Three Views in Regard to Capital Punishment

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In his essay “Executions,” Jonathan Glover explores three viewpoints regarding capital punishment: retributivism, absolutism, and utilitarianism. Despite recognizing the insufficient evidence to substantiate its efficacy in terms of statistics and intuition, Glover argues that it can still be morally justified from a utilitarian perspective due to its societal value.

While I disagree with the retributivist perspective on capital punishment, Martin Perlmutter argues that murderers should be punished for knowingly breaking the law and understanding the potential outcomes. Perlmutter suggests that, like a deserving contest winner, a murderer has a right to be executed. Although I share Perlmutter’s belief that the debate about capital punishment should not solely depend on social utility, I do not believe that retributivism sufficiently justifies the use of the death penalty.

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In his essay “Desert and Capital Punishment,” Martin Perlmutter argues that evaluating the legitimacy of capital punishment based on social utility is inadequate. According to Perlmutter, punishment should be based on past wrongdoing, and a utilitarian justification for capital punishment contradicts the concept of punishment by being future-oriented.

According to the argument for social utility, the death penalty should lead to a greater good and the overall happiness in the world should increase as long as the consequences outweigh the harm. Perlmutter acknowledges three potential benefits of punishment: rehabilitating offenders, protecting potential victims, and deterring others from committing the same crime.

The death penalty does not rehabilitate victims or protect potential victims better than life imprisonment; it only serves to inflict harm on individuals. Utilitarians defend the death penalty based on the argument of deterrence, questioning whether it actually prevents people from committing the same crime.

Jonathan Glover seeks to address this inquiry in his essay “Executions.” According to Glover, the statistical data concerning the efficacy of the death penalty is highly ambiguous. The connection between variations in murder rates and the existence of capital punishment is challenging to ascertain causally. The only alternative approach to validating the deterrent effect of the death penalty is via intuitive reasoning. In theory, if an individual understands that killing someone else will lead to their own execution, they would refrain from committing the crime.

Although the intuitive argument lacks support, it is crucial to acknowledge that murderers do not always face a certain death penalty during trial. Moreover, capital punishment may not effectively discourage potential murderers because they may perceive its long-term consequences as distant. This can be likened to cigarette smokers who are aware of the fatal health hazards like lung cancer but often hold the belief that they themselves will not suffer from these adverse outcomes.

When discussing the effectiveness of the death penalty, another aspect to consider is its potential as a stronger deterrent compared to life imprisonment. While bodily mutilation may discourage crime, it is not deemed acceptable in American society. Glover challenges the idea of deterrence but asserts that inflicting additional suffering can only be justified if there is a social benefit derived from capital punishment.

Perlmutter disagrees with the notion that the fairness of a punishment should be determined by its benefits rather than the severity of the crime. He argues that punishments should be based on the specific crime committed, not on their social usefulness. When a punishment is imposed, it is because a rule has been broken knowingly and understanding its negative consequences. Perlmutter criticizes the utilitarian approach to capital punishment, stating that reform, protection, and deterrence do not involve harm or deprivation, which are crucial aspects of punishment. He asserts that individuals agree to abide by laws when living in society.

Perlmutter argues that the decision to reject the death penalty for murder is a conscious choice made by those responsible. According to Perlmutter, these individuals are dehumanized and their decisions are not given importance. However, this perspective can be challenged by presenting instances of cruelty associated with capital punishment, which goes against the principle of recognizing the choices made by individuals who acknowledge the immorality of murder but choose to disregard it.

According to Glover, the opposition to the retributivist viewpoint is that the death penalty is a form of cruel and unusual punishment. Despite the occurrence of a murder, a criminal is left to live with the knowledge of their impending death and the judgment they will face from others. Furthermore, this process deeply affects the criminal’s family and has a broader impact on countless individuals.

The potential for mistakenly executing innocent individuals is even more horrifying than being murdered. Throughout history, capital punishment has had long-lasting psychological impacts on both the executioners and many of the prison guards. Above all, the eagerness to witness or become aware of an execution reflects a disturbing fascination with violence that could potentially become ingrained in a society.

The objections to capital punishment are utilitarian in nature as they are based on the belief that the death penalty increases suffering, making it morally wrong. However, even if utilitarianism cannot justify capital punishment, can it still reject its legitimacy? Moreover, if it could be demonstrated that capital punishment saves ten lives for every execution, would it then be considered valid? The answer to both these queries is negative.

Both Glover and Perlmutter present different viewpoints on capital punishment, emphasizing a sense of circularity. Perlmutter rejects the idea that reform, protection, and deterrence can justify the death penalty, while Glover contends that these utilitarian concepts can weaken Perlmutter’s retributive position. However, it has been demonstrated that using social utility as a basis for supporting or opposing capital punishment is intrinsically flawed.

The most suitable stance on the death penalty is absolutism, which argues that capital punishment is entirely unjust as it violates a person’s basic right to life and cannot be justified by previous violations of others’ rights. Absolutists believe that “legal murder” cannot be rationalized by any ideology and caution against the negative impact executing individuals has on society.

The question is whether killing someone solely based on a courtroom’s decision by rational individuals is morally acceptable. Likewise, a murderer might argue that their victim violated their rights and deserved death. However, this reasoning cannot be justified in any way. No matter the perspective taken, capital punishment essentially involves taking a human life. Even if a law has been broken and the person has negatively impacted society, killing cannot be morally justified, especially when considering its societal benefit. While it may be true that certain individuals improve the world by not being part of it, eliminating anyone who doesn’t increase overall happiness would still be unjustifiable.

Both the justification and rejection of capital punishment cannot be grounded in social utility. Furthermore, the death penalty can be viewed as a form of cruel and unusual punishment, which undermines retributivism. Only absolutism presents an indisputable logical perspective. There is no evidence substantiating the advantages of capital punishment, and statistically, it merely results in another loss of life within society.

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Three Views in Regard to Capital Punishment. (2019, Jan 04). Retrieved from

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