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As a society we have an established set of rules and norms that are enforced by our justice system which we as a people have deemed as the highest power to determine when these rules and norms are broken and what appropriate punishment should be given. We live in a world filled with diversity. Not only diversity in cultures but diversity with people in terms of character and morals. Society is filled with both good upstanding people but also those people who find it less than necessary to follow any norms or rules society has created but instead find a life in crime. Crimes can range from something minimal such as theft to the most serious which is murder. This introduces us to capital punishment or more commonly termed, the death penalty.
Though openly controversial, capital punishment has its share of opponents and supporters. Many philosophers have discussed issues in relation to violence, laws and punishment. Malcolm X is one such philosopher. His beliefs in violence in terms of self defense can relate to the issue of capital punishment. Malcolm X believed that one should defend themselves by all means necessary when it means self defense. He believed in non violence unless one’s life was at risk and needed defending. In such cases self defense should be practiced. In his famous speech “The Ballot or the Bullet” delivered on April 13, 1964 he introduces his principle of self defense and his intentions to work “non violently as long as the enemy is nonviolent” but also be “violent when the enemy gets violent”. These are examples of his principles.
There are other philosophers that approach the issue of capital punishment in more depth. Hugo Adam Bedau and Ernest van den Haag are two such philosophers who present their arguments to capital punishment. Bedau and Haag offer compelling arguments that as a reader one may find it difficult to choose a side. The fact of the matter is that capital punishment is the most extreme form of punishment and because of its severity and irreversibility; its usage must be very stringent. Both Bedau and Haag discuss capital punishment and take relatively different sides about similar issues. Both construct their arguments discussing issues such as capital punishment and its unjust application, its deterrence ability and the possible execution of innocent people. Haag takes on the position of pro capital punishment and argues his position in his article “In Defense of the Death Penalty”.
Bedau on the other side takes on the position of pro abolition and discusses his arguments in his article “Capital Punishment”. We’ll begin with Haag and his arguments. Haag argues that the execution of innocent people believed to be guilty is a miscarriage of the justice system and should be stopped but it does not warrant the abolishing of capital punishment. Killing innocent people is not enough to abolish capital punishment and thus risking the innocent lives that may be saved by these “murderers”. These advantages in turn outweigh the disadvantages of killing innocent “criminals” and the punishment of capital punishment is just. In executing a murderer it is concluded by Isaac Ehrlich’s 1933-1969 study that one execution may result in 7 or 8 fewer murders because the execution acts as deterrence for future murders (pg. 351).
Haag presents us with two choices in regards to deterrence. The first choice he presents is that to trade the life of a convicted murderer and save the 7 or 8 innocent victims whose murder is probable unless the murderer is executed. The second choice is to allow the murderer to live and possibly lose the 7 or 8 innocent people who the murderer can possibly kill. Most of us would choose the first choice and Haag agrees. He argues that it would be irresponsible not to execute the murderer simply because there is no guarantee that their execution would help save the lives of potential innocent victims. It seems immoral to allow murderers to live on even if there is even the slightest possibility that innocent lives are at risk. Haag supports this argument by stating that “more severe penalties are more deterrent than less severe penalties” (pg. 352).
People are less likely to commit severe crimes if the punishment is just as severe. With that said it only seems logical to say that the most severe crime warrants the most severe punishment. Thus, murderers should be punished with the death penalty. Haag also uses the situation with current prisoners to elaborate his point of how capital punishment is a deterrent. Prisoners serving life sentences and who are not sentenced to execution relatively follow prison rules and norms because the possibility of a more severe punishment or sentence does exist.
Haag states that without the death penalty, prisoners would find no reason to avoid committing more crimes towards fellow prisoners or guards because the abolishment of the death penalty presents them with a sort of immunity. They can freely commit more crimes knowing they will not get additional punishment. Not only within the prison context but criminals on the outside world and who anticipate that their crime will result in a life sentence may be compelled to murder as many people as necessary to facilitate their escape. No death penalty threat would stop them from committing more crimes. This is where death penalty plays the deterrent role.
Whether capital punishment is at fault for sometimes executing innocent people or positively deterring other criminals from committing murder, the death penalty and its application is the third issue we will discuss. According to Haag the death penalty is separate from its moral characteristic. If the death penalty is perfectly distributed but morally unjust, it would be unjust in each case. In the same manner if the death penalty was morally just but applied discriminatorily it would remain just in each case. Guilty people do not all of a sudden become innocent because they escaped it or innocent people don’t deserve punishment because others suffer it. Justice and equality are not hand in hand and though equality should be important and practiced it should not affect the hand of justice.
Bedau stands on the other side of the capital punishment issue. His arguments try to prove why the position of abolition is better. In respects to the same issues that Haag presents I will discuss Bedau’s arguments Both Haag and Bedau discuss how it is possible that with capital punishment innocent people deemed guilty are executed. However, Bedau presents this argument in a cost benefit analysis. Haag states that the execution of innocent people is a miscarriage of justice and that its advantages of possibly saving future innocent victims because of the execution of the murderer outweigh the drawbacks of executing an innocent person.
