Capital Punishment


Capital punishment, which is more commonly referred to as the death penalty, is the execution of a convicted criminal by the state as punishment for crimes known capital crimes or capital offences. The crimes that fall under capital crimes are dependent on the society and the beliefs of countries where they were committed, but they usually include murders, and in some instances like India, for example, capital punishment is used against drug trafficking. In the more extreme cases, like China, you can get hanged for not paying your taxes. The diagram on the slide above me represents the use of death penalty around the world in the year 2005 and 2006. There are 193 countries around the world and from this diagram, 88 of them actively use capital punishment, the most noticeable being the United States and China. However, in Canada, where the death penalty has been abolished, there have been recent surveys conducted like the one by the Angus Ried poll in 1995 which found that 69% of Canadians supported reinstating the death penalty in Canada. As well, the recent hangings of Saddam Hussein and his deputy minister, and criminals such as Robert Pickton might spark this debate once again.

With almost equal amounts of countries retaining and abolishing capital punishment the inevitable question arises, how can we know that capital punishment is right or wrong? This is the main focus of this presentation. We will be presenting four different ethical viewpoints: moral relativism, absolutism, pure selfishness, and pure happiness. The limitations of each viewpoint will be examined throughout this presentation and will lead us to come up with our own method of resolving this ethical dilemma.

Introducing the three viewpoints

Before we get into the heated discussion of whether capital punishment is right or wrong, we need to establish and define the different ethical perspectives that one may have regarding this issue. First of all, we have the moral relativist position, who maintains that all value judgments are relative to oneself, that is, “You think this; I think that, end of discussion.” Relativists believe that due to the sheer variety of moral practices, no objective values can be established. In our debate over capital punishment, you can just imagine that during each argument, we have one person who supports it and one against it, and this will be their discussion: “hey I think that capital punishment is right because blah blah.” “Really? I actually disagree with capital punishment because blah blah.” “Oh, that sucks…okay, bye bye.” And with that, we’ll move on as relativists don’t really have much to say.

On the other hand, we have the complete opposite, the moral absolutist who believes that there is an authoritative book of rules which can govern and guide our every action. This perspective is personified through Kant’s approach to ethics. Immanuel Kant was a philosopher in the 16th century who believed that our duties are not arbitrary and we can determine what they are in an objective manner through reasoning and with the absence of emotion. Kant argued that the way in which you resolve a moral dilemma is to consider what principles govern the act, and then imagine what would happen if everyone obeyed such a principle. For example, say you saw this really nice jacket in a store that you wanted to buy but you couldn’t afford it and you were, for some reason, debating whether or not to steal it. You can simply ask yourself what would happen if everyone stole what they wanted. As a result of that, you end up with a contradiction whereby the need to steal is gone as nothing is bought anymore.

Then we have a believer of the self-interest theory, which basically concludes that everyone is selfish, it is innate to our behavior, and even if there are objective values, we are incompetent in abiding by such values because we are too selfish. Now you might be thinking, “What? I’m not selfish..” but let’s consider this: It is a Saturday afternoon and your friends just called you to go out to a movie with them, but your mom tells you after that she wants you to go volunteer at some old folk’s home. Now the obvious choice is to go and watch a movie because that is what you want to do. Even if you decide at the end to go help at the senior’s home, you are condemned as you would rather go to the movie. To make matters worse, self interest practitioners have divided their theory into four different categories, but we will be concentrating on just one to lessen the depression felt by us all, especially for you Vince. Our focus will be on the argument that we all behavior in a civilized manner because we fear punishment. When people are thinking about doing something that is wrong, they usually ask themselves, “What would happen if I get caught?” This is evident as we have all read the “Heart of Darkness” in English class and we all know that if we were placed in Kurtz’s position of absolute power and freedom, we would act in the same way. This can be seen from a realistic perspective when in 1969, the police force of Montreal went on strike. Here are the results of that day: 6 banks robbed, 100 shops looted, 12 fires, 40 cartloads of storefront broken glass, and 3 million dollars in property damages.

