Capital Punishment

Capital Punishment has long been a debated issue within the United States and the World entirely. This act of law has long been present, dating back to the 18th century and the use of the guillotine in France. This public display of death by the government has had much moral argument surrounding it. In the United States today, Capital Punishment has been banned in 17 states. There have been articles and economic studies focusing the positive and negative sides of Capital Punishment, specifically in the United States. Both Ernest Van Den Haag author of The Death Penalty: A Debate and Cass R. Suntein and Adrian Vermeule authors of Is Capital Punishment Morally Required? The Relevance of Life-Life Tradeoffs are in favor of Capital Punishment. Both of these articles defend the Death Penalty with much focus on the potential deterrence it has. In this paper, I will defend the position that the Death Penalty is not merely justified on this assumption and that it is indeed “cruel and unusual punishment”. I do not think it is should be permissible in the United States at any governmental level.

Recent economic studies using panel data, a type of data used for empirical studies and economic regressions, has recently shown that one execution may result in the saving of 18 innocent lives. This is the first study to be published with this high of a deterrence rate resulting from Capital Punishment; past studies have found that it can deter 14 deaths or 5 deaths. Sunstein and Vermeule place great emphasis on this number, 18, and use it to support many of their arguments. Van Den Haag as well, considers the potential deterrence of innocent deaths as the bedrock of the approval of the Death Penalty.

Sunstein and Vermeule believe in what is known as the Precautionary Principle. This is the idea that precautionary steps should be taken that may result in some harm, if the outcome reduces the overall amount of harm to society. With this, they believe that an execution of an innocent man is justifiable if it will prevent the deaths of 18 other innocent people.

Van Den Haag places much emphasis on the idea that when a prisoner is sentenced to life in prison they may not have any reservations when it comes to committing future crimes, but they would if they may face the Death Penalty. He uses such examples of prisoners murdering other inmates and guards in prison. If these convicted murders know that their actions will not have much of an effect on their future imprisonment they may personally justify these murderous actions.

Another main point of Sunstein and Vermeule’s argument is the focus on act and omission. They believe that when the government does execute a murder, they are taking action to prevent other murders. In regards to failing to use capital punishment, they believe it to be an omission. They believe the government is failing to act when they have the duty to act.

The initial flaw that I see in Sunstein and Vermeule’s argument is the great emphasis they put on the number “18”. They base many of their arguments of this so-called fact that one execution will prevent 18 deaths. However, they do not focus on any other variables that were included in this model set. They also do not inform the reader how strong the correlation is. As an economics major I see this as a major flaw. In order for me to believe statistics I want to know what other variables were included in the model because of the risk of multicollinearity skewing the results – independent variables that are highly correlated with one another. Secondly, I want to know the model statistics, specifically the R-squared. This is the statistic that shows how much of an effect the variables truly have in predicting the dependent variable. You may have a highly significant variable but a low R-squared which means the model does not do an accurate job of predicting the dependent variable.

In relation to my own reservations regarding this argument put forth by Sunstein and Vermeule, Carol S. Steiker author of No, Capital Punishment Is Not Morally Required relates this theory to other cases where one live may be taken to save others and the lack of justification and morality behind the action. She brings up the actions of a doctor, and whether or not they should kill one healthy patient to provide five dying patients with the healthy patients organs – which will provide the five with the ability to live. According to Deontologists, it is better to knowingly let these five patients die than to “deny the right to personal inviolability of the healthy patient” . I agree that if you are to compare the lives of innocent (potential) murder victims to taking the life of a murderer you must also place this argument in other contexts. I believe, and as do others, that once this “weighing” of one life vs. numerous is taken out of the murderous context it is much harder to agree with. I do not think an healthy patients life should be taken to save 5 others, or that an innocent person should be pushed in front of a train to save the lives of the people on board. I do not agree with these because others are taking the lives of these innocent people, they are not volunteering to sacrifice their own lives for the lives of others. If this was the case I think it would be a different argument entirely.

In regards to Van Den Haag’s argument stating that when a convicted murder is sentenced to live they may no longer have any reservations when it comes to committing other crimes, is hard to prove. First of all, I see this as a theory rather than fact. Secondly I agree with Cesare Beccaria, author of On Crimes and Punishment who believes that being sentenced to life in prison may be a stronger punishment than death. He relates this to Slavery, where a life in slavery is more painful than one immediate moment of pain or punishment (death). The believes that live in prison will affect a person to a greater extent than the mere action of death – this long term punishment will leave a longer impression on the criminal and others alike.

The final point that I will focus on is one brought up by Sunstein and Vermeule, relating to the government’s acts and omissions. There are many acts and policies that the government has in place to try and stop the act of murder in our country. I do no think that solely focusing on the fact that some do no allow Capital Punishment is enough to say that these governments are not acting to prevent murders when they have the duty too. National, State and Local governments all act to their highest capability to stop murders, one cannot only put emphasis on some state’s lack of Capital Punishment. Steiker relates the argument that was brought forth by Sunstein and Vermeule to the acts of a Mother when it comes to her child. If this mother’s boyfriend murdered her child, and acknowledging that this mother should have taken actions to prevent this murder should not be the same as saying that her “omission constituted intentional murder” . I agree with Steiker that there are many other factors and issues that must be taken into account before jumping to a strict conclusion that some governments failing to instate the Death Penalty is an omission that directly leads to accepted murder of innocent lives.

I think that Capital Punishment is a very complex and morally debated issue. I think that there are many reasons why the Death Penalty should indeed be lawful, including the idea that punishment should be proportional to the crime, however I do not think advocates for the death penalty have organized a strong enough argument thus far. I think that they are able to bring up important issues and theories however I think that those who are against Capital Punishment do a better job a refuting the other sides argument. I do not think the stated statistical data regarding the deterrence that the Death Penalty causes is enough for the act to be a lawful term of punishment. I think that Capital Punishment should be legal in the United States at this point in time.


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