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The death penalty
11-08-2012, 06:11 AM (This post was last modified: 11-08-2012 11:22 AM by Spud17.)
Post: #1
The death penalty
What are your views on the death penalty? Do you have capital punishment in your country? Does it deter crime? What does having the death penalty in place say about a society? Is it about justice, or politics? I've never really sat and thought about this argument/debate so thought i'd start one up in the hope of understanding the issue a bit more. If, like me, you don't yet have an opinion about the topic, here's some basics on the issue:

Introduction

Introduction to capital punishment

Capital punishment is the practice of executing someone as punishment for a specific crime after a proper legal trial. It can only be used by a state, so when non-state organisations speak of having 'executed' a person they have actually committed a murder. It is usually only used as a punishment for particularly serious types of murder, but in some countries treason, types of fraud, adultery and rape are capital crimes.

The phrase 'capital punishment' comes from the Latin word for the head. A 'corporal' punishment, such as flogging, takes its name from the Latin word for the body.

Capital punishment is used in many countries around the world. According to Amnesty International as at May 2012, 141 countries have abolished the death penalty either in law on in practice. Source: Amnesty. In 2008, there was a growing reluctance among those countries that do retain the death penalty to use it in practice. In 2008, only 25 out of 59 countries that retain the death penalty carried out executions. (Amnesty International, March 2009)
China executes the most people per year overall, with an estimated figure of 1,718 in 2008. Amnesty International also states that in 2008 Iran executed at least 346 people, the USA 111, Saudi Arabia 102 and Pakistan 36.

Details of which countries are abolitionist and which are retentionist can be found on the Amnesty website.

In China, at least 1,718 people were executed and at least 7,003 people were known to have been sentenced to death in 2008. These figures represent minimum estimates - real figures are undoubtedly higher. However, the continued refusal by the Chinese authorities to release public information on the use of the death penalty means that in China the death penalty remains shrouded in secrecy. (Amnesty International, March 2009)
There is now steadily increasing support for abolishing capital punishment.
On 18 December 2008, the United Nations adopted resolution 63/168, which is a reaffirmation of its call for a moratorium on the use of the death penalty (62/149) passed in December the previous year. The resolution calls for states to freeze executions with a view to eventual abolition.

The World Coalition against the Death Penalty was created in Rome in 2002, and 10th October 2006 was World Day against the Death Penalty.
Arguments in favour of the death penalty

Retribution

First a reminder of the basic argument behind retribution and punishment:

all guilty people deserve to be punished
only guilty people deserve to be punished
guilty people deserve to be punished in proportion to the severity of their crime
This argument states that real justice requires people to suffer for their wrongdoing, and to suffer in a way appropriate for the crime. Each criminal should get what their crime deserves and in the case of a murderer what their crime deserves is death.

The measure of punishment in a given case must depend upon the atrocity of the crime, the conduct of the criminal and the defenceless and unprotected state of the victim.
Imposition of appropriate punishment is the manner in which the courts respond to the society's cry for justice against the criminals.
Justice demands that courts should impose punishment befitting the crime so that the courts reflect public abhorrence of the crime.
Justices A.S. Anand and N.P. Singh, Supreme Court of India, in the case of Dhananjoy Chatterjee
Many people find that this argument fits with their inherent sense of justice.

It's often supported with the argument "An eye for an eye". But to argue like that demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of what that Old Testament phrase actually means. In fact the Old Testament meaning of "an eye for an eye" is that only the guilty should be punished, and they should punished neither too leniently or too severely.

The arguments against retribution

Capital punishment is vengeance rather than retribution and, as such, is a morally dubious concept
The anticipatory suffering of the criminal, who may be kept on death row for many years, makes the punishment more severe than just depriving the criminal of life
That's certainly true in the USA, but delay is not an inherent feature of capital punishment; some countries execute people within days of sentencing them to death
Some people are prepared to argue against retribution as a concept, even when applied fairly.
Deterrence

Capital punishment is often justified with the argument that by executing convicted murderers, we will deter would-be murderers from killing people.

The arguments against deterrence

The statistical evidence doesn't confirm that deterrence works (but it doesn't show that deterrence doesn't work either)
Some of those executed may not have been capable of being deterred because of mental illness or defect
Some capital crimes are committed in such an emotional state that the perpetrator did not think about the possible consequences
No-one knows whether the death penalty deters more than life imprisonment
Deterrence is most effective when the punishment happens soon after the crime - to make an analogy, a child learns not to put their finger in the fire, because the consequence is instant pain.

The more the legal process distances the punishment from the crime - either in time, or certainty - the less effective a deterrent the punishment will probably be.

Cardinal Avery Dulles has pointed out another problem with the deterrence argument.

