The world is divided on the moral justification for the death penalty, more often referred to as the capital punishment. Whether it can be justifiable or not is a controversial matter of religious, moral and ethical commitments. Even though human life is precious and under the provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the fundamental and inalienable right to life, there can be cases under which society finds that the capital punishment is morally justifiable.
Sentencing to the death penalty as a punishment for committing a capital crime throws back to the very beginning of a human living in the society though the definition of a capital crime varied throughout the course of human history, as well as differed the ways to execute the penalty. The first law establishing execution of the death sentence dates back to the 18th century BC Babylonian Code of Hammurabi. Since then on it was legalized by nearly every country in its fundamental law. For example, the Hittite Code, the Draconian Code of Athens, the Roman Law of the Twelve Tablets, the Mosaic Law of the Jews, the Code of Theodosius, etc. all formalized the death penalty in legislation and defined the list of crimes for which a person is sentenced to the most severe punishment (Reggio par. 1-3).
It should be said that a person might have been sentenced to the death penalty not only because of committing a murder but also many other crimes, e.g. robbery, arson, rape, sodomy, magic, heresy, parricide, treason, etc. Under the reign of kings, there might have been no crime committed to be sentenced to the death penalty, just the king’s word that a person was not worth living and should be sent to a scaffold. What is more, sometimes the ways of depriving a criminal of life were quite exquisite and painful and varied from the guillotine to gallows, scaffold, garrote, a requirement to drink poison, crucifixion, throwing into quagmire and water, quartering, etc.
As centuries passed by, the list of capital crimes has decreased, as well as the ways to execute have become more humane if the death penalty can be considered humane at all. Today, the primary reason for being sentenced to death is committing especially grave crime, e.g. a murder of the first degree, but only after thorough crime investigation and proving that a criminal is undoubtedly guilty. Among the primary ways of executing the death penalty, one can mention the lethal injunction, hanging, firing squad, electrocution, gas chamber, etc. Having a strong historical background, capital punishment, nevertheless, nearly filed as a history after recognizing that the human life is precious and adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Instead of sentencing to capital punishment criminals are more often committed to a life imprisonment.
Even though death penalty has always been a constituting element of the state’s judiciary system, there were different views on whether it is a justifiable punishment for a crime based on moral and religious commitments. On the one hand, taking human’s life is unacceptable and cannot be justified by moral principles of the society no matter what crime a person has committed. One should bear in mind the principle of offering the other cheek preached by the New Testament. It does not mean that the criminal should be offered another innocent victim; it just means that in judging others, people should treat them with mercy and forgiveness no matter what a person has done during his life journey.
The primary argument against legalizing death penalty is that no one is perfectly right or wrong to judge the others; only God can judge people because only He is perfect and has no sin. Nevertheless the society sometimes finds the capital punishment morally justifiable, it is not because the world itself is a cruel place to live, and legal killing will just add cruelty to it. What is more, sentencing a criminal to death will not entail a resurrection of the person or people killed by him, so it just makes no sense. Another argument against the death penalty is that a condemned person as well has a family that will miss him and be judged by the society for what he has done. More than that, a person might have killed another human in an attempt to defend himself or the beloved ones, so committing a murder does not necessarily mean wicked soul and thoughts.
The most crucial argument against capital punishment is that death is irreversible. It means that to sentence a person to the death penalty, the society should be one hundred percent sure that he or she committed a serious crime out of wicked motives and willfully. Besides, killing a criminal is simple as that, and he dies a bad person while if he is put into custody, he receives a chance to change his life and thoughts for the better and reflect on what he had done. Moreover, being sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole can be even worse than taking away life because of restraint of freedom and strict following the rules of the prison and daily regimen for the rest of one’s life.
On the other hand, the society may justify a sentence to the death penalty for committing especially grave crimes making reference to historical precedents as well as the Old Testament and its ‘an eye for an eye’ principle. Bearing in mind that morality is the determination of what is right and wrong sentencing a criminal to the death penalty is morally justifiable because every punishment should fit the committed crime. What is more, imprisoning a criminal may be considered immoral because he continues his life and does not have to think how to make a living because he is given meals three times a day, a roof over his head and time to enjoy himself nevertheless being restricted freedom. Moreover, a criminal is alive while the other person or people are dead and might have been innocent. So, having in mind that “the point of the death penalty, however, is not to see how much pain can be unleashed on the murderer but to bring him to justice” (Carmical par. 7) and acknowledgement that the innocent human life is sanctuary, death penalty is totally justified from the moral standpoint.
What is more, if people know that the capital punishment is legalized in the state, the level of especially grave crimes will necessarily decrease because everyone finds own life precious and sanctuary. Moreover, the lives of the innocent people will be safe and secure because the state represents its readiness to punish a criminal with the most severe punishment in the case of committing a significant crime. Legalizing the death penalty, the state has an effective tool for guaranteeing the safety of its citizens in case if a criminal emerges from jail and commits the same crime again. In general, it will make the world a better and a safer place to live.
The capital punishment secured in legislation may also be beneficial from the economic point of view that can be easily transferred to social and ethical matters. It is not a secret that to maintain a jail as well as criminals including the ones who committed the most serious crimes the state has to spend money. If the death penalty is legal, this money can be spent on social needs such as supporting the orphans and homeless, granting healthcare, etc., so that it can be one more pro argument in moral justifying of the capital punishment.
Having come up with the arguments for and against the capital punishment, I am strongly inclined to believe that it cannot be morally justified by the society no matter how serious and grave crime a person has committed. First of all, neither judicial system is perfect and can have deficiencies, so that innocent people may be sentenced to the death penalty. Second, a person may have committed the crime in an attempt to defend himself or his family and the loved ones or in the heat of passion. Being an involuntary homicide, it cannot become a justified reason for such a severe punishment like taking away one’s life.
Third, legalizing the death penalty will not lead to the decrease in the level of similar crimes and make the world a safer place to live, so killing criminal will only add cruelty to the world we all live in. Fourth, sentencing a criminal to the capital punishment will not bring his deceased victim back. Of course, it may lessen the grief and pain of the victim’s relatives, but it will cause additional suffering to the criminal’s family. Fifth, the death penalty goes against almost every religion because we are all equal, and no man can judge the others but God. Sixth, death is irreversible, so in the case if the criminal is found innocent after the execution of the penalty, it cannot be vacated.
There is no doubt that there are the cases when the legal killing may seem morally justified, e.g. serial killer or terrorist, but there is always a good alternative to the capital punishment – life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. It means that the criminal will stay in jail for the rest of his life, but he will receive a chance of changing for the better or at least will be isolated from the society and kept away from repeating the same crimes. Such criminals should be put in maximum security institutions so that they do not have a single chance to abscond from prison and return to the free life in society and committing crimes again.
So, the justification for the death penalty is quite a controversial issue of the society’s morality. Even though there are criminals deserving death for having committed extremely serious and grievous crimes, there is no such argument that can justify the sentence to death penalty from the moral standpoint because the human life is precious and should be respected.
Carmical, Casey. The Death Penalty: Morally Defensible? n.d. Web.
Reggio, Michael H. History of the Death Penalty. n.d. Web.