Term Paper: Supreme Court's Recent Decision

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[. . .] Ark. Code Ann. Sect. 5-4-618 (1993) noted criteria for mental retardation included "subaverage general intellectual functioning accompanied by significant deficits or impairments in adaptive functioning, and manifested in the developmental period" (Death Penalty Information Center; State Statutes).

Kentucky was more objective in its criteria. Ky. Rev. Stat. Sect. 532.130-140 noted "significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning is defined as an IQ of 70 or below" (Death Penalty Information Center; State Statutes).

Given the difficulties of the legal system in developing a consensus as to the criteria for mental retardation, it may be useful to look at pure ethical approaches. Simply put, ethics is simply the study of the moral aspect of human behavior. Ethics does not necessarily divine moral rules from religious principles, as it is rooted more firmly in the foundation of philosophy than religion.

Ethics ask some questions that are crucial questions about the human condition, including some that are absolutely crucial in the debate over whether the mentally retarded should face the Death Penalty. These include discussion of the nature of free will and determinism, and the degree to which intelligence and moral faculty (or the ability to tell right from wrong) are linked.

Many ethical theories speak to the issues involved in determining the degree of mentally impairment required before a person is no longer considered competent to stand trial. These include teleological ethics, deontological ethics, aretaic ethics, divine command theory, and others.

There are several main branches of ethics. Results-based ethics is often referred to as "consequentialism" or "teleological ethics" and notes that morality is based on the consequences of an act. Utilitarianism is one of the key branches of teleological ethics. Founded by Jeremy Bentham, utilitarianism argues that a morally correct rule is the rule that gives the greatest good to the greatest number of people.

According to Bentham, if allowing mentally challenged individuals to face the death penalty gives the greatest good to the greatest number of people, then it is a morally correct rule. In applying teleological ethics a decision to allow mentally challenged individuals to face the death penalty could easily be linked to popular opinion. If the greatest good is given to the greatest number of people by allowing the death penalty to mentally challenged people, then teleological ethics argues that this is the ethically correct action (Blackburn; Hall).

Similarly, teleological ethics argues that a judge must determine if a judging and individual to be mentally handicapped enough to avoid the death penalty gives the greatest good to the greatest number of people. Critics of the teleological approach could argue that this approach could easily result in sentencing a mentally retarded individual to death. In a case where there is a large public demand for justice, and the accused is borderline mentally retarded, teleological ethics would seem to argue that the judge should determine that the accused is not mentally retarded. In this case, teleological ethics argues that allowing the accused to face the death penalty serves the greatest good to the greatest number of people.

Standards-based ethics, sometimes called "deontological" theory or "duty ethics" have a slightly different interpretation of moral goodness than teleological ethics. Deontological ethics argues that an act is morally good act if it meets a moral standard. Immanuel Kant was one of the greatest proponents of this theory of ethics (Denise; Hall).

Deontological ethics argues that the decision to allow mentally challenged individuals should be decided on the basis of whether of not the act meets a moral standard. Here, there is a great deal of room for interpretation. If an overriding moral standard is the equivalent of "Thou shall not kill," then allowing capital punishment is not consistent with the overriding moral standard, and is not morally good. However, if a moral standard is the equivalent of "an eye for an eye," then capital punishment is consistent with this standard, and is morally good.

Similarly, in determining if the accused is mentally challenged to the degree that the judge cannot impose the death penalty, deontological ethics suggests we should appeal to a moral standard. Again, if this moral standard opposes all murder, then the judge should determine that the individual is mentally retarded. However, if the moral standard is to extract justice, then the judge should rule that the individual is mentally competent to stand trial, and thus potentially face the death penalty.

The divine command theory views a morally correct action as one that conforms to God's will. According to Divine command theory, murder is wrong because it goes against one of God's commandments. Critics often argue that the greatest failing of the theory is the problems with the interpretation of the Bible (Blackburn).

Criticisms against divine command theory are often similar to those against deontological ethics.

The Bible states two seemingly contradictory statements, "Thou shall not kill" and "an eye for an eye." These arguments seem to argue both for and against allowing capital punishment. Further, using the divine command theory is also troublesome in determining if an accused is mentally challenged to the degree that the judge cannot impose the death penalty. Again, divine command theory can be seen as inconsistent.

Ethical intuitionism argues that moral rightness should be based on intuition. In this type of ethics, any rule or act that is contrary to the conscience of an individual is morally wrong (Klemke). The ethical intuitionist would argue that sentencing a mentally challenged individual to death is wrong because it goes against the conscience of individuals. Similarly, a judge should let their conscience or intuition in guiding him or her to determine if an individual is or is not mentally challenged enough to be sentenced to death for their crime.

However, it is easy to argue that ethical intuitionism fails to provide an adequate guide in matters of law, as it does not provide the standard or rule necessary to make fair and consistent judgements. It is entirely possible for two different judges to have completely opposing "intuitions" about an accused individuals mental capacity.

Virtue ethics, or aretaic ethics, is an ancient form of ethics that can be traced back to Aristotle's Nicomachean ethics. Aristotle argued that moral virtue develops because an individual practices characteristics that are morally good. As such, courage and honesty appear in an individual's character, because that individual has practiced courage and honesty in their actions and thoughts (Klemke, Blackburn).

It is somewhat difficult to predict what virtue ethics would say about allowing mentally handicapped individuals to receive the death penalty. Aristotle felt that the character of the individual determined the greatest virtue that could be obtained. As such, an animal like a dog could not learn courage because it was not within the animal's capacity to learn courage. However, a person could learn courage because it was within their ability.

Consequently, virtue ethics seem to dictate that a severely mentally challenged individual may not be able discern or learn the consequences of his or her actions because this is outside the scope of his or her mental capabilities.

However, virtue ethics has little to offer a judge in how to determine if a specific individual, who is accused of a death penalty crime, has the capacity to learn a moral virtue.

Taken together, a thorough analysis of traditional ethics lends many insights into the issue of capital punishment and the mentally challenged. However, no clear conclusions can be easily drawn from this discussion.

A combination of many of the different schools of ethics may be the best approach. Intuitively, deontological ethics seems to have great applicability to a legal setting. Deontological ethics can provide a moral standard by which to judge the issue of capital punishment and the mentally retarded.

Previously presented criticism has argued that deontological approach can be criticized for having a lot of room for interpretation in determining an overriding ethical standard.

However, the correct choice of an ethical standard may provide a solution to this dilemma. For instance, an overriding rule similar to the following may be helpful: "Individuals must be intellectually able to understand the consequences of their action in order to face the death penalty." This standard is helpful only in the case of determining if someone should face a death penalty offence. It certainly leaves room for interpretation in the phrase of "intellectually able," but this wording may also provide a means for a compassionate decision based on the principles of justice.

Teleological ethics may also have a useful role in providing ethical guidelines for this issue. By basing morality on the consequences of an act, teleological ethics brings accountability to the legal process. Bentham's utilitarianism argues that a morally correct rule is the rule that gives the greatest good to the greatest number of people. While critics have previously argued that this may mean that public opinion can play too large a role in a teleological decision, this may be an incorrect interpretation of teleological ethics. As such,… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Supreme Court's Recent Decision.  (2002, October 11).  Retrieved April 21, 2019, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/supreme-court-recent-decision/7111597

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