Morality and the Death Penalty

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Morality and the Death Penalty

In this paper, the two sides of the issue of the death penalty, pro and con, as well as the morality of the topic will be discussed. Opinions from both sides are presented and discussed, as I shape and present my argument on the subject. The debate has gone on for centuries, and has been brought to the forefront by great figures, both historical and contemporary. Some of their views are used here to piece together my case. In “The Grounding of the Metaphysics of Morals” Kant argues three major points. These can be summarized as follows: (1) We are all, as human beings, ends in ourselves, and not to be used as mere means by others (2) Respect for one’s own humanity involves respect for others; (3) Morality is itself identical with freedom, and acting immorally involves being enslaved. Kant believed that moral judgments must be a priori judgments, meaning it is known prior to experience, and is known independently of experience. The principle upon which moral judgments should rely is known as The Categorical Imperative, meaning all our actions should be based on universal principles, unconditional rules that apply as a matter of reason or rationality. If a rule passes the Categorical Imperative test, then that action is morally permissible. If it fails the test, then that action is morally forbidden, and, therefore, the opposite action is morally required. In the case of the death penalty, a universal maxim must apply that is unconditional. In order to test the universality of any rule (such as the moral permissibility of state-sanctioned murder) an example that potentially contradicts the maxim can be imagined. In other words, under what conditions would it be morally impermissible for the state to sanction death penalty judgments against criminals?

Kant, himself, however, felt that murderers should be put to death on account of the principle of equal and just retribution. That only the law of retribution can determine the kind and degree of punishment. If the death penalty is not applicable to all cases, it can not be a universal rule. While there are often crimes that are heinous and inhumane, and the passions desire retributive justice, it is not possible to argue a rationale for murdering criminals. Van den Haag, taking the Kantian perspective, asks whether if there is nothing for the sake of which one may be put to death, can there be nothing worth dying for? He goes on to ask whether “a value system in which any life, no matter how it is lived, becomes the highest of goods, enhances the value of human life or cheapens it?” Van den Haag thus argues that an appreciation of human dignity actually demands the death penalty. He claims, “To refuse to punish any crime with death, then, is to avow that the negative weight of a crime can never exceed the positive value of the life of the person who committed it. I find that proposition implausible.” In arguing for the value of the death penalty, however, Van den Haag implicitly contradicts two basic premises of Kant’s views, which are (1) we are all, as human beings, ends in ourselves, and not to be used as mere means by others. Humans are not to be used as means to an end, which in the case of the death penalty requires that criminals not be murdered as means towards justice; and (2) Respect for one’s own humanity finds involves respect for others. In cases of the death penalty, respect for others is contradicted by punishing the criminal, since the victims are being “respected” through an act of murder that disrespects the person being murdered. Utilitarianism is expressed in two ways – Rule Utilitarianism, and Act Utilitarianism. Justification of a ‘better social good’ is the basis of moral reasoning, and individual cases of punishment are justified if they are in accord with the rules of the justified punishment system. The general rule of utilitarianism: Maximize social...
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