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Death Penalty and Moral Multiplicity Approach Research Paper


In the process of decision-making, people are governed by various emotions. However, it is not always easy to choose in favor of one particular type of emotion in a concrete situation. Frequently, an ethical issue may be regulated with moral multiplicity, which presupposes that some dilemma has more than one obvious way of being perceived. Researchers emphasize the need to take into consideration multiple capacities and emotions when making moral judgments (Kaplan and Tivnan 421).

According to Kaplan and Tivnan, there is a close association between moral emotions and cognition (422). To analyze the question of multiplicity, it is necessary to investigate what emotions are responsible for moral motivation and judgment. Kaplan and Tivnan consider the moral judgment to be a result of a spontaneous association between particular emotions and cognitions that occurs in the course of moral motivation (422).

As a result, emotions are most frequently perceived by people in connection with moral judgment. Clarifying such connections can help to understand complicated psychological mechanisms that shape moral judgment (Kaplan and Tivnan 422). According to the dynamic systems view, cognitive assessments and emotions produce an impact on moral judgment as well as on the probable results of judgment in a continuous process. As Kaplan and Tivnan remark, moral judgment is not regulated by a fixed component such as reasoning or emotion (423). In their opinion, moral judgment is determined by a motivational process that enables the interaction between emotions and particular moral conditions (Kaplan and Tivnan 423).

According to Guattari and Deleuze, a multiplicity that does not fit into the range of traditional psychoanalytic opinions is the unconscious (Semetsky and Delpech-Ramey 70). The unconscious “as multiplicity” creates a connection with public existence that may be political, social, or world-historical (Semetsky and Delpech-Ramey 70).

One of the social aspects of people’s lives is the question of crime and punishment. Multiplicity may be employed when dealing with this issue because there is no unanimous opinion as to whether someone who has committed a severe crime should be deprived of life or not. According to Sebo, multiplicity has the same advantages and values as multiculturalism (326). Multiplicity can provoke a conflict but, at the same time, it gives people the possibility to perform the analysis of life, discriminate harm, and learn from experience (Sebo 326).

Taking into consideration the complicated nature of moral emotional experience, Kaplan and Tivnan argue that the following issues are possible:

  • the functioning of multiple emotions within one individual;
  • divergent connections between multiple emotions and moral judgments;
  • multiple relations of moral emotions to the moral motivation’s cognitive-developmental characteristics;
  • the significance of the moral progress of emotional recognition (Kaplan and Tivnan 423).

The multiplicity of moral stages functions as a motivational force in each particular context of action and judgment (Kaplan and Tivnan 424). Since the concept of the death penalty is a rather disputable one, it should be viewed by the postulates of multiplicity. There are several major approaches to the treatment of punishment as well as to the understanding of the death penalty.

Death Penalty as One of the Most Controversial Ethical Issues

The question of rights occupies the major place in ethical discussions (Reinbolt 49-50). Among other preeminent rights, people’s right to live in the principal one. One of the ways of punishing someone who has committed a serious crime is the death penalty, which belongs to the most actively discussed issues both in ethics and legislation. Some people regard capital punishment as a fair penalty while others consider it unfair to deprive criminals of the right to live even though they have deprived others of the same right.

Philosophical perceptions of the death penalty are associated with the understanding of what is right or good and what is wrong or bad. According to the postulates of virtue ethics, people should treat others as they are treated (Hursthouse 60-62). However, people are not unanimous in their attitudes towards the death penalty. Whether someone supports or rejects such a method, both sides agree that it is not sufficient to judge only the actions. While considering the type of punishment for offenders, the motives, individual characteristics, and ethical principles should also be taken into account.

Supporters of the retributivist theory argue that the death penalty is not only admissible but even necessary (Pojman 494-497; Rachels 466-470). Such a proposition is justified by the opinion that offenders should receive the punishment equal in severity to the crime they have committed. Therefore, retributionists believe that if a person has killed someone, such an individual should also be killed. A popular objection to the death penalty is that an offender might be justified by the state.

