Is capital punishment ethically acceptable?

         A basic and accepted tenet of justice and retribution is proportionality – the severity of one’s punishment should correspond to the harm he or she had inflicted upon society through a particular act – but what is controversial is the extent to which this principle of proportionality should extend; is there any punishment that should never, on moral grounds, be exacted upon even the most cold-blooded, cunning murderers? Considering that the implications of some crimes upon individuals and society are severe, crimes like murder and drug trafficking should be punished by the most severe of possible options, capital punishment. It does not matter if the criminal is hanged, given a lethal injection, or executed by a firing squad, because what is important is that the criminal receives retribution for his crime. Not only is this what the concept of justice embodies, capital punishment serves to deter potential criminals from committing these grievous crimes against humanity.

         Many opponents of the death penalty argue that life is sacrosanct, and is not something the state can forcibly take away from individuals. After all, it seems ironic that the state so fervently opposes the act of killing another, yet it is doing exactly the same thing by sentencing an individual to death. Despite this argument, it is important to understand that capital punishment fulfills the interests of victims. For victims that never consented to the grievous harm inflicted upon them, only when the person responsible for the harm dealt to them is executed do they feel that justice has been served. Justice is a concept that does not have to be tied to the benefits that it reaps, but is the representation of the ideal that criminals destabilize society’s rules, and it is in the moral responsibility of societies to sufficiently punish these criminals to right the system once again. To ground this in reality, the criminal has harmed innocent individuals that never agreed to their treatment. In the case of drug trafficking, that packet of five hundred grams of cocaine can totally destroy a dozen people’s lives. Getting people addicted to it, the drug continually seeps money from the victims, and hampers their ability to think rationally, while the criminal is benefitting monetarily from the harm inflicted upon his victims. This situation is most prevalent in the Golden Triangle of South-East Asia, which includes countries like Myanmar and Thailand, which are commonly known for trafficking drugs in the region. In such a scenario, the damage the criminal has caused is so massive that the only way through which we can right his wrong is by executing him. Why is it then in the state’s responsibility and duty to recognize this, and then exact this punishment upon the criminal? Simply put, governments are meant to reflect the sentiments and desires of societies through its policies, especially in democracies, which adhere to the principle of acting “for the people”. If victims of these crimes only feel that it is fair that criminals receive the punishment of death, then governments should reflect this, and execute these criminals under the justice system. Ultimately, for the interests of victims, whom are civilians governments have responsibilities to protect, the latter must enforce the law, and make sure criminals receive their just desserts.

         Critics of the death penalty further posit that in the circumstance where society does not agree with the fact that criminals should be executed, then the punishment is not just. However, there still lies great moral justification for the inclusion of capital punishment as an option for the justice system to consider, vis-à-vis the rights of people within society. In other words, it is in the interests of all societies to implement the death penalty. All individuals should enjoy enshrined human dignities and rights, such as the right over bodily integrity and the right over our financial properties, and the way we balance these rights between people is through the policy of “your hand ending where my nose begins”. At the moment where a criminal disregards the rights of another individual, he forsakes some of his own rights. Therefore, in cases of theft, we fine them both to compensate the individual, and also to repay the state for his actions – in exchange for abusing his right to choice, he compromised the victim’s right over his own property. Similar to this, when a person decides to murder another or traffic illegal drugs like marijuana and heroin, he forfeits his own right over his life, because that is the closest approximation of the harm he had inflicted. This alone makes it morally justified for the state to take the criminal’s life from him.  Furthermore, crimes have implications not just for the parties physically involved, but also for the larger societal climate. When crimes are rampant, the climate of peace and security within society is compromised. To better understand this, a comparison between the social climates of Singapore, where crime rates are amongst the lowest of the world, and Delhi, where the rape culture has been formed due to the prevalence of rape, tells us that every crime is an assault on society’s values and moral principles. Criminals that commit more grievous crimes are more culpable than those who commit petty crimes, because the net implication on society’s trust of law-enforcement agencies is much greater. When crimes of such serious natures are seen to be common and prevalent, innocent civilians begin to fear for their lives and their futures, which signifies a serious issue that the government cannot tolerate and must handle with the strictness means possible. Hence, criminals that commit severe crimes like murder deserve to be punished not only for their assault on victims, which society disapproves of, but also for their assault on social cultures of peace and security.

         Furthermore, the introduction of the option of capital punishment of criminals helps to deter potential crimes, because prevention is always better than cure. The harshness of the punishment is a strong reason why potential criminals rethink before committing a crime. No matter how evasive criminals can be, one who commits a crime will be in constant fear, because he can never return to normal living, especially if his crime is particularly serious. Having considered this, the weight of the punishment adds to the risk of being caught, since the implications in the event that one is apprehended are much greater. This can act as a factor as to why potential criminals would choose not to commit a crime in the event that the punishment for his crime is definite death, as compared to a case in which the punishment is a jail term with parole. It is the fear of hearing the judge slam the gavel and say, “Proven guilty – this man will be sentenced to death”, that keeps potential murderers away from harming society. Furthermore, even if the deterrence factor serves to be of no use, this case is much more preferable than if the punishment was not capital punishment. It is as John McAdams, a university professor from the US puts it: “If we execute murderers and there is in fact no deterrent effect, we have killed a bunch of murderers. If we fail to execute murderers, and doing so would in fact have deterred other murders, we have allowed the killing of a bunch of innocent victims.” In other words, in the case where the punishment lacks severity, then there will be cases in which innocent victims would be harmed, when the implementation of the death penalty would have prevented this. Statistics have also shown how effective the implantation of capital punishment can be at deterring crime from occurring. In Britain, between 1965 and 1969, when capital punishment was suspended, the number of murders that would have been charged with the death penalty rose by 125%. In the United States, the murder rate dropped from 24,562 in 1993 to 18,209 in 1997 during a period where the use of capital punishment had risen. These go to show that the use of capital punishment as a tool to serve justice can, at the same time, act as a stronger deterrence against individuals that contemplate grievous crimes like murder and drug trafficking. Acknowledging the fact that this ensure better social peace and security, and makes the nation a safer place, governments, whose job it is to benefit the people and make them satisfied, should in fact implement capital punishment to achieve this goal. If we interpret this argument in a consequentialist argument, the fact that implementing capital punishment brings net positive benefits means that it is capital punishment.

            In essence, capital punishment is just one of the tools that the justice system can utilize to better effect justice, for the sake of society. Of course, the fact that the punishment is so sever means that courts should not abuse it by being overly-liberal with passing sentences of the death penalty. However, by accurately balancing its use for retributive purposes against cold-blooded individuals with no qualms about severely harming other individuals and society’s fabric, capital punishment works in tandem with the rest of the available punishment that criminals get the punishment that they deserve, and at the same time prevent as many of such serious crimes as possible by serving a deterrent effect. For these reasons, capital punishment is a legitimate tool for the justice system to utilize, and it is perfectly ethically acceptable.


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Hi guys, I'm a student in Singapore, and this are some thoughts and essays I have written over the years.