Capital punishment was abolished within the United Kingdom in 1969. Although some Britons continue to advocate for its reintroduction, many remain either indifferent to or thankful for its absence, particularly those who have never known it to be performed. 

Such individuals may find it striking, then, to consider that within the United States – the world’s eternal beacon of freedom and human flourishing – capital punishment is not only practiced, but constitutionally protected. The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States makes plain that citizens can be deprived of life, liberty, or property’ by the government, providing that punishments to that effect are not administered without ‘due process of law.’ 

Furthermore, historically speaking, the death penalty was ubiquitous at the time of the nation’s founding, and had been defended by philosophers such as Locke. Indeed, the Crimes Act of 1790, enacted by the First United States Congress, made offences ranging from treason to murder punishable by death. 

Accordingly, the argument employed by certain members of the legal cognoscenti that the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution prohibits the death penalty as a form of ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ is factually baseless. Exceptionally barbarous methods of execution may be unacceptable under the amendment, but it in no way serves to outlaw capital punishment in all forms.

Yet the constitutionality of capital punishment cannot detract from my opposition toward it on principle. I am impelled to distance myself from those on the American right who maintain that the death penalty is justified, to instead contend that it should be abandoned. A purely legal case for abolition being difficult to mount, one’s argument in its favour must rest upon ethical or practical grounds. Conservatives who share my enmity have promulgated several justifications of this sort.

The most salient of these is the contention that the inherent fallibility of the state necessitates that it can never be permitted to administer death as a punishment. Wrongful execution, unlike wrongful incarceration, is irrevocable, and consequently stands as a significant concern. Other arguments for abolition – such as those concerning either a lack of evidence for the supposed deterrent effect of executions or the inefficiency and expense that may be inherent in their pursuit – are equally common in their application. 

Yet these objections, though superficially appealing, share a fundamental flaw. Specifically, it is inescapably implicit within all of them that an ideal version of the death penalty would be acceptable. They do not censure the very idea of capital punishment but, rather, how it is employed. By their logic, it would be permissible to kill certain offenders if a system could be devised wherein: 1) only the guilty were invariably sentenced to death, 2) those sentences deterred others from committing the most egregious of crimes, and 3) imposing those sentences was no more onerous in a financial and practical sense than imposing any others.

This is wrong. I oppose capital punishment absolutely, irrespective of the manner in which it is administered, on the moral basis that the government cannot rightfully engage in killing its citizens when it is unnecessary to do so. 

Of course, this assertion engenders an ethical quandary as to when killing can be considered allowable. The unfortunate reality is that, in certain situations where life must be defended, it is impossible not to kill. If an individual attempts to take my life, and cannot be either deterred by reason or otherwise incapacitated, then I will have little choice but to protect myself with lethal force. 

Our recent Crime Special Issue (read more HERE) featured an article by Bradley Goodwin arguing in favour of the death penalty.

Certainly, the same would also be true in a situation where my home were invaded and the lives of my family members were threatened. Likewise, police officers may obviously be required to kill in the line of duty to preserve the lives of the public. Particularly severe circumstances demand a particularly severe response.

When an individual is executed, however, the taking of their life cannot be morally justified as a form of self-defence.

Having been detained, they do not constitute an imminent threat to the life or safety of another. A police officer would rightly be admonished for shooting a criminal who had raised his arms in surrender, just as I would rightly be chastised for killing an assailant who had capitulated and sincerely begged for his life at the sight of my weapon. The act of killing would be patently unjust in both of those scenarios, even if their respective offenders had previously perpetrated heinous crimes.

Why would it be moral, then, to execute an individual who had already been imprisoned, rendered helpless, and thereby eliminated as a threat? The purpose of the legal system is to facilitate justice, not vengeance. We regard murder with ineffable revulsion, and see it as representing the lowest of our behavioral potential as human beings.

Accordingly, we should not elect to take the lives of others when there is no exigent reason to do so.

The consequence of the death penalty is the addition of further horror to our society, and the debasement of ourselves and our institutions. A truly just state would show mercy in this matter. For our own betterment, we can, and should, refrain from killing needlessly. 

For conservatives of my persuasion, recent trends in regard to the issue of capital punishment have been encouraging. Twenty-one US states have abolished its use, and fewer than thirty individuals have been executed annually for the past five years. Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty – a national advocacy group for abolition – continues to grow in influence, while a recent Gallup poll has shown that, for the first time, a majority of Americans support life imprisonment over the death penalty. May such successes continue, so that, hopefully, the practice of capital punishment will soon be merely an unpleasant memory. 

 

 

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