The death penalty is one of the most controversial topics in criminal justice. The death penalty is defined as the punishment of death that is administered to someone that is legally convicted of a serious crime such as murder or rape. The history of the death is a long and brutal one. It started out with hangings, stoning, and crucifixion killings; in today’s society the methods are less inhumane these methods include lethal injection and the electric chair.
There are many different ethical views on whether the death penalty is considered right or wrong. Most of the people in the United States believe that it is more of a punishment to make the criminals spend the rest of their lives incarcerated, rather than having a short life in prison. They believe that being incarcerated for the rest of their lives would punish a prisoner for the rest of their life, with death being the only way out. “These advocates that are against the death penalty believe that the same objectives would be met by life in prison: deterrence, retribution, and closure” (Flanders, 2008, p. 434). The most controversial argument against the death penalty is that it is immoral. “You can look at it anyway you want but in the end you are still killing someone, and murder is always wrong.” A further look; looks at the morality of the death penalty which is needed because although murder is deemed wrong, this I not always the case. Depending on what ethical theory of morality you believe in, murder can sometimes be looked at as being right/moral. There are three different types of theories that we looked at in class that can help us get a better view on why the death penalty is considered moral or immoral. Those theories are utilititarisim, demonology, and virtue ethics each of these theories have their own views on capital punishment.
Utilitarianism ethical theory
The Utilitarianism theory would view capital punishment as both moral and immoral. “This is because this theory determines right from wrong by looking at the outcome.” An action is considered right if it promotes happiness. An action is considered wrong if it takes away happiness” (Bedau, 1983, p. 1037). Utilitarian’s think the death penalty is immoral if it is used for revenge or “an eye for an eye”. The main purpose of the death penalty when looking at this theory is to deter criminals from committing murder. This type of punishment is intended to cause fear in society and, therefore, prevent crime. Also advocates would be for the death penalty if a criminal receives the death penalty and he or she could not commit future crimes which benefit the safety of a society. Another advantage of the death penalty would be the victim’s family would have a sense of closure knowing that the person that killed there loved one will never be released from prison. Another small argument would be that the government would save money by executing people who commit capital offences instead of supporting them in prison at the expense of the community. “So while the criminal is surely not happy being imprisoned for life, the happiness of the community is also diminished because the funds that could go to education are used for housing, feeding, and clothing the offender” (Bedau, 1983, p. 1038). To conclude, a utilitarian would agree with capital punishment if this was the most beneficial way to make society a happier place for the majority of the community.
Deontological ethical theory
The second theory of ethics is deontology; Deontology views capital punishment as being immoral if it’s not used for retribution (revenge). Deontology focuses on the right or wrongness or intentions or motives behind action such as respect for rights, duties, or principles, as opposed to utilitarism which mainly focuses on the consequences of those actions” (Potter, 2002, p. 267). Deontology is sometimes described as duty based ethics, because this theory believes that ethical rules are bound by duty. This theory is flawed in some ways because it only looks at the intentions of an action and not the act or consequences. Many times good intention can have unintentional bad consequences and vice versa. “Deontologist view capital punishment as being wrong by its nature, a violation of the right to life, which is a universal law for them” (Potter, 2002, p. 267). They also look at the inhumane ways that capital punishment is carried out. An argument that they make against capital punishment is that by killing the prisoner, it causes the prisoner’s family and friends to become victims themselves. On the other hand, Deontologists can view capital punishment as moral by saying that it is only natural for the families of the victims to seek retribution for the loss of life, that the punishment fits the crime. The belief is that without proper retribution, the judicial system further brutalizes the victim or victim’s family and friends, which amounts to secondary victimization. In the context of deontology, life imprisonment cannot be used as a substitute for the death penalty, since any length of incarceration is a violation of the right to liberty. In deontological terms, nothing is gained by substituting the violation of one type of right (the right to life) with that of another (the right to liberty).
Virtue ethical theory
Virtue Ethics is the last theory of ethics and this theory believes that capital punishment is immoral. To get to know this ethical theory it is important to apply Teleology to the issue. “Teleology means the end of something; the end to capital punishment is to put to death the person guilty of the crime” (Perry, 2016, p. 8). Capital punishment is intended to punish a person by executing them by using lethal injection. But there can be a second interpretation of the ethical issue of capital punishment and that is that the end of capital punishment is the prevention of a crime in the first place. Thus according to teleology, capital punishment could be considered to have two different ends. However, this is not the complete picture. “Virtue ethics uses the motivation, the act itself, and the consequences to decide morality” (Perry, 2016, p. 8). I believe that virtue ethics would ultimately find capital punishment to be immoral. The motivations of capital punishment are punishment, retribution, and deterrence. The first and last motives are positive ones, and the second is not. The act varies, but can be things such as lethal injection, electrocution, and hanging. The act of killing is a universal law and is always wrong. The consequence of capital punishment, death, does not only affect the prisoner who is losing their life, but also the person performing the execution. The consequences can also be viewed as wrong because it harms people. Since all three criteria combined is wrong, the act is immoral. Through this theory, one could argue that the death penalty is immoral but there can be circumstances in which capital punishment is moral.
