A Utilitarian Approach to Capital Punishment


Capital punishment also referred to as the death penalty, is debatably the most contentious legal sentence given by the criminal justice system in any country around the world. It stands out from other forms of legal punishments attributable to its cruelty and brutality to a point of causing intentional loss of life. Therefore, the death penalty acts as the severest kind of punishment that a judge can impose on an offender. Because of the perceived severity of capital punishment, different researchers have created strong disagreements concerning its benefits or drawbacks. People who oppose capital punishment affirm that governments around the world should outlaw it since it is inhumane and reprehensible. On the contrary, its supporters assert that it is a necessary type of punishment that ought to be applied to ferocious offenders, for instance, serial killers. This greatly polarized controversy regarding capital punishment has existed for many decades. Ethical theories should be used in an attempt to get a solution to the issue of capital punishment (Traer 34). Capital punishment has numerous benefits and drawbacks that should be carefully evaluated to establish its need for continued implementation or illegalization.

Definition of Terms and Issues of Capital Punishment

Capital punishment/the death penalty is an institutionalized approach that is meant to lead to the deliberate execution of offenders in reaction to their misconduct. The criminal justice system is the authorized, rule-guided coordination that makes the consideration as to whether a suspect is guilty or not for the violation of norms to a point of warranting the death penalty. Ethical theories, such as the utilitarian theory used in this paper, are propositions by great philosophers and scholars concerning arising issues (Udoudom et al. 29). The utilitarian theory is a widely supported and researched perspective of punishment whose main objective of penalizing criminals is to discourage or prevent comparable crimes in the future.

Application of the Utilitarian Theory

In line with the utilitarian theory, the ethical view of actions may be derived by careful deliberation of their net utility. It asserts that an ethical approach maximizes happiness for the highest number of individuals. Under the theory, all actions are perceived as having either advantages or negative effects (Mudrack and Mason 229). Therefore, people should engage in actions that have many gains because if the drawbacks outweigh the advantages, such an undertaking will be deemed unethical. From the utilitarian point of view, practices that support the happiness of the majority of people within the community ought to be strengthened while the ones that spoil the contentment of many should be evaded. The utilitarian theory may be applied to the topic of capital punishment because it can assist in arguing the pros and cons of the issue.


According to the utilitarian theory, one of the advantages of capital punishment is that it has a considerable deterrence function. The main objective of the criminal justice system is to discourage offenders from engaging in misconduct for the welfare of the majority of people in society. This is realized by the connection of punishment to criminal activities to make possible offenders perceive the drawbacks of engaging in crime as being overshadowed by the negative consequences. In this manner, an ideal society is the one in which offenders are penalized because the threat of punishment ensures that every person is barred from taking part in criminal activities. Capital punishment offers the severest form of punishment and its application has a high possibility of frightening offenders who may not be terrified by the duration of incarceration (Udoudom et al. 30). This results in a negative relationship between the death penalty and murder incidences hence implying that the punishment has a strong deterrence role. Under the utilitarian approach, the deterrence function is ethical because it ensures the overall protection of society. Preventing offenders from engaging in crime makes society safe and people benefit from the ensuing peace and security.

Capital punishment has the benefit of resulting in the permanent removal of the convicted individual from the community. Contrary to other types of punishment, such as long prison sentences, that only restrict the freedom of the criminal with a possibility of his/her future return to the community, capital punishment takes away such an offender’s life. The moment a vicious criminal is executed; members of society are assured that the person will never commit another heinous crime. Although some forms of punishment such as life imprisonment may have an incapacitation impact, such an outcome is not as definite as in the case of the death penalty (Udoudom et al. 34). An individual who is serving life imprisonment may still take part in crime against other prisoners or even officers at the detention center. Moreover, there is a chance for the release of people who have been imprisoned for life and their return to the community through practices such as an appeal or a presidential pardon. The possibility of recidivism is eliminated by the application of capital punishment. Under the utilitarian perspective, the execution of criminals has the benefit of completely safeguarding the community from the person’s possible future offenses (Mudrack and Mason 233).

The death penalty has the advantage of offering judges the capacity to offer sufficient retribution for any criminal activity. To serve justice, there is a need for the severity of the penalty to equal or have comparable magnitude with the crime committed. When punishment is considered lenient, there is a feeling of injustice not only to the victim but to the majority of members of society. Crimes such as serial killing and recidivism to vicious offenses, for example, murder, cannot be adequately punished devoid of the death penalty (Walsh and Hatch 275). In such instances, life imprisonment may generate a sense of injustice thus tarnishing the reputation of the justice system to a point of even provoking members of society to embark on extrajudicial killings. A utilitarian approach necessitates punishment that results in fairness being felt thereby enhancing the credibility of the criminal justice system (Udoudom et al. 29). Capital punishment plays this role and ensures the perception of justice, in addition to the prevention of breakdown in law and order that may arise if members of society employ their impartiality.


