The Death Penalty: Social Contract Theory

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The moral acceptability of the death penalty is among the most partisan issues in contemporary ethics. In this paper, three approaches to this moral question are discussed: utilitarianism, the ethics of autonomy, and social contract theory. The “veil of ignorance” and social contract theory provides a clear perspective on the moral unacceptability of the death penalty because people might misinterpret information and execute the wrong person.

It is critical to distinguish between forward-looking and backward-looking theories of punishment. Forward-looking theories of punishment are based on the assumption that the sentence for a particular crime is justified if it leads to positive changes. The penalty should reduce the crime rate or contribute to the criminal’s rehabilitation. Backward-looking theories imply that retribution should correspond to the crime the person committed (Rodgers). It supports paying back the criminal to restore justice.

It is possible to analyze death penalty from the perspectives of backward and forward theories of punishment. From the perspective of the forward theory of punishment, the death penalty shows people that criminals would be punished severely, so they might not break the law. From the backward perspective, the death penalty attempts to balance the victim’s pain and the criminal’s suffering, an example of justice and social equilibrium.

Utilitarianism connects the difference between right and wrong with the utility for more people and increasing their happiness. If a society consisting of millions of people profits from the death of a single individual, this action is justified from a practical point of view (Yost). The life of one person is less valuable than the well-being of society in general, which means that a utilitarian would favor keeping the death penalty.

The concept of “opportunity costs” is critical in discussing the utilitarian view on the death penalty. It implies the price that society has to pay if the criminal is not executed and escapes from prison (Yost). They execute dozens of people, which is not justified from the utilitarian perspective. Life-long detention requires money from taxes, which lowers society’s happiness. Therefore, the government sponsors criminals who will not contribute to the positive development of the community.

Autonomy means that all humans have the freedom to make choices, which supposes that they can avoid harming others. Individuals have a moral obligation to respect other people’s autonomy because this process is reciprocal, and it means that their autonomy will also be valuable (Yost). Autonomy supposes that people are responsible for their actions. If they have freedom, they would deserve to be punished for their crimes.

Autonomy supposes that criminals deserve a more severe punishment when they hurt others not by accident, but on purpose. When the person has the plan to harm others and is mentally stable, it is an attempt to ruin the existing social order and balance. This decision shows that the individual does not respect the autonomy of others, which makes them outcasts in society.

The “veil of ignorance” described by John Rawls in social contract theory supposes that we know that we sign a tacit agreement with the government. Thus, when people violate the regulations, they know they have broken the social contract they signed. At the same time, not all people are aware of the laws, and these rules represent not all groups of society. It shows that information is always not available to people, which makes the agreement vague.

It is possible to assume that people would not support death penalty if they knew everything that is hidden behind the veil of ignorance. It might show people that the information they receive is limited, and people cannot decide whether another individual has the right to live. The hidden information might also show that the person consciously committed all atrocities, but they were not psychologically sane.

I think that abolishing the death penalty is more justified from an ethical perspective because people rarely know everything. The “veil of ignorance” and social contract theory illustrate this position because society does not know all facts that determine human actions. For example, executing a mentally ill person is not moral because this individual could not control herself when she committed the crime.

At the same time, law enforcement makes everything possible to understand the criminal’s motives and destroy this “veil of ignorance.” It means that there are usually no ambiguities in the cases of those criminals who are convicted to death. Law enforcement knows that the criminal accused of atrocities was psychologically sane, which makes her dangerous to society and requires retribution for the committed crimes.

This position objects to the principles of humanism that value life and dignity of every person. The death penalty violates the right of every person to live despite the crimes they committed. Moreover, it supposes that people do not make mistakes in evaluating the crime and punish the right person. In this case, the error price is high, making it unacceptable from an ethical point of view.

Life-long detention is the humane alternative to the death penalty in many cases. The execution of Lisa Montgomery illustrates this hypothesis about humanism clearly. Even though she committed the horrible crime when she killed the woman and carved the unborn baby from her belly, she did not deserve death (Fuchs). Her apparent mental instability and inability to cope with psychological trauma were the main points.

To conclude, the decision of the government to execute Lisa Montgomery was the incorrect decision. She was a mentally ill woman who needed life-long supervision and treatment even though she was not officially diagnosed with psychological problems. A mentally stable person could not commit the crime she did. It was unlikely that the older woman could escape from prison, which meant she was not dangerous to society.

Works Cited

Antonini, David. “Social Contract Theory.” 1000 Words Philosophy, 2018, Web.

Fuchs, Hailey. “U.S. Executes Lisa Montgomery for 2004 Murder.” The New York Times, 2021, Web.

Rodgers, Travis, J. “Theories of Punishment.” 1000 Words Philosophy, 2009, Web.

Yost, Benjamin S. “The Death Penalty.”1000 Words Philosophy, 2009, Web.

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DemoEssays. "The Death Penalty: Social Contract Theory." March 18, 2023.