Emmanuel Kant, Feminist Ethics, and the Death Penalty

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Emmanuel Kant, Feminist Ethics, and the Death Penalty

“With every cell of my being, and with every fiber of my memory, I oppose the death penalty in all forms.... I do not believe any civilized society should be at the service of death. I don’t think it’s human to become an Angel of Death.” Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1986

“In sorting out my feelings and beliefs, there is, however, one piece of moral ground of which I am absolutely certain: if I were to be murdered I would not want my murderer executed. I would not want my death avenged. Especially by government--which can't be trusted to control its own bureaucrats or collect taxes equitably or fill a pothole, much less decide which of its citizens to kill.” Sister Helen Prejean

“Forgiving violence does not mean condoning violence. There are only two alternatives to forgiving violence: revenge, or adopting an attitude of never-ending bitterness and anger. For too long we have treated violence with violence, and that's why it never ends.” Coretta Scott King

For millennia, men have predominantly held the reins of power throughout the world, most particularly in western culture and societies. The rigid adherence to rules based on reason, to the exclusion of emotion and empathy, have left us with a world filled with far too much violence. Perhaps the views of women and feminist ethics have something to teach us. There is no better place than these two contrasting points of view play out than the issue of the death penalty. For Immanuel Kant, no society can exist without the rule of law. Thus, murder is a crime against society and cannot go unpunished. “Any transgression of the public law which makes him who commits it incapable of being a citizen, constitutes a crime, either simply as a private crime, or also as a public crime” The failure to apply the death penalty in every case of murder would create a contradiction; society would be undermining itself. If punishment of an innocent person is a mistake of justice administration, failure to punish a criminal indicates that the absence of justice, which is worse than mistake. In applying the principle of Lex Taliones, Kant would have viewed that the only proper means of a perpetrator arriving at a state of understanding of the nature and severity of the crime would be to experience the minute details of that crime on their own body and mind. “But what is the mode and measure of punishment which public justice takes as its principle and standard? It is just the principle of equality, by which the pointer of the scale of justice is made to incline no more to the one side than the other. The undeserved evil which any one commits on another is to be regarded as perpetrated on himself. Hence it may be said: "If you slander another, you slander yourself; if you steal from another, you steal from yourself; if you strike another, you strike yourself; if you kill another, you kill yourself." This is the right of retaliation (jus [lex] talionis); and, properly understood, it is the only principle which in regulating a public court (as opposed to individuals’ private judgement), can definitely assign both the quality and the quantity of a just penalty. All other standards are wavering and uncertain; and on account of other considerations involved in them, they contain no principle conformable to the sentence of pure and strict justice.”

The deontological approach appeals to reason and a person’s sense of rationality and autonomy. Feminist ethics would have us look at the effects of murder and capital punishment on both the perpetrator, families of the victim and perpetrator, and society at large. “People say that executing criminals does not take away from their dignity-- if it is done with dignity. But the fact of the matter is that whether you're waiting to die by lethal injection-- waiting to for the poison to flow down your veins--or waiting for a bullet, or waiting for a...
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