Should the Death Penalty be abolished?
Capital Punishment has been with us for a very long time. Almost all societies have used the death penalty at some time in the past and the majority still do so today.
However, since the mid 1800s there has been a growing number of nations who have outlawed the death penalty. Portugal did so in 1867 and a century later the United Kingdom also abolished the death penalty.
The reasons for abolition cited by the reformers covered a number of ethical dimensions.
Firstly reformers argued that the death penalty is an absolute wrong. From a christian theological standpoint this is backed up by citing the sixth commandment, "Thou shalt not kill."
In response to this proponents of the death penalty have quoted "An eye for an eye" and pointed out the catholic church's acceptance of capital punishment as a necessary evil.
The next reason for abolition is that the death penalty is diametrically opposed to the ultimate aim of the justice system. In the nineteenth century, philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham changed the way we see the ultimate point of state punishment of the individual. He argued that reforming the character of a criminal was our ultimate aim. This view became widespread and is still considered by many to be at the heart of the role of the justice system. it therefore follows that capital punishment which does not allow for reform of character is in opposition to the stated aim of the justice system.
A response to this is that some people are beyond redemption and therefore capital punishment is an appropriate sanction for them. However, this arguement is weak in that the trial process does not attempt to discover if a person is beyond redemption, but only seeks to discover if the person comitted the crime.
The proponents of capital punishment point to the needs of the public to be and feel safe at night outweigh the needs of the convicted murderer.
Of course, locking a criminal away for good is just as effective (although far more costly to the taxpayer) as killing them. There is also the issue of accidental killing innocent people. This is an important argument. Blind justice sometimes fails and innocent people are convicted of horrible crimes. If the mistake is acknowledged after the execution then the state has committed an act equally terrible to the act for which the innocent party was killed.
When you talk about this in abstract terms it is easy to counter the argument by talking about the price of a few mistakes being worth it, but when you come face to face with the families of innocent victims of state justice it is far less easy to justify the cost. It was one or two high profile cases of miscarriages of justice in the 1950s and 60s that led the United Kingdom to abolish the death penalty. However, despite ending state executions in the sixties, the death penalty remained on the statue books for treason until the late 1990s.
Ultimately, we have to ask what the point of capital punishment actually is. It is used to get some sort of revenge on a bad person. The question we should ask is whether a civilized society should seek revenge.
These are the arguments surrounding the death penalty.