However, retributionists advocate the opinion that everyone should be treated as they deserve. Thus, the only way to reach fairness while dealing with a murderer, as the supporters of the death penalty state, is to take away his or her life (Pojman 496-500). There are three popular objections to capital punishment, each of which is confronted by retributionists. The first argument is that the death penalty is not ethical.

The second objection is that innocent individuals may be punished because of the erroneous activity of the representatives of the justice system. The third argument against capital punishment is that it is rather frequently prejudiced to minority groups. The theory of retribution rejects these arguments by stating that the death penalty is not an unfair method of punishment and that it is not used as a kind of vengeance (Pojman 496-502). Thus, the supporters of this theory emphasize the need for capital punishment as fair treatment for those who have committed severe crimes.

Those who are against the death penalty argue that less severe methods should be applied to offenders. Moreover, the opposers of capital punishment consider this type of penalty to be a trigger of cruelty (Reiman 503-505). Those who consider the death penalty a wrong method of finding justice emphasize that it is also murder and that there is no proof of its positive role in the deterrence of crimes. The unfairness of capital punishment is proved in research.

Scholars investigating the issue of bias in the justice system report that individuals belonging to ethnic minorities are convicted to the death penalty much more frequently than white people (Donohue 637-640). Thus, the opposers of capital punishment argue that every single case should be thoroughly investigated so as not to punish innocent people.

Analysis and Evaluation of Punishment and the Death Penalty

There are three theories of punishment applied while analyzing and evaluating the death penalty: retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation. Retribution is backward-looking whereas deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation are future-oriented. The theory of retribution is aimed at giving a person the “deserved punishment” (Cole et al. 481). This approach is focused on penalizing people for illegal actions.

According to the theory of retribution, the measure of punishment should correspond to the seriousness of their crime and the extent to which their victims suffered. It is highly unlikely that retribution might lead to a deterrent effect (Cole et al. 481-482). Meanwhile, the deterrence theory has a different perspective. This approach presupposes such punishment which will prevent the commission of similar crimes in the future (Cole et al. 482-483).

Supporters of this theory find retribution pointless and unproductive. There are two kinds of deterrence: general and specific. The first type presupposes that all people will avoid committing a crime when they see how others are punished for similar actions. Specific deterrence is concentrated on those people who are already convicted and aims at decreasing the number of repeated crimes (Cole et al. 482).

The function of incapacitation is to deprive criminals of the possibility to commit a repeated illegal action, usually by imprisoning them (Cole et al. 483). Any sentence that imposes a physical restriction on the criminal involves incapacitation no matter what its underlying goal is: deterrence, rehabilitation, or retribution. This theory concentrates on the criminals’ characteristics rather than on their offenses’ features (Cole et al. 483). Finally, the theory of rehabilitation presupposes creating the most favorable conditions for the offenders to be able to accommodate to the society and become productive citizens again (Cole et al. 485).


Professionals in the criminal justice system and philosophers fall into two large groups: those who support the death penalty and those who oppose it. Some specialists tend to justify the significance of punishment for those people who have committed a crime (Rachels 466). According to Rachels, punishment is not only pure vengeance (Rachels 466-467). The scholar mentions that punishment is one of many elements constituting an intricate moral network that can be strengthened by many factors. Rachels points out that people should be treated as they treat others (Rachels 467-469).

Moreover, according to the author, such an approach should be associated not only with punishment but also with other spheres of people’s lives (Rachels 468-470). The supporters of a retributive view consider that people’s reputation is earned by their past actions. According to this theory, the moral desert is a virtue constituted by people’s treatment of others and not by their achievements. Rachels singles out three kinds of evidence that testify the interdependence between people’s attitudes towards others and their desert. The first one is related to the fact that acknowledging one’s deserts enables people to determine their fate.

The second reason is connected with the egalitarian concept of equal sharing of social benefits and disadvantages. The third cause is that morality is highly dependent on reciprocity (Rachels 468-472). Applying this approach of the desert to criminal punishment, the supporters of the death penalty argue that if someone takes away a person’s life, he or she should also be deprived of a chance to live.


