Capital Punishment: A Critical Evaluation of its Appropriateness in Modern Society

The public reflection on the legality and morality of capital punishment has over the years been well documented by historians, philosophers and other theorists amid the complexities and controversies the debate continues to attract. Although the practice is institutionalized and practiced in some countries, the raging debate about its appropriateness demonstrates a subtle balance of thought among critics and advocates that continues to be analyzed under the rubric of moral, legal, philosophical and political underpinnings (Homans 44).

It is therefore the purpose of this essay to critically examine recent arguments in support and against the practice of capital punishment with a view to elucidating facts about its appropriateness or inappropriateness in modern society. It is indeed true that a growing number of countries across the world are abolishing capital punishment, which basically implies the lawful infliction of death as a form of punishment (Arguments para. 1). However, supporters of the practice continue to echo their concerns in popular media using deep-seated rationalistic arguments and counterarguments that aim to widen the focus and the historical framework of capital punishment. One school of thought argues that damages caused by some egregious behavior such as murder and rape cannot be sufficiently compensated, hence the need to formulate legislation that will provide optimum deterrence to the offender in the form of capital punishment (Baron 855). Undeniably, the stakes in support of capital punishment are even higher if such egregious conduct is proved beyond reasonable doubt by a court of law, or if the perpetrator readily admits to taking part in the murder or rape of the victim. In such scenarios, the upholding of capital punishment is seen as a necessary antidote to such uncivilized and inhuman behavior (Steiker & Stetker 649).

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In line with the above argument, supporters of capital punishment argue that the practice permanently removes thieves, murderers, rapists, and other criminals from the face of society, in the process making it safer for compliant members of society to leave in peace (Steiker & Stetker 651). This rationalistic argument is founded on the fact that dead criminals cannot in anyway engage in further criminal activities, either within prison or after being released into the public domain (Arguments para 9). This is, in my view, a flawed argument since it does not only lack any moral justification, but it denies the murderer or rapist the chance to reform and look upon life from a positive standpoint. Assuming a rather economic perspective, some pro-capital punishment advocates argue that limited state resources should be used on important issues rather than on long-term incarceration of murderers, rapists, and other criminals (Arguments para 10). Supporters of this school of thought argue that countries should not use an inexhaustible commodity such as money to cater for individuals condemned for murdering or raping innocent victims. However, this argument can be challenged from the viewpoint that some techniques used to execute condemned criminals are as a matter of fact more expensive than putting such individuals on long-term imprisonment.

In consequence, the issue of cost does not hold much water. Still, other proponents of capital punishment argue that the criminal must be made to suffer the full consequences in proportion to the offence he or she might have committed, otherwise known as retributive justice (Baron 855; Arguments para. 11). As such, a murderer must meet the full force of the law by being executed instead of undergoing some form of rehabilitative treatment. However, this standpoint, in my own view, is faced with a serious challenge because it does not only assumes the old-fashioned logic of an ‘eye for an eye’, but it also lacks in establishing effective standards for punishing offenders in as far as crimes such as rape, robbery with violence, and other odious criminal activities are concerned (Baron 856). For instance, a rapist cannot in anyway be raped under the instruction of the criminal justice system just to make sure that such a criminal is made to suffer in proportion to the crime committed.

In consequence, this argument is a non-starter. Lastly, pro-capital punishment advocates argue that the practice has been effectively used to deter serious criminal activities in countries such as Singapore, China, and Iran, among others. Indeed, consecutive studies reveal that there are far less serious crimes in countries that practice capital punishment, and the opposite is almost always true in countries that don’t (Arguments para. 12). Indeed, “…those in favor of capital punishment believe that the threat of severe punishment should bring the crime rates down and that capital punishment or the death penalty is the ultimate crime deterrent” (Cox para. 1). But as observed by this particular author, capital punishment is no longer effective in deterring crime, in part, due to the fact that it is neither swift nor certain as it used to be in early days. For instance, one can be convicted for a capital offence but the swiftness of taking the convict to the gallows or firing squad is no longer present, thus it cannot be used to deter other members of society from committing crime.

In equal measure, the practice lacks certainty in countries such as the U.S. by virtue of the fact that different states apply the law regarding capital punishment differently (Steiker & Stetker 650).