Executions, especially where they are painful, humiliating, and public, may create a sense of horror that would prevent others from being tempted to commit similar crimes...
...In our day death is usually administered in private by relatively painless means, such as injections of drugs, and to that extent it may be less effective as a deterrent. Sociological evidence on the deterrent effect of the death penalty as currently practiced is ambiguous, conflicting, and far from probative. (Avery Cardinal Dulles, Catholicism and Capital Punishment, First Things 2001)
Some proponents of capital punishment argue that capital punishment is beneficial even if it has no deterrent effect.

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. I would much rather risk the former. This, to me, is not a tough call. (John McAdams: Marquette University, Department of Political Science)

Rehabilitation

Of course capital punishment doesn't rehabilitate the prisoner and return them to society. But there are many examples of persons condemned to death taking the opportunity of the time before execution to repent, express remorse, and very often experience profound spiritual rehabilitation.

Thomas Aquinas noted that by accepting the punishment of death, the offender was able to expiate his evil deeds and so escape punishment in the next life.

This is not an argument in favour of capital punishment, but it demonstrates that the death penalty can lead to some forms of rehabilitation.

Prevention of re-offending

It is undeniable that those who are executed cannot commit further crimes.

Many people don't think that this is sufficient justification for taking human life, and argue that there are other ways to ensure the offenders do not re-offend, such as imprisonment for life without possibility of parole.

Although there have been cases of persons escaping from prison and killing again, these are extremely rare.

But some people don't believe that life imprisonment without parole protects society adequately. The offender may no longer be a danger to the public, but he remains a danger to prison staff and other inmates. Execution would remove that danger.

Closure and vindication

It is often argued that the death penalty provides closure for victims' families.

This is a rather flimsy argument, because every family reacts differently. As some families do not feel that another death will provide closure, the argument doesn't provide a justification for capital punishment as a whole.
Incentive to help police

Plea bargaining is used in most countries. It's the process through which a criminal gets a reduced sentence in exchange for providing help to the police.

Where the possible sentence is death, the prisoner has the strongest possible incentive to try to get their sentence reduced, even to life imprisonment without possibility of parole, and it's argued that capital punishment therefore gives a useful tool to the police.

This is a very feeble justification for capital punishment, and is rather similar to arguments that torture is justified because it would be a useful police tool.

A Japanese argument

This is a rather quirky argument, and not normally put forward.

Japan uses the death penalty sparingly, executing approximately 3 prisoners per year.

A unique justification for keeping capital punishment has been put forward by some Japanese psychologists who argue that it has an important psychological part to play in the life of the Japanese, who live under severe stress and pressure in the workplace.

The argument goes that the death penalty reinforces the belief that bad things happen to those who deserve it. This reinforces the contrary belief; that good things will happen to those who are 'good'.

In this way, the existence of capital punishment provides a psychological release from conformity and overwork by reinforcing the hope that there will be a reward in due time.

Oddly, this argument seems to be backed up by Japanese public opinion. Those who are in favour currently comprise 81% of the population, or that is the official statistic. Nonetheless there is also a small but increasingly vociferous abolitionist movement in Japan.

From an ethical point of view this is the totally consequentialist argument that if executing a few people will lead to an aggregate increase in happiness then that is a good thing.
Arguments against capital punishment



Value of human life

Everyone thinks human life is valuable. Some of those against capital punishment believe that human life is so valuable that even the worst murderers should not be deprived of the value of their lives.

They believe that the value of the offender's life cannot be destroyed by the offender's bad conduct - even if they have killed someone.

Some abolitionists don't go that far. They say that life should be preserved unless there is a very good reason not to, and that the those who are in favour of capital punishment are the ones who have to justify their position.

Right to live

Everyone has an inalienable human right to life, even those who commit murder; sentencing a person to death and executing them violates that right.

This is very similar to the 'value of life' argument, but approached from the perspective of human rights.

The counter-argument is that a person can, by their actions, forfeit human rights, and that murderers forfeit their right to life.

Another example will make this clear - a person forfeits their right to life if they start a murderous attack and the only way the victim can save their own life is by killing the attacker.

The medieval philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas made this point very clearly:

Therefore if any man is dangerous to the community and is subverting it by some sin, the treatment to be commended is his execution in order to preserve the common good... Therefore to kill a man who retains his natural worthiness is intrinsically evil, although it may be justifiable to kill a sinner just as it is to kill a beast, for, as Aristotle points out, an evil man is worse than a beast and more harmful. (Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae).
Aquinas is saying that certain contexts change a bad act (killing) into a good act (killing to repair the violation of justice done by the person killed, and killing a person who has forfeited their natural worthiness by killing).

Execution of the innocent

The most common and most cogent argument against capital punishment is that sooner or later, innocent people will get killed, because of mistakes or flaws in the justice system.

Witnesses, (where they are part of the process), prosecutors and jurors can all make mistakes. When this is coupled with flaws in the system it is inevitable that innocent people will be convicted of crimes. Where capital punishment is used such mistakes cannot be put right.

