plays a significant deterrence role. The most important goal of the criminal justice system is to discourage people from engaging in crime.

This is achieved by attaching punishments to crimes so that a person perceives the merits of engaging in illegal actions as being outweighed by the consequences. As such, an ideal society would be one where no one is punished since the threat of punishment keeps everyone from engaging in crime. The death penalty is the most severe punishment and its availability is likely to deter people who might not be scared by long prison sentences.

Research indicates that there is a negative relationship between executions and murder incidents thereby suggesting that the death penalty plays a deterrence role (Kirchgassner 448). From a utilitarian perspective, the deterrence role is ethical since it contributes to the overall happiness of the society. When criminals are deterred from engaging in crime, the society is safer and people enjoy the peace and security in their communities.

Another significant benefit offered by the death penalty to the society is that it leads to the permanent incapacitation of the convicted person. Unlike other forms of punishment which only restrict some of the freedoms of the offender, the death penalty takes away his life.

Once the convicted person is executed, the community can be assured that he/she will never commit another vicious crime against the society members (Sunstein and Vermeule 848). While other forms of punishment such as life imprisonment also have an incapacitation effect, this effect is not as definite.

A person who has been imprisoned for life can still engage in vicious crimes against his fellow inmates or even the prison guards. The probability of recidivist murder is removed by implementing the death penalty. From a utilitarian point of view, this benefit is significant since it completely safeguards the society from future offences from a convict. The community’s peace of mind is also ensured since the death penalty permanently gets rid of vicious criminals, ensuring that they are not able to reenter society.

The death penalty leads to a sense of justice for the individuals affected by the crime perpetrated by the convicted person. As has been highlighted, the death penalty is only given to individuals who have engaged in vicious crimes such as violent murder. When a person commits a violent murder, he causes significant emotional distress to the family and friends of the victim (Stambaugh and Gary 1).

This pain and suffering can be alleviated if the convicted person is given a punishment that fits his crime. Without the death penalty, the convicted person is given a long prison sentence. This might expose the family of the victims to future emotional suffering as they might be required to attend parole hearings for the convict. The death penalty provides maximum retribution and therefore gives peace to the family and friends of the victim.

The final benefit of the death penalty is that it gives the judge the ability to provide adequate retribution for any crime. For justice to be served, it is necessary for the severity of the punishment to equal the crime committed. If the punishment is regarded as lenient, then there will be a sense of injustice by society members.

There are crimes that cannot be punished satisfactorily without the death penalty. Without the death penalty, people found guilty of these crimes would be given the maximum life imprisonment sentence. This would create a sense of injustice therefore decreasing the credibility of the justice system.

This might cause people to engage in extrajudicial killings (Steiker and Jordan 649). A utilitarian approach would support a punishment that leads to a sense of justice and hence increases the credibility of the justice system. Capital punishment fulfils this role and leads to the perception of justice therefore preventing the breakdown in law and order that might occur if people seek out their own justice.

Consequences

A significant consequence of the death penalty is that is has a high fiscal cost compared to the alternatives. The taxpayers have to shoulder the financial burden associated with implementing the death penalty. Traditionally, the death penalty was considered to be a cheaper method of punishing convicts compared to the alternative, which is a longer prison term. However, this has changed as procedures that are more stringent have been put in place when dealing with capital cases.

Instead of tackling these cases as other criminal cases, the prosecutor and defender are required to be thorough and make use of expert witnesses. Once the judgment has been passed, the offender can engage in numerous appeals making the case last for many years. While it is possible to reduce the costs associated with capital punishment, such a move would require neglecting some of the procedural safeguards put in place to ensure that the risk of wrongful conviction is reduced to the minimal.

From a utilitarian perspective, the huge financial cost is a negative consequence to the society. Opponents of capital punishment point out that the society would benefit more if the money currently used to sustain the death penalty was used for other pursuits such as building rehabilitation centers or increasing the police force in order to deter crime in the community (Dieter par.15).

Another major consequence of the death penalty is that it might lead to a miscarriage of justice. If this happens, an innocent person can be put to death by the criminal justice system. While miscarriages of justice occur even in non-capital cases, there is the hope that the innocent person can be exonerated in the future through appeals.

However, the death penalty is final and once the sentence has been carried out, there is no chance for the innocent person to challenge the wrongful conviction and attain his freedom. Aronson and Cole reveal that the danger of wrongful conviction remains to be the most dominant issue in capital punishment discussions (604).

This situation can lead to a crisis of confidence in capital punishment since killing an innocent person is unacceptable. To a utilitarian, the wrongful killing of an innocent person is a great loss to the society since he can no longer make a positive contribution to his society. In addition to this, wrongful execution might lead to emotional distress by the people who were involved in the trial. It therefore has a negative impact and reduces the happiness of the society.

Ethical Analysis

To determine the ethical nature of an action using utilitarianism, one must weigh the benefits against the consequences. In this case, the benefits of the death penalty include deterrence, incapacitation, retribution, and the preservation of law and order. On the other hand, the consequences include high fiscal cost and a potential loss of innocent lives.

As can be seen, the benefits of implementing the death penalty outweigh the consequences. It can therefore be asserted that the death penalty is ethical from a utilitarian perspective since it has a net beneficial effect, which leads to the maximization of the happiness of the greatest amount of people.

Conclusion

This paper set out to demonstrate the ethical nature of the death penalty using the utilitarian theory. It began by acknowledging that the death penalty issue is highly controversial and people are divided in their opinions concerning its usefulness.

The paper then demonstrated how the utilitarian theory, which seeks to maximize the happiness of the majority, could be used to ascertain the ethical nature of capital punishment. It has shown that the death penalty has major advantages to society including deterrence, incapacitation, and an increase in the credibility of the criminal justice system. However, the death penalty also has major consequences since it is costly to the citizen and it might lead to wrongful executions.

However, the benefits are more prominent and when implemented, the death penalty reaffirms the value of observing the law, thus creating a safer society for all citizens. From the arguments provided in this paper, it is clear that the death penalty has the most favorable results for the majority in society. This punishment should therefore be implemented more often in our country since it is ethically sound and leads to overall benefits to the society.

Works Cited

Aronson, Jay and Cole Simon. “Science and the Death Penalty: DNA, Innocence, and the Debate over Capital Punishment in the United States.” Law & Social Inquiry 34.3 (2009): 603-633. Print.

Dieter, Richard. “Capital Punishment Is Too Expensive to Retain.” Death Penalty Information Center 21.2 (2009): 1-2. Web.

Kirchgassner, Gebhard. “Econometric Estimates of Deterrence of the Death Penalty: Facts or Ideology?” Kyklos 64.3(2011): 448-478. Web.

Stambaugh, Irl, and Gary Stam. “Death Penalty Would End Punishment of Victim’s Family.” Anchorage Daily News, 7 Mar. 2009. Web.

Steiker, Carol and Jordan Morris. Capital Punishment: A Century of Discontinuous Debate. Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology, 100.3 (2010): 643-689. Print.

Sunstein, Cass and Vermeule Adrian. “Deterring Murder: A Reply.” Stanford Law Review 58.1 (2005): 847–857. Web.

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