Death Penalty: Theories of Punishment

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The main difference between forward-looking and backward-looking theories of punishment is that they consider different aspects of applying punishment to be the most productive. Forward-looking theories’ main point is to encourage good results out of the punishment. Backward-looking ones “seek a punishment “proportional to” or “fitting” the crime” (Rodgers). Hence, they project the efficiency of punishing on the future and the past respectively.

According to utilitarianism the main thing that has to be considered within any decision making is the future extent of happiness. Thus, this ideology resembles the core ideas of the forward-looking theories of punishment. However, a distinguished difference of utilitarianism is that everyone’s happiness has to be taken into account, which includes criminals’ happiness as well.

Another important aspect related to the death penalty debate is autonomy, which implies people’s responsibility for their own thoughts and actions. The importance of respecting one’s autonomy consists of the necessity to not interfere in the process of their decision making. This way, people act out of their own desires and unique perspectives, which are mostly not influenced by anything specific to a major extent.

If a criminal had no autonomy while committing a crime, it would not be fair to punish them. However, it would make sense to punish someone more strictly if they committed a crime intentionally. Main reason for the punishment is to discourage the intention to hurt others. Therefore, punishing someone who committed a crime by accident would not be effective, as this person did not have bad intentions in the first place.

Decision on death penalty might be clearer within John Rawls’ theory. Rawls suggests that people should put themselves in the position of ignoring any personal traits that they possess, such as their social class, religion and gender. Hence, they are able to reduce the influence of personal biases on their judgment.

Once behind this “veil of ignorance”, people will be focusing more on the seriousness of the crime itself. This method of judgment strongly connects to the ideology of the backward-looking theories of punishment, as the main factor which determines the punishment is the severity of the crime. Hence, if the crime was extremely brutal, the criminal’s chances to be executed increase significantly.

The efficiency of death penalty can be clearly noticed. Although the method seems radical, it does have its own benefits comparing to punishing criminals more lightly. Thus, the execution can be absolutely justified if the committed crime was especially brutal.

The main reason for using death penalty is the potential level of safety. In the case someone’s crime has high chances of repeating, execution of this criminal would assure the further safety and prevent a possible relapse (Yost). Like this, death penalty is a guaranteed method of reducing the potential danger.

However, the application of death penalty is easy to object. Many people believe that no one has a right to decide on another person’s life. Moreover, the existence of a possibility of a criminal’s relapse does not guarantee that they are going to keep committing crimes.

Nonetheless, death penalty is efficient because it can abolish any hypothetical danger. Execution will dissolve the doubts and worries about whether or not a criminal would pose any threat to people around them. This way, society’s overall happiness would be noticeably increased.

One of the most shocking cases of death penalties occurred in the U.S, when the government decided to execute Lisa Montgomery. A lot of people objected this decision due to the backstory of a woman, her problems with mental health and repeatedly occurring abuse throughout her life (Fuchs). Thus, opinions on whether or not she should be executed vary even until the present moment.

The crime was resulted from the woman’s issues with mental illness. Moreover, when she was trying to seek help related to the abuse the authorities refused to collaborate (Pinhey). Mental illness can be perceived as a barrier to someone’s clear autonomy, as their judgment is not rational because of it. Therefore, although death penalties can be efficient, it is important to consider all of the factors which influenced the criminal in order to make a most productive decision.

Works Cited

Fuchs, Hailey. “U.S. Executes Lisa Montgomery for 2004 Murder.” 2021.

Pinhey, Laura. “Punch After Punch, Rape After Rape, a Murderer Was Made.” 2020.

Rodgers, Travis J. ”Theories of Punishment.” 2019.

Yost, Benjamin S. “The Death Penalty.” 2019.

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1. DemoEssays. "Death Penalty: Theories of Punishment." March 9, 2023.


DemoEssays. "Death Penalty: Theories of Punishment." March 9, 2023.