The death penalty legitimizes an irreversible act of violence by the state and will inevitably claim innocent victims. As long as human justice remains fallible, the risk of executing the innocent can never be eliminated. (Amnesty International)
There is ample evidence that such mistakes are possible: in the USA, 130 people sentenced to death have been found innocent since 1973 and released from death row. (Source: Amnesty)

The average time on death row before these exonerations was 11 years. (Source: Death Penalty Information Center.)

Things were made worse in the USA when the Supreme Court refused to hold explicitly that the execution of a defendant in the face of significant evidence of innocence would be unconstitutional [Herrera v. Collins, 560 U.S. 390 (1993)]. However many US lawyers believe that in practice the court would not permit an execution in a case demonstrating persuasive evidence of "actual innocence".

The continuous threat of execution makes the ordeal of those wrongly convicted particularly horrible.

Retribution is wrong

Many people believe that retribution is morally flawed and problematic in concept and practice.

We cannot teach that killing is wrong by killing. (U.S. Catholic Conference)
To take a life when a life has been lost is revenge, it is not justice. (Attributed to Archbishop Desmond Tutu.)

Vengeance

The main argument that retribution is immoral is that it is just a sanitised form of vengeance. Scenes of howling mobs attacking prison vans containing those accused of murder on their way to and from court, or chanting aggressively outside prisons when an offender is being executed, suggest that vengeance remains a major ingredient in the public popularity of capital punishment.

But just retribution, designed to re-establish justice, can easily be distinguished from vengeance and vindictiveness.

In any case, is vengeance necessarily a bad thing?

The Victorian legal philosopher James Fitzjames Stephens thought vengeance was an acceptable justification for punishment. Punishment, he thought, should be inflicted:

for the sake of ratifying the feeling of hatred-call it revenge, resentment, or what you will-which the contemplation of such [offensive] conduct excites in healthily constituted minds. (Sir James Fitzjames Stephens, 'Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.')

Retribution and the innocent

But the issue of the execution of innocent persons is also a problem for the retribution argument - if there is a serious risk of executing the innocent then one of the key principles of retribution - that people should get what they deserve (and therefore only what they deserve) - is violated by the current implementation of capital punishment in the USA, and any other country where errors have taken place.

Uniqueness of the death penalty

It's argued that retribution is used in a unique way in the case of the death penalty. Crimes other than murder do not receive a punishment that mimics the crime - for example rapists are not punished by sexual assault, and people guilty of assault are not ceremonially beaten up.

Camus and Dostoevsky argued that the retribution in the case of the death penalty was not fair, because the anticipatory suffering of the criminal before execution would probably outweigh the anticipatory suffering of the victim of their crime.

Others argue that the retribution argument is flawed because the death penalty delivers a 'double punishment'; that of the execution and the preceding wait, and this is a mismatch to the crime.

Many offenders are kept 'waiting' on death row for a very long time; in the USA the average wait is 10 years. (Source: Death Penalty Information Center)

In Japan, the accused are only informed of their execution moments before it is scheduled. The result of this is that each day of their life is lived as if it was their last.
Capital punishment is not operated retributively

Some lawyers argue that capital punishment is not really used as retribution for murder, or even consistently for a particular kind of murder.

They argue that, in the USA at least, only a small minority of murderers are actually executed, and that imposition of capital punishment on a "capriciously selected random handful" of offenders does not amount to a consistent programme of retribution.

Since capital punishment is not operated retributively, it is inappropriate to use retribution to justify capital punishment.

This argument would have no value in a society that applied the death penalty consistently for particular types of murder.

Capital punishment is not retribution enough

Some people who believe in the notion of retribution are against capital punishment because they feel the death penalty provides insufficient retribution. They argue that life imprisonment without possibility of parole causes much more suffering to the offender than a painless death after a short period of imprisonment.

Another example is the planner of a suicide bombing - execution might make that person a martyr, and therefore would be a lesser retribution than life imprisonment.

Failure to deter

The death penalty doesn't seem to deter people from committing serious violent crimes. The thing that deters is the likelihood of being caught and punished.

The general consensus among social scientists is that the deterrent effect of the death penalty is at best unproven.

In 1988 a survey was conducted for the UN to determine the relation between the death penalty and homicide rates. This was then updated in 1996. It concluded:

...research has failed to provide scientific proof that executions have a greater deterrent effect than life imprisonment. Such proof is unlikely to be forthcoming. The evidence as a whole still gives no positive support to the deterrent hypothesis.
The key to real and true deterrence is to increase the likelihood of detection, arrest and conviction.
The death penalty is a harsh punishment, but it is not harsh on crime. (Amnesty International)
NB: It's actually impossible to test the deterrent effect of a punishment in a rigorous way, as to do so would require knowing how many murders would have been committed in a particular state if the law had been different during the same time period.

Deterrence is a morally flawed concept

Even if capital punishment did act as a deterrent, is it acceptable for someone to pay for the predicted future crimes of others?