Based on the retributive theory, punishment is explained not only by what people do but also by what they have in mind while performing some deeds. Thus, some philosophers argue that people’s actions frequently rely on the conditions under which they are performed. According to Doris, the reason why criminalists sometimes do not treat people’s wrongdoings adequately is that they do not take into consideration the peculiar features of people’s character (Doris 474-475).

Rather, they are driven by the peculiarities of the very actions. Therefore, Doris considers retribution an excessively harsh method of punishment. Instead, the author finds it significant to evaluate whether the criminal does or does not have a justification for his or her actions (Doris 475-478). In the case of the death penalty, the supporters of deterrence theory consider it necessary to apply it only if there is no sound excuse for the person’s criminal actions.

Also, Doris argues that courts do not apply any punishment for people’s character deficiencies but only penalize for the actions, which is wrong (Doris 476-479). The authors draw a parallel between the theory of character and the theory of choice. He remarks that there is always an option of whether to commit a crime or not (Doris 479-482). Therefore, the theory of deterrence justifies the death penalty only if there is no solid justification for a person’s crime.


Supporters of rehabilitation theory argue that instead of punishing people, the system of justice should admit its deficiencies and eliminate them. Rehabilitation became the major goal of corrective actions at the beginning of the twenty-first century (Cole et al. 485). Under this approach, people are treated instead of being punished, and after this “treatment,” they may return to society (Cole et al. 485).

However, as Wright et al. note, society is losing its trust in rehabilitation measures’ success (Wright et al. 484-485). The authors argue that it is not enough to apply only rehabilitation methods. Rather, a combination of such measures as deterrence, incapacitation, rehabilitation, and fair desert should be employed to achieve the best results (Wright et al. 485-490). Thus, the rehabilitation theory, as well as the theory of deterrence, is against the death penalty. This approach considers it crucial to perform a thorough analysis of the reasons why a person committed a crime. The supporters of rehabilitation argue that offenders need help to cope with their problems instead of severe punishment.

All scholars agree about the basic moral principles that make the grounds for regarding the death penalty. However, there are quite different approaches to evaluating the need for penalty and the ways of applying it. Such a multiplicity of views occurs because people’s attitude towards punishment is formed not by moral principles but their interpretation.

Recommended Solutions and Rationales

There are two most widely accepted approaches to the issue of the death penalty. The first solution is associated with deontological philosophy, and the second one is concerned with consequentialist philosophical theory. Deontology supports the approach of retribution whereas consequentialism focuses on deterrence and rehabilitation.

Death Penalty in Deontological Ethics

In the deontological approach, much emphasis is put on the person’s intentions that led to some actions. Therefore, the action’s morality is grounded on good intention (Heffernan 274). Good intention is defined as the state of being obedient to some rule or regulation. As a result, a person who has committed a crime is the one who was disobedient and did not abide by the established set of rules. The core concept of Kant’s deontological philosophy is the categorical imperative.

This imperative incorporates three elements that are employed to evaluate whether the person’s intention is morally relevant or irrelevant (Heffernan 220-221). The first aspect is to act so that one’s behavior could be turned into a universal law. The second formulation is to treat people in connection with final actions rather than intermediate actions. The third aspect demands always seeing oneself in the realm of final actions where a person is the single legislator and origin of the moral law.

The rationale for deontological philosophy in capital punishment is as follows. The penalty has to be equal to the offense done by an individual. Therefore, if a person has deprived someone of life, such a person should not live as well. Deontology demands that the offender should receive the same amount and extent of pain as the victim had. The supporters of deontological philosophy justify the death penalty as the only possible way to pay for one’s wrongdoing. Deontology concentrates on the person’s intentions and does not pay much attention to motives. Thus, it expects people to realize that their actions may be punished with the same severity as they have acted towards others.

Consequentialist Perspective on Death Penalty

On the contrary to the deontological perspective, the consequentialist one views the death penalty as a morally unacceptable method of punishment. Consequentialists put emphasis, not on the intentions of the actions but their outcomes (Steiker 213-214). The basic premise of consequentialism is that every person should act as a judge of their happiness. The government, according to this approach, should provide people with liberty to achieve happiness.

