Many positions can be defended when debating the issue of capital punishment. In Jonathan Glover’s essay “Executions,” he maintains that there are three views that a person may have in regard to capital punishment: the retributivist, the absolutist, and the utilitarian. Although Glover recognizes that both statistical and intuitive evidence cannot validate the benefits of capital punishment, he can be considered a utilitarian because he believes that social usefulness is the only way to justify it. Martin Perlmutter on the other hand maintains the retributivist view of capital punishment, which states that a murderer deserves to be punished because of a conscious decision to break the law with knowledge of the consequences. He even goes as far as to claim that just as a winner of a contest has a right to a prize, a murderer has a right to be executed.
Despite the fact that retributivism is not a position that I maintain, I agree with Perlmutter in his claim that social utility cannot be used to settle the debate about capital punishment. At the same time, I do not believe that retributivism justifies the death penalty either. In Martin Perlmutter’s essay “Desert and Capital Punishment,” he attempts to illustrate that social utility is a poor method of evaluating the legitimacy of it. Perlmutter claims that a punishment must be “backward-looking,” meaning that it is based on past wrongdoing. A utilitarian justification of capital punishment strays from the definition of the term “punishment” because it is “forward-looking.” An argument for social utility maintains that the death penalty should result in a greater good and the consequences must outweigh the harm, thereby increasing overall happiness in the world. Perlmutter recognizes the three potential benefits of a punishment as the rehabilitation of an offender, protection for other possible victims, and deterring other people from committing the same crime.
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The death penalty, however, obviously does not rehabilitate a victim nor does it do a better job at protecting other potential victims than life imprisonment. Since a punishment must inflict harm on an individual, deterrence is the only argument that utilitarians can use to defend the death penalty. The question then arises as to whether capital punishment actually deters people from committing the same crime. Jonathan Glover attempts to answer this question in his essay titled “Executions.” According to Glover, the statistical evidence measuring the effectiveness of the death penalty is extremely vague. It is difficult to determine whether alterations in the murder rates and the presence of capital punishment have a causal relationship. The only other method of justifying the deterring ability of the death penalty is through an intuitive argument. Hypothetically, if a person knows that murdering another will result in their own execution, he or she will not commit the crime.
The intuitive argument fails however because murderers do not face certain death when they go to trial. The long-term effects of murder seem so distant that capital punishment may fail to act as a deterrent at all. Such is the case with cigarette smokers. Any educated person knows that cigarette smoking can cause lung cancer and many other fatal health problems. The negative results of this activity are so distant though, that people believe that “it will not happen to me.” Another failure in the intuitive argument defending the deterring ability of the death penalty is whether it actually serves as a greater deterrence than life imprisonment. Bodily mutilation may deter many people from committing a multitude of crimes, however, this sort of punishment is inconceivable in American society. Glover does not believe that the argument of deterrence can be effectively defended, however, he feels that the social utility of capital punishment is the only thing that can justify adding more misery to the world.
Perlmutter disagrees with this point because he believes that the validity of punishment should correlate with the extent of the crime, as opposed to the benefits that result from imposing it. The social utility should not be used to determine the fairness of a punishment. A punishment occurs because a rule exists and someone broke it with full cognizance of the negative consequences. After outlining the utilitarian approach to capital punishment, Perlmutter criticizes it because reform, protection, and deterrence do not involve harm or deprivation, which is essential to the definition of punishment. He claims that by living in a society with laws, everyone enters a social contract or a promise to abide by those regulations. Breaking this promise is a conscious decision by the offender and the punishment is a result of the crime.
Perlmutter states that by rejecting the death penalty, fair punishment for murder, a criminal fails to be treated as a person because their choices cease to be honored. Since people know that murder is wrong and choose to disregard this fact when the crime is committed, Perlmutter’s retributivist view can be defeated by demonstrating specific examples of the cruelty of the death penalty. Glover contends that people could oppose the retributivist perspective by claiming that the death penalty is a cruel and unusual punishment. Although a murder has been committed, a criminal has to live the remainder of their life knowing when and how he or she will die, and what people will think of him or her. The person’s family may be deeply disturbed as well during this entire process, thereby affecting even more people’s lives. The possibility also exists of wrongly executing innocent victims, which seems far worse than being murdered. Historically capital punishment has had lifelong psychological effects on the executioner and many of the prison guards.
Most importantly, the desire to view an execution or become aware of one reveals a disturbing interest in violence that could become inherent in society. All of these objections to capital punishment are considered to be utilitarian in nature because they are dependent on the idea that the death penalty increases the misery in the world and therefore is wrong. However, if utilitarianism cannot be used to justify capital punishment, can it be used to reject the legitimacy of it? And if it could be proven that capital punishment saved ten lives for every execution could it then be validated? The answer to both of these questions is no. When comparing the two views of Glover and Perlmutter, a sense of circularity can be realized. Perlmutter rejects the utilitarian approach that reform, protection, and deterrence legitimize capital punishment. At the same time, utilitarian ideas can be used to defeat his retributive argument. However, it has already been demonstrated that social utility is a poor method of justifying or defeating the death penalty.
In conclusion, the best view that can be taken in regards to the death penalty is that of absolutism. Absolutism rejects both the retributive and the utilitarian approaches to capital punishment by stating that it is entirely wrong. Capital punishment infringes on a person’s right to life and cannot be justified simply because the criminal infringed someone else’s rights in the past. An absolutist believes that “legal murder” cannot be justified by any school of thought. By murdering citizens, the government sets a highly negative example to the people in the society. Is it justifiable to murder someone because twelve rational people in a courtroom decided that it should be so? By the same token, a murderer can claim that their victim had violated their rights and did not deserve to live. Obviously, that cannot be rationalized in any manner. No matter from what perspective it is viewed, capital punishment is murdering another human being.
Even if a law is broken and the person has made the world a worse place to live, killing someone else can never be justified, especially by measuring its social utility. The world would be a better place if many people did not exist, but it would not be legitimate to exterminate everyone who does not increase the happiness in the world. The social utility cannot justify the existence of capital punishment, nor can it be used as a rationale to reject it. Retributivism fails as well because the death penalty may be regarded as a cruel and unusual punishment. Absolutism seems to be the only school of thought that cannot be logically dismantled. No evidence exists that would demonstrate the benefits of capital punishment and statistically the only thing that is accomplished is another death in society.