Some people argue that one may as well punish innocent people; it will have the same effect.

This isn't true - if people are randomly picked up off the street and punished as scapegoats the only consequence is likely to be that the public will be frightened to go out.

To make a scapegoat scheme effective it would be necessary to go through the appearance of a legitimate legal process and to present evidence which convinced the public that the person being punished deserved their punishment.

While some societies have operated their legal systems on the basis of fictional evidence and confessions extracted by torture, the ethical objections to such a system are sufficient to render the argument in the second paragraph pointless.

Brutalising society

Brutalising individuals

Statistics show that the death penalty leads to a brutalisation of society and an increase in murder rate. In the USA, more murders take place in states where capital punishment is allowed. In 2010, the murder rate in states where the death penalty has been abolished was 4.01 per cent per 100,000 people. In states where the death penalty is used, the figure was 5.00 per cent. These calculations are based on figures from the FBI. The gap between death penalty states and non-death penalty states rose considerably from 4 per cent difference in 1990 to 25 per cent in 2010. (Source: FBI Uniform Crime Report, from Death Penalty Information Center.)

Disturbed individuals may be angered and thus more likely to commit murder.

It is also linked to increased number of police officers murdered.

Brutalising the state

Capital punishment may brutalise society in a different and even more fundamental way, one that has implications for the state's relationship with all citizens.

...the state's power deliberately to destroy innocuous (though guilty) life is a manifestation of the hidden wish that the state be allowed to do anything it pleases with life. (George Kateb, The Inner Ocean 1992.)

Brutalising the law

Capital punishment is said to produce an unacceptable link between the law and violence.

But in many ways the law is inevitably linked with violence - it punishes violent crimes, and it uses punishments that 'violently' restrict human freedoms. And philosophically the law is always involved with violence in that its function includes preserving an ordered society from violent events.

Nonetheless, a strong case can be made that legal violence is clearly different from criminal violence, and that when it is used, it is used in a way that everyone can see is fair and logical.

Capital punishment 'lowers the tone' of society

Civilised societies do not tolerate torture, even if it can be shown that torture may deter, or produce other good effects.

In the same way many people feel that the death penalty is an inappropriate for a modern civilised society to respond to even the most dreadful crimes.

The murder that is depicted as a horrible crime is repeated in cold blood, remorselessly. (Beccaria, C. de, Traité des Délits et des Peines, 1764.)

Because most countries - but not all - do not execute people publicly, capital punishment is not a degrading public spectacle. But it is still a media circus, receiving great publicity, so that the public are well aware of what is being done on their behalf.

However this media circus takes over the spectacle of public execution in teaching the public lessons about justice, retribution, and personal responsibility for one's own actions.

Expense

In the USA capital punishment costs a great deal.

For example, the cost of convicting and executing Timothy McVeigh for the Oklahoma City Bombing was over $13 million.

In New York and New Jersey, the high costs of capital punishment were one factor in those states' decisions to abandon the death penalty. New York spent about $170 million over 9 years and had no executions. New Jersey spent $253 million over a 25-year period and also had no executions. (Source: Death Penalty Information Center.)

In countries with a less costly and lengthy appeals procedure, capital punishment seems like a much cheaper option than long-term imprisonment.

Counter-arguments

Those in favour of capital punishment counter with these two arguments:

It is a fallacy that capital punishment costs more than life without parole
Justice cannot be thought of in financial terms.



People not responsible for their acts

This is not an argument against capital punishment itself, but against applying it wrongly.

Some countries, including the USA, have executed people proven to be insane.

It's generally accepted that people should not be punished for their actions unless they have a guilty mind - which requires them to know what they are doing and that it's wrong.

Therefore people who are insane should not be convicted, let alone executed. This doesn't prevent insane people who have done terrible things being confined in secure mental institutions, but this is done for public safety, not to punish the insane person.

To put it more formally: it is wrong to impose capital punishment on those who have at best a marginal capacity for deliberation and for moral agency.

A more difficult moral problem arises in the case of offenders who were sane at the time of their crime and trial but who develop signs of insanity before execution.

Applied unfairly

There has been much concern in the USA that flaws in the judicial system make capital punishment unfair.

One US Supreme Court Justice (who had originally supported the death penalty) eventually came to the conclusion that capital punishment was bound to damage the cause of justice:

The death penalty remains fraught with arbitrariness, discrimination, caprice, and mistake ... Experience has taught us that the constitutional goal of eliminating arbitrariness and discrimination from the administration of death ... can never be achieved without compromising an equally essential component of fundamental fairness - individualized sentencing. (Justice Harry Blackmun, United States Supreme Court, 1994)

Jurors

Jurors in many US death penalty cases must be 'death eligible'. This means the prospective juror must be willing to convict the accused knowing that a sentence of death is a possibility.

This results in a jury biased in favour of the death penalty, since no one who opposes the death penalty is likely to be accepted as a juror.

