Research Paper: Capital Punishment Analyzed by Utilitarian Ethics and Kantian

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Death Penalty Philosophy

Capital Punishment Analyzed by Utilitarian Ethics & Kantian Ethics

The death penalty is the most extreme of punitive consequences, with its application representing the greatest of finalities in law enforcement and criminal sentencing. An issue which has garnered intense debate for decades and which has divided individuals along party lines and philosophical dispositions, the use of capital punishment is defended by its advocates as an effective way to deter violent crime and as a critically potent way to punish the worst of offenders. Its critics regard it as barbaric, unconstitutional or generally a violation of human rights. The United States is the only Western democracy in the world which still employs the death penalty in its criminal justice system. A careful analysis of its recent legislative and executive contention with the issue illustrates that the United States remains collectively supportive of the death penalty but that significant demographic trends in public opinion are revealing that long-standing attitudes may be changing. (Capital Punishment, 365) The United States is still a country that generally favors the death penalty as a part of its law-enforcement arsenal, and thus, the government has displayed a consistent drive to increase the strength of the death penalty. This discussion will examine the death penalty from a number of perspectives in order to assess the ethical soundness of its use in the United States legal system. Addressing the death penalty first as a policy, and thereafter, applying the Kantian and Utilitarian models of philosophy to this policy, the discussion will be designed to demonstrate that America's use of the death penalty within the context of its legal system is ethically wrong.

2 THE DEATH PENALTY AS A POLICY

Though the United States is still a country that generally favors the death penalty as a part of its law-enforcement arsenal, polls over the last few years suggest that the government's drive to increase the strength of the death penalty actually runs in contrast with the slope of popular opinion, creating an inverse relationship between the laws of the nation and the cultural consensus indicate the text by Powell (1989).

This is a contrast with a national history favoring the use of the death penalty. The nation's laws reflect a history in which it had been considered the ethical norm to impose capital punishment as a regular part of the punitive system. So tells Powell (1989), contending "no one questions that the Founding Fathers approved capital punishment. We find evidence of this fact not only in the prevailing practice of that day, but also in the text of the Constitution itself. The fifth amendment, for example, provides in part that "[n]o person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury . ..; nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.'" (Powell, 1035)

Inbuilt here would be a provision of Constitutional authority which remains in play today to allot the ultimate punishment to those who have committed a crime deemed egregious enough to warrant its invocation. As a continuum in punitive disposition from the monarchical leanings of Great Britain and the other European powers that had helped to colonize it, the United States accepted as an assumption its right to impose such a penalty and the inherent need of the state to be able to wield this great power. (Powell, 1035) It is thus that without ethical scrutiny, the right of the state to impose capital punishment would be taken on as a matter of sheer practicality. But in reflection, the philosophical insight was available to these men to cast this approach to greater question. As the research invokes the Utilitarian principles that tend to run concurrent with the position of this account, it becomes clear that the Founding Fathers could have taken the opportunity to reflect on the ethical arguments against capital punishment. To the same effect of course, the Categorical Imperative defined by Immanuel Kant may have served to eliminate any doubt that the state was entitled to make this judgment. (Singer, 577)

This is a problematic overstatement of power, even as refinement of and limitation upon the application of capital punishment has occurred. In the recent history of its judicial evaluation, the death penalty has been imposed upon by stronger regulation and clearer definitions for the appropriateness of invocation. (Reid, 536) Nonetheless, it remains the legal position that the death penalty is Constitutional in the United States. Accordingly, Reid (2004) reports that "capital punishment is obviously the most severe of all sentences the government imposes. The U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted the Constitution as placing some restrictions on the punishment, but in 1972 in Furman v. Georgia the Court held that capital punishment is not per se unconstitutional although it was found to be so in that case." (Reid, 536)

The Supreme Court has repeatedly confirmed the necessity of the death penalty as a tool for law enforcement and punitive retribution. This is important because it is underscored by a Constitutional theory that is intended to reflect an ethical balance of justice and mercy. With great certainty, ethical rightness is an element to every judicial examination of capital punishment. An example is provided to the research by The British Medical Journal (1950) which serves as a primary source on the debate during the middle of the 20th Century concerning the state's ability to function as an arbiter of ethicality while carrying out the death penalty. More specifically, the article investigates the treatment of insanity, mental instability and an impairment in the capacity to differentiate between right and wrong. Ultimately, it grants that government has essentially assumed the capacity to detect that such conditions are present and to use these as conditions by which to not apply the death penalty. The article reports that "concerning the investigation of the mental condition of murderers, Dr. Rowland Hill said that it was considered that the present procedure of the courts was satisfactory, provided that the defence had an opportunity of carrying out a complete investigation of the prisoner's state of mind." (Capital Punishment, 368) The very idea that this registers as being somehow important to the proceedings indicates that there has been cause for ethical scrutiny on the part of lawmakers and judges. Suggesting that the psychological disposition of the convicted murdered plays into an ethical evaluation of the nature and severity of the proposed punishment indicates that for those who evaluate the rightness of the death penalty, there are effectors other than the severity of the crime which enter into the design of proper retribution. As the Reid article shows in its review of the state of Illinois, it is thus that more recently, the ability of legislative and judicial agents to evaluate ethical rightness is being called into question, with larger segments of the public, the legal community and even amongst public office-holders recognizing that imperfections in the legal system have rendered this a deeply flawed practice. (Reid, 536)

According to the findings produced by Reid (2004) A major cause to question the ethical legitimacy of the death penalty may be related to inherent biases in our judicial system which seem directly to implicate racial and socioeconomic prejudices in the deliberation of justice. Persistent claims as to the conditional proclivity for African-Americans, for example, to be unfairly treated by the judicial system suggest a reason for the public's ethical wariness of this intractable approach. Today, the death penalty is heavily disputed in the courts under these pretenses, with myriad challenges being heard in states such as Connecticut and Illinois. (Reid, 536).

Reid (2004) portrays this as an issue of public opinion and public policy alike, indicating that "there has been a growing demand for a moratorium on capital punishment, led by Illinois governor George Ryan, who in 2000 declared that state's moratorium after 13 death row inmates were exonerated . . . Ryan granted four pardons to Illinois death row inmates and commuted to life the sentences of the remaining ones before he left office in 2003. His successor continued the moratorium. Ryan made his decision because of the questions of fairness with regard to the use of this severe punishment." (Reid, 536) This denotes that for Governor Ryan, the scintilla of doubt -- and in some cases much more than a scintilla was available -- denoted a terrible inconsistency in a mode of punishment which once carried out could not be reversed. The failures which this reveals of the justice system in carrying out a punishment with an absolute authority when clearly not capable of guaranteeing an absolute rightness of the judicial process is crucial for our consideration under both the Kantian and Utilitarian models of thought.

As the article by Powell shows, there are great inefficiencies in the system. Here, the author reveals the implementation of the death penalty to be mired in bureaucratic lag time and an inherent impediment on the carriage of justice… [END OF PREVIEW]

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