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BBC: Arguments against capital punishment Essay

Here the text for the final exam, as agreed. Please note that this is an edited version, which means that I have made some changes. The words marked in red are probably new terms for you which you should check during your preparation for the final exam; it is important that you understand them)

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 those who are in favor 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.

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. 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 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


The main argument that retribution is immoral is that it is just another form of vengeance. Scenes of people 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 issue in the public popularity of capital punishment. But just retribution, designed to re-establish justice, can easily be distinguished from vengeance.

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 worse than 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 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.

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 agreement among scientists is that the deterrent effect of the death penalty is simply not proven. In 1988 a survey was conducted for the United Nations 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.

Amnesty International

NB: It’s actually impossible to test the deterrent effect of a punishment in an exact way, because this 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? Brutalizing society, brutalizing individuals
Statistics show that the death penalty leads to a brutalization 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 per cent per 100,000 people. In states where the death penalty is used, the figure was 5 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

Capital punishment lowers the reputation of a society

Civilized 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 civilized society to respond to even the most dreadful crimes.

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.


Those in favor of capital punishment counter with these two arguments: * It is not correct that capital punishment costs more than life without parole * Justice cannot be thought of in financial terms

But they are wrong.

People are not responsible for their acts

Some countries, including the USA, have executed people who were 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 a very low IQ and, therefore, nearly no moral conscience due to their mental disability. 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 could damage the cause of justice:


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 favor of the death penalty, since no one who opposes the death penalty is likely to be accepted as a juror.


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 given a legal aid lawyer by the judicial system 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, therefore, 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 brutalizing for the executioner. Those against capital punishment believe this method has serious moral flaws and should be abandoned. One flaw is that it requires medical personnel being directly involved in killing (rather than just checking that the execution has terminated life). This is against fundamental ideas of medical ethics.

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