Lawyers

There's much concern in the USA that the legal system doesn't always provide poor accused people with good lawyers.

Out of all offenders who are sentenced to death, three quarters of those who are allocated a legal aid lawyer can expect execution, a figure that drops to a quarter if the defendant could afford to pay for a lawyer.


Cruel, inhumane, degrading

Regardless of the moral status of capital punishment, some argue that all ways of executing people cause so much suffering to the condemned person that they amount to torture and are wrong.

Many methods of execution are quite obviously likely to cause enormous suffering, such as execution by lethal gas, electrocution or strangulation.

Other methods have been abandoned because they were thought to be barbaric, or because they forced the executioner to be too 'hands-on'. These include firing squads and beheading.

Lethal injection

Many countries that use capital punishment have now adopted lethal injection, because it's thought to be less cruel for the offender and less brutalising for the executioner.

Those against capital punishment believe this method has serious moral flaws and should be abandoned.

The first flaw is that it requires medical personnel being directly involved in killing (rather than just checking that the execution has terminated life). This is a fundamental contravention of medical ethics.

The second flaw is that research in April 2005 showed that lethal injection is not nearly as 'humane' as had been thought. Post mortem findings indicated that levels of anaesthetic found in offenders were consistent with wakefulness and the ability to experience pain.


Unnecessary

This is really more of a political argument than an ethical one. It's based on the political principle that a state should fulfil its obligations in the least invasive, harmful and restrictive way possible.

The state does have an obligation to punish crime, as a means to preserve an orderly and contented society, but it should do so in the least harmful way possible
Capital punishment is the most harmful punishment available, so the state should only use it if no less harmful punishment is suitable
Other punishments will always enable the state to fulfil its objective of punishing crime appropriately
Therefore the state should not use capital punishment
Most people will not want to argue with clauses 1 and 2, so this structure does have the benefit of focussing attention on the real point of contention - the usefulness of non-capital punishments in the case of murder.

One way of settling the issue is to see whether states that don't use capital punishment have been able to find other punishments that enable the state to punish murderers in such a ways as to preserve an orderly and contented society. If such states exist then capital punishment is unnecessary and should be abolished as overly harmful.

Free will

The idea that we must be punished for any act of wrongdoing, whatever its nature, relies upon a belief in human free will and a person's ability to be responsible for their own actions.

If one does not believe in free will, the question of whether it is moral to carry out any kind of punishment (and conversely reward) arises.

Arthur Koestler and Clarence Darrow argued that human beings never act freely and thus should not be punished for even the most horrific crimes.

The latter went on to argue for the abolition of punishment altogether, an idea which most people would find problematic.
Religious views



Buddhism and capital punishment

Because Buddhism exists in many forms, under many organisations, there is no unified Buddhist policy on capital punishment.

In terms of doctrine the death penalty is clearly inconsistent with Buddhist teaching. Buddhists place great emphasis on non-violence and compassion for all life. The First Precept requires individuals to abstain from injuring or killing any living creature.

The Buddha did not explicitly speak about capital punishment, but his teachings show no sympathy for physical punishment, no matter how bad the crime.

An action, even if it brings benefit to oneself, cannot be considered a good action if it causes physical and mental pain to another being. (The Buddha)
If a person foolishly does me wrong, I will return to him the protection of my boundless love. The more evil that comes from him, the more good will go from me.(The Buddha, Buddhism and punishment)

Buddhism believes fundamentally in the cycle of birth and re-birth (Samsara) and teaches that if capital punishment is administered it will have compromising effects on the souls of both offender and the punisher in future incarnations.

As far as punishment in this world is concerned, Buddhism has strong views:

inhumane treatment of an offender does not solve their misdeeds or those of humanity in general - the best approach to an offender is reformatory rather than punitive. Punishment should only be to the extent to which the offender needs to make amends, and his rehabilitation into society should be of paramount importance.
Punishing an offender with excessive cruelty will injure not just the offender's mind, but also the mind of the person doing the punishing
it is impossible to administer severe punishment with composure and compassion.
If the crime is particularly serious, the person may be banished from the community or country.

Buddhist countries and capital punishment

Despite these teachings several countries with substantial Buddhist populations retain the death penalty, and some of them, for example Thailand, continue to use it.

These are no states that have Buddhism as their official religion.

Alarid and Wang (see below) suggest that this apparent paradox partly stems from the difference between popular and monastic Buddhism. The majority of lay Buddhists in these countries follow Buddhist practices and are entirely sincere in their commitment, but "the genuine study of Buddhism, its rituals, and carryover to daily life is superficial for most Buddhist followers."

