Capital Punishment: Can It Ever Be Justified?

are some crimes which are so vile, and so evil, that many think they
warrant the punishment of death. In the cases of serial rapists,
serial murderers, and serial child abusers, these are people who have
destroyed the lives of many, and who seem to be immune to
rehabilitation. Many argue that these types of individuals should
be completely removed from society. This argument for capital
punishment is based on protection, and those who support capital
punishment will claim that crimes such as murder warrant the death
penalty because if the criminal is dead, then they cannot murder

course, other arguments can be made in favour of the death penalty. A
popular one comes from the author and Mail On Sunday journalist,
Peter Hitchens. On several occasions Hitchens has argued that by
reintroducing the death penalty in Britain, rates of crime would
dramatically drop; especially the worst crimes such as murder, rape,
and child abuse. Crime rates would substantially drop because the
death penalty would act as an effective deterrent; that is, it would
serve to put people off from committing the worst crimes. It wouldn’t
be so much the case that the death penalty would erase the worst
criminals from society; rather, the risk of death would ensure that
there would be a small number of such criminals.

makes use of the death penalty for several offences, and it has the
second highest rate of executions in the world according to the
United Nations. Murder guarantees this punishment. However, so does
drug trafficking, with 70% of all hangings (yes, the antiquated
method of hanging is used, instead of the electric chair or lethal
injection) being attributed to this offence. Regardless of whether
you think drug trafficking is as harmful as murder (it certainly is
not as directly harmful)
Singapore has much less of a drug trafficking problem than countries
which do not punish this offence with death. Therefore, many
proponents of capital punishment could argue that the death penalty
does have an obvious and effective deterrent impact in society.

addition, one of the heroes of the philosophy of libertarianism, John
Stuart Mill, also laid out his argument for capital punishment in his
Speech in Favour of Capital Punishment
(1868) which was delivered to the House of Commons. Mill basis his
argument on utilitarianism, an ethical system which aims to maximize
happiness and minimize suffering. As he puts it, “…to deter by
suffering from inflicting suffering is not only possible, but the
very purpose of penal justice”. By this he means that the essence
of justice involves punishing criminals with suffering in order to
avoid an even greater amount of suffering.

regards to capital punishment Mill goes on to say that it is “the
least cruel mode in which it is possible adequately to deter from
crime”. This seems almost like common sense. Death is the worst
thing that can happen to someone. Admittedly, being tortured and then
killed would be far worse in terms of physical pain, but since Mill
was a utilitarian he would not have supported this unusually cruel
form of punishment.

Mill’s time, the abolitionists were arguing that capital punishment
can lead to innocent people being mistakenly convicted of murder, and
sentenced to death before the truth gets out. To have the state kill
the innocent would be one of the greatest forms of injustice.
However, in response to this argument, Mill stressed that because the
death penalty is such a serious punishment, the courts will become
“…more scrupulous in requiring the fullest evidence of guilt”.

I think the arguments against the reintroduction of capital
punishment in the UK are much stronger and persuasive than the
arguments in support of its reintroduction. The first argument
against it is simply based on consistency. For example, Mill
supported the death penalty as a suitable punishment for murderers.
But, if murder is an act which justifies the murderer’s death, then
why is the state not guilty of murder when it kills the murderer? Is
the executioner not involved in the calculated death of another

seems to be palpably hypocritical to demonise and punish an act by
carrying out the same act. The Old Testament teaching of retribution
(an “eye of an eye”) is not just contradictory, it is petty too.
This attitude of vengeance reflects our most base and primitive
instincts – it is not something on which to base a moral criminal
justice system. State-sanctioned murder is still murder.

punishment was abolished for murder in 1965 (with the last hanging
being carried out in 1964) and was then abolished for all
circumstances in 1998. In 2004, the 13th
Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights became binding to
the UK, meaning that the death penalty could never be restored so
long as we are a part of the Convention. Some vital arguments can be
used to justify these abolitionist decisions. From a libertarian
perspective, the right to live can be seen as fundamental – it is
the right which allows for the possibility of every other right.
There can be exceptions to preserving this right, such as for self
protection or to protect the innocent.

major argument against capital punishment is protecting the innocent.
Although thinkers such as Mill believe that the criminal justice
system can somehow become flawless and always distinguish the guilty
from the innocent, this simply cannot be true. Witnesses, prosecutors
and judges are fallible, they make mistakes, and the evidence
they are assessing is never complete. Where capital punishment is
used, such mistakes can never be corrected.

statement from Amnesty International puts it like this: “
death penalty legitimizes an irreversible act of violence by the
state and will inevitably claim innocent victims. As long as human
justice remains fallible, the risk of executing the innocent can
never be eliminated”. There is ample evidence of these mistakes
being made. In the US, 130 people sentenced to death have been found
innocent since 1973. Luckily, these people on death row were found
innocent before their execution.

these lucky 130, some people have been executed in the US who later
turned out to be insane. Reintroducing the death penalty in the UK
could therefore put the insane at risk who, while they should be
confined, should not be executed. Their confinement is for the safety
of the public. Whereas to punish them by killing them would be unjust
– you can only be guilty of a crime if you have a guilty mind
(knowing what you’re doing and knowing that it is wrong).

existentialists Albert Camus and Fyodor Dostoevsky said that even if
vengeance was an acceptable form of punishment, the death penalty was
still not fair. Someone convicted of murder, for example, could
suffer much more than the person they killed. They would have to
suffer the anticipation of being killed as well – the average wait on
death row is for 10 years! It is also questionable whether the death
penalty does have a deterrent effect.

1996 an updated survey conducted by the UN, the relationship
between the death penalty and homicide rates was analysed. The survey found that:
“…research has failed to provide scientific proof that executions
have a greater deterrent effect than life imprisonment. Such proof is
unlikely to be forthcoming. The evidence as a whole still gives no
positive support to the deterrent hypothesis.
key to real and true deterrence is to increase the likelihood of
detection, arrest and conviction. The death penalty is a harsh
punishment, but it is not harsh on crime”. 


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