The consequentialist approach disapproves of punishment as a means of making a person pay for the crime he or she has committed. On the contrary. This philosophy is similar to deterrence theory that aims at preventing future crimes rather than punishing the offenders for the past ones (Steiker 212-214). However, consequentialists admit that imprisoning and the death penalty as applied to offenders will also adhere to their philosophy. The ultimate purpose of consequentialism is reaching the happiness of as many people as possible. Thus, taking away the life of an offender will prevent taking away the lives of many other innocent people. However, each particular case needs consideration and analysis.

The rationale of such an approach is associated with the results of applying capital punishment for the offender and society. Consequentialists may accept the idea of the death penalty if the outcomes of this measure will lead to the greatest good.


The question of whether the death penalty should be employed as a method of punishment belongs to the most debatable issues in modern politics, philosophy, and ethics. Since there is no single perception of this complicated concept, it is viewed with the help of multiplicity. This approach presupposes the existence of more than one view of a moral issue. There are three ethical theories of punishment, each of which has a different approach to the death penalty: retribution, deterrence, and rehabilitation.

Also, capital punishment is analyzed in philosophical theories. The two opposing philosophies that are most frequently applied to consider the question of the death penalty are deontology and consequentialism.

No matter what approach to punishing is preferred by ethical and philosophical theories, all of them agree that the choice punishment measure should not be made without thorough consideration and analysis of the offender’s motives, goals, and psychological state. Therefore, multiplicity is the best approach to this question since it allows viewing the case under different angles and comes to a compromise.

Works Cited

Cole, George F., et al. The American System of Criminal Justice. 15th ed., CENGAGE Learning, 2017.

Donohue, John J. “An Empirical Evaluation of the Connecticut Death Penalty System since 1973: Are There Unlawful Racial, Gender, and Geographic Disparities?” Journal of Empirical Legal Studies, vol. 11, no. 4, 2014, pp. 637-696.

Doris, John M. “Out of Character: On the Psychology of Excuses in the Criminal Law.” Ethics in Practice: An Anthology. 4th ed., edited by Hugh LaFolette, Wiley Blackwell, 2014, pp. 474-483.

Heffernan, William C. Dimensions of Justice: Ethical Issues in the Administration of Criminal Law. Jones and Bartlett Learning, 2015.

Hursthouse, Rosalind. “Virtue Theory.” Ethics in Practice: An Anthology. 4th ed., edited by Hugh LaFolette, Wiley Blackwell, 2014, pp. 60-70.

Kaplan, Ulas, and Terrence Tivnan. “Multiplicity of Emotions in Moral Judgment and Motivation.” Ethics and Behavior, vol. 24, no. 6, 2014, pp. 421-443.

Pojman, Louis P. “In Defense of Death Penalty.” Ethics in Practice: An Anthology. 4th ed., edited by Hugh LaFolette, Wiley Blackwell, 2014, pp. 494-502.

Rachels, James. “Punishment and Desert.” Ethics in Practice: An Anthology. 4th ed., edited by Hugh LaFolette, Wiley Blackwell, 2014, pp. 466-473.

Reiman, Jeffrey. “Against the Death Penalty.” Ethics in Practice: An Anthology. 4th ed., edited by Hugh LaFolette, Wiley Blackwell, 2014, pp. 503-509.

Reinbolt, George W. “Rights.” Ethics in Practice: An Anthology. 4th ed., edited by Hugh LaFolette, Wiley Blackwell, 2014, pp. 49-59.

Sebo, Jeff. “Utilitarianism, Multiplicity and Liberalism.” Utilitas, vol. 27, no. 3, 2015, 326-346.

Semetsky, Inna, and Joshua A. Delpech-Ramey. “Jung’s Psychology and Deleuze’s Philosophy: The Unconscious in Learning.” Educational Philosophy and Theory, vol. 44, no. 1, 2012, pp. 69-81.

Steiker, Jordan. “The American Death Penalty from a Consequentialist Perspective.” Texas Tech Law Review, vol. 47, 2014, pp. 211-221.

Wright, John Paul, et al. “Does Punishment Work?.” Ethics in Practice: An Anthology. 4th ed., edited by Hugh LaFolette, Wiley Blackwell, 2014, pp. 484-493.

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