Finally, we have the utilitarian who sits between the relativist and the absolutist. The utilitarian simply considers the amount of happiness that would be produced as a result of an action, and if it is constructive, it will be done. The founders of this theory, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill consider the only thing that is good is happiness and “actions are right in so far as they tend to increase happiness and wrong in so far as they tend to decrease it.” In practical terms, lets imagine that everyone had a futuristic tamagochi, which was somehow connected to our brains and can detect exactly how happy we are. So when you’re feeling happy, your virtual pet would be able to accurately depict your level of happiness, and when you’re feeling down, so will your pet. So imagine that you’re all John and had one of these tamagochis right now and a special someone just asked you out on Friday night; your pet would probably be close to jumping out of the screen with joy. Then she tells you the next day that unfortunately she’s busy on Friday. You look at your pet, and you’ll see him climbing the tallest skyscraper around and preparing to jump. Now that we have defined the different ethical perspectives, we can get into the gist of our presentation, which is the intense debate of whether capital punishment is right or wrong.

Capital punishment argument #1

Supporters of capital punishment rely heavily on the argument that it is a form of deterrence, whereby the action of executing criminals will scare off would-be criminals. This corresponds with the fear of punishment argument of the self interest theory. In a country where capital punishment is practiced, criminals would, out of the fear of getting executed, not commit crimes.

Or at least that’s how it works in theory. In 1988, a survey was conducted for the UN to determine the relation between the death penalty and homicide rates. This was then updated in 1996. It concluded: “…research has failed to provide scientific proof that executions have a greater deterrent effect than life imprisonment. Such proof is unlikely to be forthcoming. The evidence as a whole still gives no positive support to the deterrent hypothesis.” This survey is a clear indication of our futile attempts at objectifying our values and ethics and also demonstrates how miserably we fail to do so. Thus, many people argue that capital punishment does not deter criminals as there is no solid evidence to prove so. Others argue that capital punishment is unable to deter certain criminals with mental disorders or defects, which constitutes as a large number of criminals as most are labeled “maniacs”. As well, many capital crimes are committed at the spur of the moment, out of an emotional breakdown, and the offender did not consider the possible consequences. In other words, his emotions overwhelm the rational aspect of his mind. Emotions can undermine the ability to think clearly and in some cases we even try to justify the negative actions that we are doing. Thus, this contributes to the uncertainty behind the results of whether capital punishment deters murders or not as emotions play an aspect on this and it is highly subjective. This correlates with counterarguments against the fear of punishment argument as not all good behavior is done out of the fear of punishment. Let’s take myself for an example, during one of my Biology tests, Ms. Yuen left the room and I was given the opportunity to look across my test to Winston who was sitting across from me as I had not studied for this test due to the huge TOK essay that I pulled an all-nighter for. But, out of the pure goodness of my heart, I restrained myself and did not cheat. Although I ended up failing that test, my motives overruled the consequences and I currently have this fuzzy feeling inside of me while talking about this.

However, if we perceive the last two scenarios out of the eyes of a moral absolutist, it is obvious that the answer would be to execute them as they have, after all, committed the crimes. Any supporter of Kant’s theory would refer to the fact that no exceptions can be made under any circumstance. This is especially important if the crime had directly affected one of our family or friends and our feelings of vengeance overpower our ability to reason. Many philosophers have perceived of an iron curtain of ignorance” to solve ethical dilemmas. The curtain works by imagining that person A did something to person B and you are either A or B but you don’t know which one. This forces us to have a more objective stance on the matter and helps in solving the issue at hand. Kant also placed reason above emotion as he thought emotions were unreliable in justifying our values. In the two scenarios, our emotions will, in general, excuse the mentally ill, if not the emotionally ill murder, and this is consistent with society today. However, we see that our emotions can be tampered with easily as many murderers are deemed insane and not executed.

But Kant’s theory and moral absolutism is flawed in many ways. First of all, it is stupid to follow principles regardless of the situation as it is impossible to consider all scenarios when we generalize such principles. The number of instances is not representative. In the case of capital punishment, the mentally ill and emotionally ill are two good examples of scenarios that obviously have not been considered in the creation and application of this law. As we are all intelligent beings, the reliance on such a mechanical process is not only degrading, but incorrect in solving ethical dilemmas.

Argument #2:

Another argument that usually arises out of debates over capital punishment is the retribution and justice argument. This argument is based on the principle of “an eye for an eye”. Therefore, this argument is also from the perspective of a moral absolutist. This group believes that the punishment of a criminal should be in proportion with the severity of the crime committed. The advantages and flaws of moral absolutism are best discussed through an example. For our purposes, we will be using religion. In reading the bible, some Christians concluded that they support capital punishment. The simplicity of this process is very attractive to many people as they have a source that will tell them exactly what to do and what not to do. This is the basis of moral absolutists: the reliance on an authoritative source to derive solutions to all problems. This process is a black and white situation where one is either right or wrong and there are no shades of grey. Many people rely on these sources for support when all else fails them.