A considerable implication of capital punishment is that it results in higher monetary costs than other alternatives. Such financial cost is not only incurred by the taxpayers’ shouldering of the ensuing fiscal burden linked to the implementation of capital punishment but also the execution of a person whose economic activities could have been generating significant revenue to society (Udoudom et al. 33). Additionally, criminal engagements that lead to capital punishment are not tackled as other lawsuits since the defendant and prosecutor are required to be thorough and engage proficient witnesses. Once sentenced, in most cases, the convict is allowed to make numerous appeals that may last for several years. It is not possible to decrease such financial costs associated with the death penalty because such a practice may cause neglecting some of the procedural guidelines set to make sure that the risk of unfair conviction is prevented or decreased to the minimum. From the utilitarian approach, the high fiscal cost is a negative implication to members of society (Mudrack and Mason 232). Opponents of the death penalty affirm that the community would gain if the funds employed in the execution of capital punishment were utilized in other projects such as hiring a high number of police officers or construction and equipping of rehabilitation centers to reduce or prevent crime in society.

Capital punishment has the drawback of possibly causing an irreversible miscarriage of justice. In such an occurrence, an innocent individual may be executed and later revelation of blamelessness would not be beneficial as it cannot bring the person to life again. Although miscarriage of justice is possible in other instances such as life imprisonment, later exoneration is helpful as it could lead to the release of the prisoner to resume to usual undertakings in the community. On the contrary, once capital punishment has been carried out, the person can no longer challenge undue conviction to regain his/her freedom. Therefore, the death penalty has the likelihood of causing a crisis of confidence in the justice system because the execution of an innocent individual is objectionable (Dancig-Rosenberg and Dagan 132). From a utilitarian approach, wrongful conviction and execution of an innocent individual present great loss to society because the person cannot make positive contributions to the community anymore (Udoudom et al. 31). Furthermore, erroneous execution might result in psychological distress in both the person’s family members and individuals who were engaged in the trial. Capital punishment, therefore, has a negative influence as it decreases the happiness of some members of society.

Own View

To establish the ethical aspect of an act with the help of the utilitarian approach, a person should carefully evaluate arising gains against likely demerits. From a utilitarian standpoint, the benefits of capital punishment encompass deterrence, adequate retribution, and incapacitation, over and above upholding law and order. On the contrary, its drawbacks encompass high monetary costs and irreversible wrongful execution. Ethical analyses show that the gains of implementing capital punishment outweigh the shortcomings (Yamamoto and Maeder 1287). Capital punishment maximizes the happiness of the majority of people in society since it puts potential offenders on notice that such actions will be severely penalized. Therefore, the death penalty is moral from a utilitarian approach since laws that set punishment for involvement in vicious crimes are planned to deter similar incidences in the future.


Capital punishment is the most debatable legal sentence given by the justice system. A utilitarian approach shows that it has numerous benefits such as deterrence, adequate retribution, and incapacitation, in addition to drawbacks that include high financial costs and irremediable wrongful execution. The gains and demerits of capital punishment should be carefully assessed to establish its need for continued execution or illegalization. From a utilitarian position and ethical analysis, the advantages of capital punishment outshine its shortcomings. The death penalty should be carried out on vicious offenders because the threat of punishment ensures that potential criminals are barred from engaging in criminal activities. The deterrence function of capital punishment is ethical because it reduces criminal activities. Preventing wrongdoers from engaging in crime makes the community safe and people enjoy the ensuing harmony and safety.

Works Cited

Dancig-Rosenberg, Hadar, and Netanel Dagan. “Retributarianism: A New Individualization of Punishment.” Criminal Law and Philosophy, vol. 13, no. 1, 2019, pp. 129-147.

Mudrack, Peter, and Sharon Mason. “Utilitarian Traits and the Janus-Headed model: Origins, Meaning, and Interpretation.” Journal of Business Ethics, vol. 156, no. 1, 2019, pp. 227-240.

Traer, Robert. Doing Ethics in a Diverse World. Routledge, 2018.

Udoudom, David, et al. “Kantian and Utilitarian Ethics on Capital Punishment.” Budapest International Research and Critics Institute (BIRCI-Journal): Humanities and Social Sciences, vol. 2, no. 2, 2019, pp. 28-35.

Walsh, Anthony, and Virginia Hatch. “Capital Punishment, Retribution, and Emotion: An Evolutionary Perspective.” New Criminal Law Review: An International and Interdisciplinary Journal, vol. 21, no. 2, 2018, pp. 267-290.

Yamamoto, Susan, and Evelyn Maeder. “Creating the Punishment Orientation Questionnaire: An Item Response Theory Approach.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, vol. 45, no. 8, 2019, pp. 1283-1294.

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DemoEssays. "A Utilitarian Approach to Capital Punishment." December 24, 2022. https://demoessays.com/a-utilitarian-approach-to-capital-punishment/.