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Utilitarianism and the Death Penalty

The debate over capital punishment has been continuous for many years now. It is a very controversial issue that revolves around several theories of punishment and social justice such as utilitarianism, retribution, and the right to live. These arguments come from different types of schools and reasoning, but they can all be evaluated from a utilitarian view. It views society as one organism. Its goal is to improve the state of society for all citizens in the future. Utilitarianism does not view punishment as hurting or correcting an individual but as helping to cure a sociological problem. There are three methods used to carry out the utilitarian form of punishment: deterrence, reform, and incapacitation.

Utilitarianism gives a definition or a criterion for right actions such as a person is morally obligated to the action with the best consequences, a person does the action that she’s morally obligated to do if, and only if, that action maximizes happiness for all affected by the action, a person is morally obligated to do the action that maximizes the overall happiness of all who are affected by her action, and a person has done what she’s morally obligated to do if, and only if, only if there’s no other action (besides the one she did) that would bring about more happiness. If there’s another alternative action that she could have done that would have brought about more happiness and she didn’t do that one, she’s not performed the right action.

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Utilitarianism is not by itself an argument for or against capital punishment. It is a framework in which most ethical and practical considerations will fit to produce a balanced view of the whole capital punishment debate. “A utilitarian outlook also separates the few morally absolute arguments from all other arguments that are based, at some level, on a utilitarian approach” (Mcnabb 3). The theory of utility, Utilitarianism, is commonly understood as “being a hypothesis that assesses and promotes moral actions on the basis of their outcome using the maxim, ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number” (Pojman 544). It finds its most famous expression in the work of Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) but is also mentioned in the work of David Hume (1711-1776) and can trace its origins back to Epicurus (341-270 BCE).

Both Bentham and Mill wanted to secure reasonable grounds for ethics based on the sense-data and not, as they thought, subjective theories invented by the mind. They were also anti-establishment, anti-monarchist, anti-imperialist and advocated a democratic approach to ethics and law-making. Rule utilitarianism is a formulation utilitarianism that states that a behavioral code or rule is morally right if the consequences of adopting that rule are more favorable than unfavorable to everyone. It is contrasted with act utilitarianism which maintains that the morality of each action is to be determined in relation to the favorable or unfavorable consequences that emerge from that action. “The principle of rule-utilitarianism is a litmus test only for the morality of moral rules, such as “stealing is wrong” and not a test for particular actions.

Adopting a rule against theft clearly has more favorable consequences than unfavorable consequences for everyone”(Bedau 233). The same is true for moral rules against lying or murdering. Rule- utilitarianism, then, offers a three-step method for judging conduct. A particular action, such as stealing my neighbor’s lawn furniture, is judged wrong since it violates a moral rule against theft. In turn, the rule against theft is morally binding because adopting this rule produces favorable consequences for everyone. Utilitarianism offers a “common sense” approach to making moral decisions. It seems normal that I should, in the main, seek to find ways to increase your pleasure rather than your pain.

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Utilitarianism and the Death Penalty. (2021, Mar 23). Retrieved June 15, 2021, from