However, other people also read the Bible and they conclude that it rejects capital punishment. This controversy is a direct result of the ambiguity of language. As the Bible was originally written in Hebrew, the connotations of various phrases will have been lost in the process of translating it into languages such as English and Chinese, which will then be differently connotative as each language carries its own unique language. If that wasn’t enough, the difference in time periods also has affected the liability of authoritative texts. As capital punishment was not a controversial topic at that time, its use was not described in detail in the Bible. This also applies to the use of technology as other controversial topics such as stem cells were not conceived of during the making of the Bible. Plato, a Greek philosopher presented a fairly solid argument against the use of religion in solving ethical issues. He asked “Is something good because God says it is good, or does God say that it is good because it is good?” If the answer is the former, then he concludes that if God says murder is good, it will be good. Although that is a fairly extreme example, realistic examples are present to support this. In the Bible, it says that anyone who works on the Sabbath should be put to death, but that is extremely impractical nowadays and many Christians work on Sundays. If one responds to the latter, then Plato concluded that our values are independent of God, thus we do not need Him to guide us.

Also, part of this ethical position is greatly influenced by the language that one uses, as different languages can project different perspectives of the world. For example, in George Orwell’s novel, 1984, the totalitarian government controlled the way their citizens thought by inventing a new language called Newspeak. In this new language, they eliminated secondary meanings of the word free, so the associated definition of freedom of political rights for example, doesn’t exist anymore. Instead the word can only be used for non-humans, for example the statement “that shirt is free from lint” would be allowed. Thus this would help diminish the range of thought of people.

In the Japanese language, there are many words that express obedience to authority. Therefore, a Japanese person might be influenced to become an absolutist as their language shapes their perspectives by making them obedient to their authorities, in which their ethical viewpoints may be dictated from authority.

So if the Japanese Emperor said that capital punishment is wrong, his word is almost as good as God’s and the Japanese person’s approach to ethics would to accept what was told by the Emperor.

Thus we can see that by taking the position of a moral absolutist does not get us anywhere closer to solving our ethical dilemma as they contradict themselves in interpreting their sources and the liability of their sources are left unproven, which is why we have atheists around.

Argument #3

The final, and most obvious argument involved in capital punishment is the prevention of re-offenders. We are able to achieve 100% certainty that they will not re-offend as criminals in life imprisonment have a chance of parole or might break out of jail or they may even pose a threat to the prison staff or another inmates.

However, the death penalty is irrevocable. In case of a mistake, the executed prisoner cannot be given another chance. Justice can be miscarried. For example, in Canada, there have been two mistaken capital offenses that would have been tried for capital punishment if it wasn’t abolished in 1976. The first case involves Guy Paul Morin who was wrongly convicted of murdering his nine year old neighbor in October 1984 and the second case involves James Patrick Driskell who was convicted for the murder of Perry Harder in 1991. A prisoner discovered to be blameless can be freed; but neither release nor compensation is possible for a corpse.

However, if we look at capital punishment from an utilitarian’s perspective, it would provide happiness for the victim’s families and it would provide happiness for the society as a whole since they would feel safe that the perpetrator is dead and cannot harm another soul again. An example would be how the majority of the Shiite population in Iraq cheered upon news of Saddam’s death. NBC said that they could hear cheers and celebrations in the background while talking to an official in the prime minister’s office.

And even one Shiite remarked about how “Now all the victims’ families will be happy because Saddam got his just sentence,” Based on this argument the utilitarian would say that capital punishment is right because it produces a net happiness, as many people would be satisfied with the death of Saddam than being unhappy about it.

The advantages of this perspective are quite evident, as it encourages a person to take into the account of short term consequences as well as long term consequences. Ecstasy and other psychoactive drugs may produce a satisfying feeling at first, but long term abuse would lead to mental damage and the utilitarian would argue that there is no net happiness produce as it would lead to more suffering, thus the utilitarian would conclude that doing drugs is wrong.