Demonology and law enforcement
The theory of deontological is most related with law enforcement officers because it suggests that we should consider the implications of our actions as if they were universal. Consider, stealing a car by robbing someone’s house and stealing the keys to someone’s car, we should consider the implications of stealing that person’s car. In a law enforcement context, we should consider the consequences of our actions. One example of this would be when an police officer lies to a suspect just to get him to confess. When the police officer applies the universal rule it allows the investigator to consider the negative ramifications of the action, even if that lie was made with the right intensions of bringing out a moral consequence.
Another reason why this theory relates to law enforcement is because of the importance of duty. Law enforcement officers are always required to fulfill their duty’s no matter what the costs are. Sometimes they are confronted with duties that they don’t want to do. For example they might have a hard time telling on a police officer if he/she does something wrong. When faced with this type of situation the officers should consider that they made a promise to perform certain duties when they swore to their oath. These duties require the police officer to protect and serve the town that they work in. These duties must be performed by someone, and when those duties are assigned to law enforcement officers they must comply do their duties. An example of this might be a patrol officer who does not want to criminally charge someone that they know because they might be a close friend; but the officer must consider their duties and the oath that he/she took when they decided that they wanted to be a police officer. The caveat to duty is the duty must be done in “good faith: that means the duty should be performed if the officer is aware that there is a lack of morality in the duty.
This theory also highlighted that a person should never be treated as a means to an end. They should always be treated equal. The moral decision that a person makes must not in any way take advantage of a person. An example is lying to a person to gain “something” in return like a confession, even if the “something” is good results in solving a crime. An example of this using law enforcement context would be a police officer using an informant to obtain information on another suspect, while offering the informant the chance to remove a charge, when the investigator knows that this will not happen.
Virtue ethics and law enforcement
It is often said that no other profession demands a higher ethical standard then those in the criminal justice profession. There is a tremendous degree of expectation placed on police officers, judges, correctional officers and any other profession that deals with criminal justice. It is important for criminal justice professionals to use virtue ethics in their personal, social, and professional life. This is because they are expected to show good moral character by “leading the good life” and being virtuous and following the law when they are working and when they are off duty. I will use police officers for an example: police officers live in a fish bowl they are being watched by family friends, relatives, neighbors, and strangers every day when they are working or when they are off duty. The public tends to scrutinize police officers because they hope to catch them doing something wrong. Most people are looking for a good example and a strong leader that has a good moral character. Some examples of having good moral character is being prudent which means officers that have to ability to decide the correct action to take when rules and policies are not present this character trait should be used when a police officer is off-duty. Another characteristic is trust; officers with the ability to be relied upon for truth. These must exist between officers and citizens, officers themselves, and officers and the courts. Another important trait is having courage; officers should place themselves in danger intellectually and physically to protect the public from criminals. Officers also have a trait of being responsibly; officers who understand, what is right and that there are other courses of action if an action is considered immoral. When a police officer shows these characteristics while they are working and while they are off duty people will respect them more. Another thing police officers should consider when they are working is work together with the public. They must lead a good example instead of a bad example. Some of those bad examples include lying, pulling over someone just because of their race, using their authority to obtain free things like food, and being selfish. By avoiding this bad moral behavior and charterer police officers are able to provide the level of service there communities deserve and to make a difference in the lives of others.
After writing this paper and doing more research on the death penalty I still believe that the death penalty is necessary in the United States for the most heinous murderers. People who murder other people deserve a strict punishment. Why should a murder be allowed to live out the rest of their lives in relative comfort, paid for by the public? To continue to house, cloth and feed them for the remainder of their lives at the tax payers expense. The people that murder other people gave up there right to live when they took an innocent person’s life away probably for a stupid reason. Another reason why I think the death penalty is a good idea is because of deterrence and closure that the death penalty beings: the death penalty saves lives. Would be murders have a better reason to think twice if they know their lives on the line. When it comes to closure the execution of a criminal is the best way to provide closure for a family, they can finally put the crime behind them and move on knowing that there is no way the person who took away there loved one is ever leaving prison to walk free. Many people believe that killing someone is immoral but I think it is more immoral to murder someone for all the wrong reasons no matter what they person did to you they shouldn’t deserve to die.
In my opinion I think virtue ethics is the best theory for living a happy and full filling life because living a fulfilling a virtues life requires having good moral character. Someone who lies cheats, and is mean to other people are not living a happy full filling life. Everyone in their life must face danger at some point, so we must ask to be courageous. Everyone must deal with other people; it is important to be friendly. We are get angry so we must learn to be patient.
Flanders, C. T. (2006). Time, Death, and, Retribution. Journal of Constitutional Law.
Perry, M. J. (2016, April). Capital Punishment and the Morality of Human Rights. Journal of Catholic Legal Studies.