An Argument Against the Death Penalty

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An eyewitness to the execution of John Evans in Alabama describes this scene from the final moments of a death penalty sentence being carried out: "The first jolt of 1900 volts of electricity passed through Mr. Evans' body. It lasted thirty seconds. Sparks and flame erupted from the electrode tied to his leg. His body slammed against the straps holding him in the electric chair and his fist clenched permanently. A large puff of grayish smoke and sparks poured out from under the hood that covered his face. An overpowering stench of burnt flesh and clothing began pervading the witness room. Two doctors examined Mr. Evans and declared that he was not dead." It took three jolts of electricity and 14 minutes before John Evans was declared dead (Radelet, "Facing the Death Penalty").

Throughout history, various forms of executions such as this one have taken place as a punishment for crime. In 1976, the United States reinstated the death penalty after having revoked it in 1972 on the grounds that it "violated the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment" (MacKinnon, "Ethics" 289). Since its reinstatement, the morality of such punishment has been extensively debated. I argue that the death penalty cannot be morally justified on the basic grounds that killing a human being as a form of punishment is wrong.

A major argument supporting capital punishment is that it serves as a deterrent to crimes - specifically, murder. However, this argument requires that the would be killer would take at least a moment to consider what the consequences of murder within our legal system are. This assumes that the killer is capable of such reasoning, and that the crime would be considered before it occurred. In fact, "those who commit violent crimes often do so in moments of passion, rage and fear - times when irrationality reigns" (Information, "Capital Punishment" 107). Whether or not a murder or crime is premeditated, there are statistics existing that cause us to question how supportive an argument of deterrence can be. In 1989, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee said that if we look at other Western democracies, "Not one of those countries has capital punishment for peacetime crimes, and yet every one of them has a murder rate less than half that of the United States" (Information, "Capital Punishment" 110). The Information Series on capital punishment also says that states that FBI statistics from 1976-1987 show that "In the twelve states where executions take place, the murder rate is...exactly twice the murder rate of the thirteen states without the death penalty" (111). The deterrent value of capital punishment is certainly in question.

Killing a human being as a deterrent to crime is, in essence, using a human being as a means rather than an ends. Kantian ethics state that we are to treat people as having intrinsic value and not simply instrumental value. "People are valuable in themselves regardless of whether they are useful or loved or valued by others" (MacKinnon, "Ethics" 56). Also, as MacKinnon states, "using the concern for life that usually promotes it to make a case for ending life is inherently contradictory and a violation of the categorical imperative" (133). If we hold that killing is wrong (except in self-defense) and therefore a killer needs to be punished, to follow with the conclusion that the killer's punishment is to be killed is completely contradictory. Some would argue that the execution of a murderer is in the "self-defense" of society itself. This is a distortion of the definition of self-defense. Self-defense is when your life is in immediate danger and a reaction is necessary in order to prevent your injury or death. I believe that self-defense could also apply to situations where the lives of children or others who could not defend themselves were in immediate danger and someone else had to react in order to protect them. The key phrase in each of these...
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