Other reasons Buddhist countries retain the death penalty are:

belief by politicians that capital punishment is necessary for retribution, cultural customs, or for deterrence value
a long tradition of capital punishment in a particular country
keeping order in society is seen as more important than Buddha's teaching
reaction to long periods of political unrest or economic instability
Reference: Material in this sub-section is largely taken from Mercy and Punishment: Buddhism and the Death Penalty; Alarid and Wang



Hinduism and capital punishment

"An eye for an eye ends up making the whole world blind" (Gandhi)
There is no official Hindu line on capital punishment. However, Hinduism opposes killing, violence and revenge, in line with the principle of ahimsa (non-violence).

India still retains the death penalty, and the reasons for this are likely to be similar to be those suggested in the Buddhist section.

The debate on capital punishment in India was revived in 2004 by the case of Dhananjoy Chatterjee who had been sentenced for rape and murder.

At present more than 100 people are on death row in India, although the number of executions in that country is actually very low and the Indian Supreme Court has ruled that the death penalty should only be used in the rarest of rare cases.

Judaism and capital punishment

Anyone reading the Old Testament list of 36 capital crimes might think that Judaism is in favour of capital punishment, but they'd be wrong. During the period when Jewish law operated as a secular as well as a religious jurisdiction, Jewish courts very rarely imposed the death penalty. The state of Israel has abolished the death penalty for any crime that is now likely to be tried there.

The classic Old Testament texts quoted to justify capital punishment are these:

... life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth ... (Exodus 21:23-24)
A man who spills human blood, his own blood shall be spilled by man because God made man in His own Image. (Genesis 9:6)
Although they seem clear these texts are commonly misunderstood.

To really understand Jewish law one must not only read the Torah but consult the Talmud, an elaboration and interpretation by rabbinical scholars of the laws and commandments of the Torah.

The rabbis who wrote the Talmud created such a forest of barriers to actually using the death penalty that in practical terms it was almost impossible to punish anyone by death.

The rabbis did this with various devices:

interpreting texts in the context of Judaism's general respect for the sanctity of human life
emphasising anti-death texts such as the commandment 'Thou shalt not kill'
interpreting texts to make them very narrow in their application
refusing to accept any but the most explicit Torah texts proposing the death penalty
finding alternative punishments, or schemes of compensation for victims' families
imposing procedural and evidential barriers that made the death penalty practically unenforceable
The result of this is that there are very few examples of people being executed by Jewish law in rabbinic times.

Israel

In 1954, Israel abolished capital punishment except for those who committed Nazi war crimes.

In the 54 years that Israel has existed as an independent state, only one person has been executed. This person was Adolf Eichman, a Nazi war criminal with particular responsibility for the Holocaust.

Introduction

Christians argue both for and against the death penalty using secular arguments (see Ethics: Capital punishment), but like other religious people they often make an additional case based on the tenets of their faith.

For much of history, the Christian Churches accepted that capital punishment was a necessary part of the mechanisms of society.

Pope Innocent III, for example, put forward the proposition: "The secular power can, without mortal sin, exercise judgment of blood, provided that it punishes with justice, not out of hatred, with prudence, not precipitation."

The Roman Catechism, issued in 1566, stated that the power of life and death had been entrusted by God to the civil authorities. The use of this power did not embody the act of murder, but rather a supreme obedience to God's commandments.

In the high Middle Ages and later, the Holy See authorized that heretics be turned over to the secular authorities for execution.

The law of Vatican City from 1929 to 1969 included the death penalty for anyone who tried to assassinate the Pope.

Research done in the 1990s in the USA found that Protestants (who interpret the Bible to be the literal word of God) were more likely to be in favour of the death penalty than members of other religious factions and denominations.

In favour of the death penalty

It's in the Bible

Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed (Genesis 9:6, Old Testament)

The death penalty is consistent with Old Testament Biblical teaching, and suggests that God created the death penalty.

In total, the Old Testament specifies 36 capital offences including crimes such as idolatry, magic and blasphemy, as well as murder.

But many Christians don't think that is a convincing argument - they say that there are 35 capital offences, in addition to murder, described in the Old Testament. As these are no longer capital offences, Christians say it is inconsistent to preserve murder alone as a capital crime.

New Testament

The New Testament embodies what must be the most famous execution in history, that of Jesus on the cross. But paradoxically, although the tone of the whole of the New Testament is one of forgiveness, it seems to take the right of the state to execute offenders for granted.

In Matthew 7:2 we read "Whatever measure you deal out to others will be dealt back to you", though this is unspecific as to whether it is God who is doing the dealing, or the state.
In Matthew 15:4 Jesus says "He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him surely die".
Despite the fact that Jesus himself refrains from using violence, he at no point denies the state's authority to exact capital punishment.
At the moment that Pilate has to decide whether or not to crucify Jesus, Jesus tells him that the power to make this decision has been given to him by God. (John 19:11).
Paul has an apparent reference to the death penalty, when he writes that the magistrate who holds authority "does not bear the sword in vain; for he is the servant of God to execute His wrath on the wrongdoer" (Romans 13:4).
Capital punishment affirms the commandment that 'thou shalt not kill' by affirming the seriousness of the crime of murder.
This argument is based on interpreting the commandment as meaning "thou shalt not murder", but some Christians argue that the 'Thou shalt not kill' commandment is an absolute prohibition on killing.