Critics of capital punishment employ both moral and pragmatic justifications to argue their case. Pragmatically, critics argue that capital punishment lacks any reformative purpose in as far as re-establishing ‘a good citizen’ is concerned, thus the case for its application relies on retribution and deterrence (Homans 43). This further implies that the death penalty cannot in any valid way be used to reform society; on the contrary, it can only be used to protect society from individuals perceived to be deviating from the norm.

In consequence, capital punishment fails to serve one of the basic tenets of the criminal justice system – that of reforming individuals to comply with the norms and values set by society. The moral argument against the death penalty holds that killing an individual for the sole purpose of letting justice take its course is unequivocally wrong. The basic premise for this argument is that the murderer or rapist is wicked to kill or to rape, but so is the state or the criminal justice system (Homans 43). This is a valid argument in as far as the American Constitution and many religions protect the sanctity of life. Indeed, many religions worldwide are of the opinion that life is God-given and that it is only the Almighty who can take away the life of someone. Consequently, it is morally and spiritually wrong for the state and the criminal justice system to assume the role of God (Styers 99).

Moving on, critics of capital punishment postulates that it is often awarded in an inconsistent manner, not mentioning the fact that there exist a real possibility of executing the innocent (Homans 46). This incontrovertible point of view further argues that there is no possible way of compensating the innocent in the eventuality that justice was miscarried, thus the legislation does not carry much weight. In the case of murder, the shallowness of slapping capital offenders with the death penalty is further demonstrated by the fact that it is only the culprit and the victim who knows what really happened, not the prosecution and defense lawyers in a court of law. As such, it is not out of the ordinary for an individual to be convicted for murder when he should actually have only being convicted for a lesser charge such as manslaughter (Styers 115).

This is undeniably wrong. Capital punishment is a cruel and unusual form of punishment. Indeed, many countries are abolishing capital punishment due to its very own inhuman nature, not mentioning the fact that international law and treaties are edging towards declaring the death penalty to be a human rights violation (Styers 117). It is interesting to note that none of the various international criminal courts and treaties provides for capital punishment, and some regional and international bodies such as the Council of Europe and the European Union are advocating for the abandonment of capital punishment as a precondition for membership.

Indeed, not only does capital punishment projects a negative image for any country that puts it into practice, but it also seriously dents the image and esteem of innocent family members and friends of criminals lined up for executions (Homans 45). This must never be allowed to continue. To conclude, it is evidently clear from the discussion that capital punishment does not only assume a backward trajectory, but it also raises critical moral and ethical challenges that must be answered for the practice to gain credence. Yet, proponents of the death penalty have failed to provide satisfactory answers to the questions asked, not mentioning the fact that their own justifications as can be observed above rests on shallow waters. It is indeed true that no one in his sane mind can possibly deny the anguish of the victim’s family in a murder or rape case, but the anguish and despair of the murderer’s or rapist’s family must also be taken into consideration (Homans 47). In addition, knowledge about the poor administration of capital punishment by most countries is in the public domain. What’s more, it must be remembered that murderers, rapists and other criminals are ordinary mortals who have a life and with it the capability to experience pain, fright and the loss of family members and friends.

It should also be remembered that there is no such thing as a compassionate technique of executing a criminal irrespective of what the state may claim because every form of execution is a horrendous ordeal for the criminal. As such, it is only right that capital punishment be abandoned.

Works Cited

Arguments for and Against Capital Punishment. (n.d.). Retrieved 6 April 2011

org/thoughts.html> Baron, J.C. The “Monstrous Heresy” of Punitive Damages: A Comparison to the Death Penalty and Suggestions for Reform.

University of Pennsylvania Law Review 159.3(2007): 853-891. Retrieved from Academic Search Premier Database Cox, E.V. Why Capital Punishment Doesn’t Deter Crime. 2006.

Retrieved 6 April 2011 Homans, L. Swinging Sixties: The Abolition of Capital Punishment. History Today 58.12 (2008): 43-49. Retrieved 6 April 2011 from Academic Search Premier Database Steiker, C.

S., & Stetker, J.M.

Capital Punishment: A Century of Discontinuous Debate. Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology 100.3 (2010): 643-689.

Retrieved 6 April 2011 from MasterFILE Premier Database Styers, R. Capital Punishment, Atonement, and the Christian Right. Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 18.3 (2007): 97-127. Retrieved from Academic Search Premier Database


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