From: firstname.lastname@example.org (Hume)
Subject: Failures of 3 Main Arguments
Date: 22 Jun 1997 16:38:53 GMT
Death penalty: Failures of 3 Main Arguments
By "Hume" <email@example.com>, 22 June 1997
Murder is unjustified intentional killing.
It is not sufficient that there be justification (a sound reason) to kill
somebody, the person doing the killing must kill for that reason. Thus, if
I should shoot some random person in a driveby shooting, only to have it
discovered later that, quite by coincidence, this was somebody who
deserved to die, this would not mitigate against the fact that I committed
The three most common reasons offered for capital punishment do not
- 1. Specific deterrence: capital punishment is justified to prevent the
commission of a future crime.
- Objection 1: Imagine a psychological test for high school students whereby
it is shown that those who fail are as likely to commit a future crime as
are those arrested for having committed that crime in the past. The
ability to prevent a future crime would be the same in both cases. If it
is permissible to kill to prevent a future crime, than we are just as
justified in killing those highschool students who fail this test as we
are those who have committed murder. Or, in other words, if preventing a
future crime does not justify killing these high-school students, it does
notjustify capital punishment for murderers.
- Objection 2: (This is actually a way of rephrasing above), a person being
executed to prevent a future crime is, in effect, being punished for a
crime that he did not commit. Not only is he being presumed guilty (rather
than being presumed innocent unless proved to be guilty), he is being
presumed guilty of crime that does not exist.
- Thus, killing to prevent a future crime counts as murder.
- 2. Retributive justice: Justice requires a punishment that fits the crime.
- Objection 1: There is no such thing as "justice." If it does exist, what
is it? What type of instrument can detect how much "justice" is contained
within a particular action? Justice is a myth of our own design, and
mythological properties can not justify a real-world execution.
- Objection 2: I have demonstrated above that executions done in the name
of preventing a future crime count as murder. If there is a "justice" that
insists on a punishment fitting of a crime, than this "justice" is going
to require the execution of a great many people. The absurdity of these
types of conclusions argues against any notion that we may kill to serve
Thus, killing to serve justice counts as murder.
- 3. General deterrence. Capital punishment is justified as a means of
preserving social order.
- Objection 1: There are orderly societies that do not have capital
- Objection 2: There is no statistical evidence that capital punishment is a
- Objection 3: If capital punishment is really a deterrence, then why are
most capital crimes committed by young males (those who have more of a
life to lose through execution), rather than older individuals who will
only lose a couple of years of their life? The fact that younger people
commit more capital crimes than older people argues against the notion
that capital punishment is a deterrent.
- Objection 4: General deterrence effectively holds a person accountable for
the actions of others. "We are not punishing you because of what you did,
we are punishing you as a way of preventing these other people from doing
the same thing." To which a response: "Why is it my fault that others
might do the same thing?" is quite reasonable.
- Thus, execution as a means of general deterrence counts as murder.
One last argument against the death penalty.
One argument against:
Most criminal acts involve rationalization; that is, reconceptualizing the
action so that it conforms with society's moral standards. This is most
often illustrated in rape cases, where the offender reconceptualizes his
act as one carried out in the name of justice (she deserved it) or charity
(really, she wanted it). But murderers also rationalize their actions.
An attitude that killing another is never justified should have the effect
of reducing the number of murders by cutting off this mental component
that makes it possible for a person to commit murder. It may well be why
societies that reject the death penalty tend to have lower murder rates.