Theories of death penalty seek to justify capital punishment from a philosophical perspective. These theories consider the consequences of the sentence in the future or its effect on the past facts. Forward-looking theories argue that punishment is justified as long as it brings good results after. Backward-looking theories justify punishment based on the circumstances under which the crime had been committed.
The deterrence theory of punishment suggests that punishment is justified if it assists the government in deterring crime. The rehabilitation theory of punishment proposes that instead of aiming at crime reduction, government measures must focus on criminal rehabilitation through therapy, education, or medication (Rodgers). Proponents of capital punishment argue that sentencing offenders to death discourages future offenders from committing the same crime, and that no amount of rehabilitation would change a murderer.
Backward-looking approaches propose a proportional punishment to the crime committed. Retributivist theories consider capital punishment as payback for the offense committed. Restorative theories concentrate on restoring the well-being or justice of the victim for the common good of society. The death penalty is often justified by using backward-looking theories: from a retributivist approach, murderers must feel the same pain that their victims had suffered, as this would bring justice to the victim and their families.
The utilitarian approach finds capital punishment reasonable if it is best suited for society’s general welfare. The cost of the death penalty — its inherent pain — is outweighed by the benefit it brings to community. Thousands of murderers are incarcerated in prisons; a significant portion of the taxpayer’s money is spent on the penal system. This budget would not have been spent if the criminals had been executed (Kissinger 12). Imprisonment is not perceived by criminals as a severe penalty anymore; thus, American citizens spend more money on prisoners. The idea of supporting the life of a murderer is unsettling and might lower the overall happiness of society. Additionally, the general public would feel the most secure if the offender who has committed a serious crime is eliminated and does not enjoy the right to rehabilitation.
The moral obligation to respect people’s autonomy is worth consideration. Kim Evans argues that the ultimate right to live always makes capital punishment unjust (Evans 48). Retributivists counterargument by stating that murderers forfeit their right to live by voluntarily taking another’s life. Weinberger claims that if a criminal infringes on another person’s life, they lose all rights to call themselves a person and thereby sentence themself to death (Weinberger 20). According to the principle of autonomy, a person who has committed a severe crime through negligence should not be subjected to cruel punishment. In this context, those who harm someone by accident or due to reasons outside their control should not be subject to penalties as harsh as the criminals acting purposefully. This especially applies to the mentally ill, as they do not understand the severity or consequences of their actions. Instead of getting executed, these people should be kept away from society under treatment.
According to John Rawls, people live behind a veil; they know nothing of themself and their natural abilities. The veil hides our position in society, sex, gender, race, or individual tastes (Rawls 12). The veil of ignorance suggests that our ordinary opinions about what is fair and what is not are based only on experience. The theory leans into the abolition of the death penalty because all people are equal in their right to live regardless of who they are.
It could be argued that the death penalty should be abolished as valid of a punishment as it may seem. The practice of inflicting pain of equivalent degree upon criminals might seem reasonable but is challenged by the fact that all human lives are objectively and equally valuable. One cannot decide whether one deserves to continue living or not. Many criminals commit serious offenses because of severe childhood trauma, history of sexual or physical abuse, and mental disorders. In a democratic and liberal society where rights and integrity are respected, these broken people deserve a chance to become better citizens. They could even be able to be introduced back into the community and contribute to the local economy and infrastructure.
It is argued that murderer decide to violate the autonomy and dignity of their victims, essentially stripping them off from many experiences and joys of life. In this case, capital punishment might be accepted only in exceptional circumstances. When the crime is committed upon the most vulnerable members of society, such as children, pregnant women, and people with disabilities, capital punishment might be considered, given that the offender had been found guilty and of sound mind.
The case of Lisa Montgomery presents a challenge in the dispute on the death penalty’s morality. Montgomery murdered a pregnant woman and, after cutting open her stomach, abducted the infant (Snyder). This is not to belittle the death of Bobbie Jo Stinnett or deny that Montgomery was guilty. Still, Ms. Montgomery was a victim of constant sexual abuse and exploitation from her stepfather; her household was turbulent and unstable. Around the time of committing the crime, the woman already had bipolar disorder, epilepsy, PTSD, dissociative disorder, and alcohol addiction. Child protective systems could not help her when needed; the healthcare system could not help her mental well-being, which led to a horrible crime. It could be argued that executing her was a crime in itself because she was a victim of her circumstances. The decision of the U.S. government was morally incorrect: it should have treated a woman suffering from many mental illnesses differently.
Evans, Kim. The Death Penalty Should be Abolished. Routledge, 2019.
Kissinger, John Jr. The Death Penalty Should be Maintained. BRILL, 2021.
Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice: Original Edition. Google Books, Harvard University Press, 2018.
Snyder, Rachel Louise. “Opinion | Punch after Punch, Rape after Rape, a Murderer Was Made.” The New York Times, 2020, Web.
Travis Rodgers. “Theories of Punishment.” 1000-Word Philosophy: An Introductory Anthology, 1000-Word Philosophy: An Introductory Anthology, 2019, Web.
Weinberger, David. Why Morality Demands the Death Penalty. Routledge, 2019.