God authorises the death penalty

Christians who support the death penalty often do so on the ground that the state acts not on its own authority but as the agent of God, who does have legal power over life and death.

This argument is well expressed by St Augustine, who wrote:

The same divine law which forbids the killing of a human being allows certain exceptions, as when God authorises killing by a general law or when He gives an explicit commission to an individual for a limited time.
Since the agent of authority is but a sword in the hand, and is not responsible for the killing, it is in no way contrary to the commandment, 'Thou shalt not kill' to wage war at God's bidding, or for the representatives of the State's authority to put criminals to death, according to law or the rule of rational justice. (Augustine, The City of God)

Capital punishment is like suicide

This argument is that the criminal, by choosing to commit a particular crime has also chosen to surrender his life to the state if caught.

Even when there is question of the execution of a condemned man, the State does not dispose of the individual's right to life. In this case it is reserved to the public power to deprive the condemned person of the enjoyment of life in expiation of his crime when, by his crime, he has already dispossessed himself of his right to life. (Pope Pius XII)

Against the death penalty

Only God should create and destroy life

This argument is used to oppose abortion and euthanasia as well.

Many Christians believe that God commanded "Thou shalt not kill" (Exodus 21:13), and that this is a clear instruction with no exceptions.

St. Augustine didn't agree, and wrote in The City of God:

The same divine law which forbids the killing of a human being allows certain exceptions, as when God authorizes killing by a general law or when He gives an explicit commission to an individual for a limited time.
Since the agent of authority is but a sword in the hand, and is not responsible for the killing, it is in no way contrary to the commandment, "Thou shalt not kill" to wage war at God's bidding, or for the representatives of the State's authority to put criminals to death, according to law or the rule of rational justice. (St Augustine, The City of God)
But a modern Franciscan writer says there should be no exceptions to "thou shalt not kill".

In light of the word of God, and thus of faith, life--all human life--is sacred and untouchable. No matter how heinous the crimes ... [the criminal] does not lose his fundamental right to life, for it is primordial, inviolable, and inalienable, and thus comes under the power of no one whatsoever. (Father Gino Concetti, L'Osservatore Romano, 1977)

The Bible teaching is inconsistent

The Bible speaks in favour of the death penalty for murder. But it also prescribes it for 35 other crimes that we no longer regard as deserving the death penalty. In order to be consistent, humanity should remove the death penalty for murder.

Secondly, modern society has alternative punishments available which were not used in Biblical times, and these make the death penalty unnecessary.

Christianity is based on forgiveness and compassion

Capital punishment is incompatible with a teaching that emphasises forgiveness and compassion.

Capital punishment is biased against the poor

Some Christians argue that in many countries the imposition of the death penalty is biased against the poor. Since Christian teaching is to support the poor, Christians should not support the death penalty.

Abolition is in line with support for life

Capital punishment is inconsistent with the general Christian stand that life should always be supported. This stand is most often taught in issues such as abortion and euthanasia, but consistency requires Christians to apply it across the board.

Catholic Church

The Catholic Church and capital punishment

Throughout the first half of the twentieth century the consensus amongst Catholic theologians remained in favour of capital punishment in those cases deemed suitably extreme. Until 1969, the Vatican had a penal code that included the death penalty for anyone who attempted to assassinate the Pope.

However, by the end of this century opinions were changing. In 1980, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops published an almost entirely negative statement on capital punishment, approved by a majority vote of those present, though not by the required two-thirds majority of the entire conference.

In 1997 the Vatican announced changes to the Catechism, thus making it more in line with John Paul II's 1995 encyclical The Gospel of Life. The amendments include the following statement concerning capital punishment:

Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.
If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person.
Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offence incapable of doing harm--without definitively taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself--the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are rare, if not practically non-existent.
(Pope John Paul II, The Gospel of Life)

Islam and capital punishment

Islam on the whole accepts capital punishment.

...Take not life, which God has made sacred, except by way of justice and law. Thus does He command you, so that you may learn wisdom. (Qur'an 6:151)
But even though the death penalty is allowed, forgiveness is preferable. Forgiveness, together with peace, is a predominant Qur'anic theme.

Muslims believe that capital punishment is a most severe sentence but one that may be commanded by a court for crimes of suitable severity. While there may be more profound punishment at the hands of God, there is also room for an earthly punishment.

Methods of execution in Islamic countries vary and can include beheading, firing squad, hanging and stoning. In some countries public executions are carried out to heighten the element of deterrence.

Each case is regarded individually and with extreme care and the court is fully able to impose more lenient sentences as and when they see fit.

Islamic countries that practise a very strict Sharia law are associated with the use of capital punishment as retribution for the largest variety of crimes.