However, there is a highly unpractical aspect of this ethical perspective as the major problem relies on how to quantify happiness. How can we assign numerical values to certain instances where we are happy for comparison? We cannot rely on language as it is ambiguous and vague. “Really happy” can mean something entirely different for someone who won the lottery or even watched a Canucks game. And thus there is a need to quantify the happiness using numbers. But unless we have a magical device that automatically quantifies the level of happiness into a happinessometer, this is relatively impossible to do. Finding $5 on the floor will make a person happy, but how much money do you have to find in order to equate the happiness level to beating your best friend in a shooter game.

Furthermore, what produces the most happiness is not necessary the best thing to do as the consequences could be unfavorable. The problem with this perspective is that there are no underlying principles that are considered by many to be wrong such as murdering or harming others. If some people take pleasure in harming others(sadist) then by the principles behind this ethical perspective, what they are doing is right.


After considering three different ethical positions for capital punishment, we have realized that they all have some aspects in common: the motives and consequences of an action. However, while each has their advantages, they also have their disadvantages. The moral relativist will never be able to spark a discussion as there can be nothing to talk about. The moral absolutist is essentially the same as they follow an underlying principle and there are no objections whatsoever. It is unwise to not consider the situation and just plainly stick to following the principles. However, the source of such a principle comes into question as the most common source, religion, has many flaws. The moralist who believes that everyone is purely selfish will conclude that the act that seems less selfish than the other is right. And finally, the moralist who believes in the pure happiness theory will weigh the level of happiness in each case and base their decision on the option that produces the highest level of happiness. In the end, we decided that the pure selfishness theory cannot be put into action as they condemn man right from the start and perceive everything in a fairly negative and pessimistic manner. We also rejected the moral relativist as no discussion can be initiated, thus we will never get anywhere. This left us with the moral absolutist and the pure happiness theory.

So what we decided to do is actually very interesting and I think rather creative: we decided to combine the two and create our own theory, which we call the winstimism. How does it work you ask? Well, the major weakness of the pure happiness theory was the fact that it had no structure whatsoever behind it, resulting in many absurd actions to be taken. So we borrowed some principles from the moral absolutist and applied it to each scenario. Now if we take the example of the sadist, he will no longer be right when he hurts people because a principle is to take no action that will harm others. Also, since it is impossible for us to calculate to the nearest sig fig how much happiness I feel in everyday scenarios, our absolute happiness theory allows us to reflect upon our past and through experience, decide which path will tend to generate more happiness.

However, we do realize that our theory is also flawed. First of all, this is a very informal theory and we do not ever expect it to be applied in formal occasions such as in trials. As well, the term “happiness” is such an ambiguous term that it will never appear in any country’s criminal code. As well, as any theory is a generalization, our own theory also fails as we cannot imagine every possible scenario and account for every situation where the theory will be applied. Thus we can never be accurate to 100% in each case. The reasons for the failure of generalizations can be traced back to the language used. No matter how thick of a book we write on our theory, the ambiguity of language and connotations will always distort our intentions.

So as to answer the major focus of this presentation as to how do we know capital punishment is right or wrong? We believe that capital punishment is right in certain instances only. Since we borrowed the structure from the absolutist perspective, there are rules that are present in this theory of ours, like murdering someone is a negative thing. But however, that rule is not absolute, as we need to consider the motives behind the murder. If the motives are stupid, like killing someone because he didn’t give you the correct amount of change, then the person should be hanged. If the majority of the people can find sympathy for his motives, then there could be a discussion as to whether the person should be hanged or not. If we were dealing with Robert Pickton, he would be hanged as he was wanted to kill one more person to make his kill count an even 50. But however, let’s say we have an straight A student who volunteers frequently at the hospital and one day while he goes home he finds his house being robbed and he catches the glimpse of the burglar. At the back of the house he sees, his mom covered in blood, in a life threatening condition. A few days later, the student sees the burglar and kills him. We don’t think that this person should be hanged because the burglar caused immense pain to his family and it is completely out of his character, but he still stills to be punished.

If we are dealing with a mentally disabled person, we wouldn’t send him to be hanged. We feel that it is wrong to as most laws make hasty generalizations that anyone over a certain age should have the mental capacity to tell the difference between right and wrong. However, just because if a person looks like an adult it doesn’t mean that he will think like one. Instead of subjecting the mentally disabled person to capital punishment, instead we feel that he should be tried under juvenile court instead.

As for serial murderers, we feel that they should be hanged as the overall happiness would be immense, since it would bring about pleasure for all of the victims families and including the general public as they would feel safe since there is no chance of the murder having parole if he exhibits good behavior in prison.

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