At the other end of the spectrum are countries such as Albania and Bosnia, which still retain the death penalty as part of their penal system, but are abolitionist in practice.

In Islamic law, the death penalty is appropriate for two groups of crime:

Intentional murder: In these cases the victim's family is given the option as to whether or not to insist on a punishment of this severity
Fasad fil-ardh ('spreading mischief in the land'): Islam permits the death penalty for anyone who threatens to undermine authority or destabilise the state
What constitutes the crime of 'spreading mischief in the land' is open to interpretation, but the following crimes are usually included:

Treason/apostasy (when one leaves the faith and turns against it)
Terrorism
Piracy of any kind
Rape
Adultery
Homosexual activity
Whilst Islam remains firmly retentionist, there is a small but growing abolitionist Islamic view. Their argument is as follows:

The Ulamas (those who are learned in Islamic Law, constitution and theology) do not always agree on the interpretation or authenticity of the sacred texts. Neither do they agree on the social context in which these texts should be applied.
Sharia law is often used by repressive powers that attack women and the poor.
There are incidences of these states summarily executing those who are accused whilst denying them access to a lawyer. These acts are totally contradictory to the concept of Islamic justice.
In Geneva, on 28th April 2005, there was a call for a moratorium on corporal punishment, stoning and death penalty. This was, however, rejected by the Legal Research Commission of the Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the world's leading Islamic learning centre.
__________________________________________________________

I understand that many of us will already have strong, passionate views on the death penalty, and in a bid to encourage more thought-provoking discussion on Rant Central, i ask you to help keep this debate civilised!

"everyone wants to win but no one wants to drink a bucket of sj's piss" - bob5695
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11-08-2012, 10:26 AM
Post: #2
RE: The death penalty
The argument hinges on two questions that really one question when you consider the entire picture:

Is there any crime horrible enough that the offenders deserves to die?

and

Do we have the right to decide who lives and who dies?

I say the answer to those questions is 'no' and 'apparently' (but with a twinge of sarcasm (and by twinge I mean a lot of fucking sarcasm)).

What is the most horrible act you can think of? Pedophilia? Murder?

A murdering pedophile is a human being just like you. Each human being faces different challenges based on their personality and the 'tools' they are given to work with. For some people in my life walking and chewing bubblegum at the same time is too much of a challenge while other friends of mine do great things in the world as I see it, but struggle with the basics of life.

People have issues and when they manifest themselves in crimes (secret crimes even) these are gentle cries for help from a sick person desperately wanting to be strong enough to change.

What about reprobates?

Some people claim to have inside information into the minds of other humans and will tell you that some people just don't want to do any better- that some people are just evil from birth. Coincidentally these are usually the same people that will tell you that any homosexual is only 'gay in their mind' Rolleyes

We can't know the heart and I refuse to believe that it is healthy for society to pretend to be able to judge past physical actions and into the soul.



So no, I don't support capital punishment.

Wildcard is awesome.
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11-08-2012, 11:22 AM
Post: #3
RE: The death penalty
the term 'the death penalty' and 'capital punishment' sound very negative. let's call it 'the death solution' and 'capital solution.'

"Yeah. I understand the mechanics of it, shithead. I just don't understand how this is any less retarded than what I'm suggesting." - Kiley; Housebound.
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11-09-2012, 03:08 PM
Post: #4
RE: The death penalty
No, we don't have it -- do I sometimes wish we did? Yes, but that's an impassioned response, not a logical one. It's probably natural to wish that people who commit horrendous crimes could just be made "go away" forever, but it's not successful as a deterrent (nobody ever thinks they're going to get caught -- unless their aim is to get caught, in which case they usually want some kind of martyrdom) and it certainly doesn't cost any less than keeping prisoners alive when you consider the burden on the appeals process.

No fucking censorship. Ever.
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11-10-2012, 02:49 AM
Post: #5
RE: The death penalty
On the whole i don't support capital punishment. The ethics definition states that capital punishment (CP) can only be used by a state, and that when non-state organisations 'execute' a person, they're actually committing a murder. I see no difference between the state carrying out murder in the name of justice, and the non-state organisation. The ending of a human life can be dressed up in all manner of fancy terms, i think people use them to absolve themselves from any sort of responsibility, to make them feel that they are simply part of the system/machine and that it wasn't them per se, who executed a person, but rather the justice system, the law of a particular country or state etc.

I have a big problem with any state or country that says such and such a crime is so serious, that you'll be executed if you get caught carrying it out. The variation in perceived seriousness is too great for CP to even make sense to a reasonable person. I could organise a political protest march in one country and be seen merely as political opposition, and in another i could be classed as a traitor and put to death; or i could commit adultery(if i was married) in one country and end up getting divorced but carrying on with my life, in another i could be executed publicly. The fact that mostly the poor end up being executed speaks volumes about our so-called justice system and who it really serves.

"everyone wants to win but no one wants to drink a bucket of sj's piss" - bob5695
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