Therefore Haag uses the lives of future innocent victims as the advantage of capital punishment whereas Bedau though agreeing with Haag about the possibility of executing innocent people, identifies the risks as “social costs” (pg. 367). Bedau proceeds to discuss the economic costs that the death penalty incurs. Cost of housing the prisoner while on death row, cost of the capital trial and of the appeals. Bedau discusses the risk of executing innocent people just as Haag but Bedau finds different aspects of it to elaborate and approaches the matter in terms of costs to society.
Haag makes two points in regards to deterrence for which Bedau has an argument he presents. According to Haag, capital punishment deters other criminals from committing murder and per the Ehrlich study 1 execution saves 7 or 8 innocent lives and not executing the murderer is a form of irresponsibility when the only reason is that there is no guarantee that their execution will lengthen or save future innocent victims who would be murdered had the murderer be spared. Bedau argues that capital punishment cannot deter murder but instead it can possibly only prevent it. Bedau draws a distinction between the death penalty as a crime preventive and death penalty as a crime deterrent. Haag does not make a distinction and instead only discusses the death penalty as a crime deterrent. It is only reasonable that the distinction be made.
Executing a murderer can be seen as a crime preventive if the execution prevents the murderer from killing again. It can also be seen as a crime deterrent if the execution serves as an example and results in frightening off others from committing murder. Now according to Haag capital punishment serves as a deterrent for murderers but on the contrary Bedau argues that capital punishment can never deter the murderer from further crimes but rather it can at most prevent them from committing them. It is impossible to determine what deterrence the death penalty proves for the person has already been executed.
There is no way of measuring the number of crimes the murderer did not commit because of the death penalty threat. Bedau presents us with an alternative. He argues that because it is impossible to know what or how many crimes a murderer will be deterred from committing with a death penalty threat, it is just as likely the same crimes be deterred by a lesser punishment such as long-term imprisonment. This fails to show that the death penalty is a better deterrent than the less severe penalty of long-term imprisonment for the crime of murder.
Bedau then reinforces this by concluding that if death penalty and long-term imprisonment have an equal effectiveness or ineffectiveness as deterrents to murder, then arguing for capital punishment as deterring murder is flawed and weakened. In congruence to his stand on abolition Bedau then argues that there is no reason for choosing the death penalty when a lesser punishment can be just as effective. After discussing capital punishment as a deterrent and the risks of executing innocent people that it creates, Bedau presents a different approach and perspective to Haag in terms of the death penalty and its application.
Haag states that unequal justice is still justice and that equality before the law should be enforced but never at the expense of justice. Bedau offers a different perspective. According to Bedau, the death penalty is a “poor man’s justice” (pg. 375). Both opponents and supporters of the death penalty agree that capital punishment should be practiced fairly, equally and evenly and that it is a fundamental dictate of justice. The only dispute lies with the actual use of capital punishment. Bedau further elaborates how capital punishment is unfairly distributed.
People are sentenced to death not because of their release risks or poor parole but because they have poor defense at trial; they have inexperienced or overworked counsels or they are just without the funds for an appeal trial. This reinforces the street saying “those without the capital get the punishment” (pg. 375) as Bedau quotes. People are not convicted based on their nature or violent behavior but rather on how much money they both have and are willing to spend on their trial. Bedau and Haag present different arguments to similar issues and though Bedau can agree with Haag on an issue or two, he finds a different approach to it and elaborates it differently.
Haag and Bedau present very compelling arguments and it is not difficult to understand each of their points. However, personally I would have to say that I take a much harsher and tougher stand in capital punishment. One that is not discussed by either philosopher. Of course in a perfect world murder would not exist and capital punishment would not be needed, but in this world murder and those who commit murder are very much real. Capital punishment should mean a life for a life; Lex talionis as Bedau briefly mentions. In the most literal terms if a person has the heart and willingness to murder another human being then they should be willing to lose their life the same exact way. I do believe in capital punishment being a deterrent to murder but the fact that not every murder results in the death penalty as punishment I believe is a reason why some criminals are sometimes reckless with their decisions.
However, if there was some way of knowing how a trial was to end and know that the punishment would be the death penalty, it would have to make the criminal think twice. Some argue that the death penalty is just an easy way out for the murderer. This is why I further will elaborate my point. The death penalty should be specific to the murder. If a murderer tortures his victim then they too should be tortured. If the murderer shoots his victim they too should be shot to death and if the murderer burns his victim they too should be burned. Now I would like to clarify that this should be applied to murders that are premeditated or intended and not accidental deaths.
This should apply to those criminals that had an obvious intention to cause harm to their victims and resulting in death. I can understand the moral and ethical questions this would bring up and the issue of stooping to the level of murderers but those are just issues and opinions, the fact of the matter is you take a life you give your life. This approach will of course never happen so I will offer a different one. Considering that it is argued that capital punishment is unfairly applied and that an accused murderer’s innocence or guilt is determined based on how much funds they have to afford good counsel and appeals then as a way to eliminate this risk every single person who si accused of murder should have the best counsel available to them regardless of whether they can afford it or not.
This will allow every single person to get a fair trial and the possibility of executing someone who is actually innocent will no longer exist. A person will no longer be executed with the possible doubt that they may be innocent but just could not afford to be defended fairly. If someone murderers another human being then they should be punished just as severely, but also until their guilt is proven they should be defended like anyone else, regardless of how much money they have. Innocence and guilt should never have a price tag.
Capital punishment is our society’s way of keeping moral boundaries and norms in place. We as a people can have different opinions about the severity of the death penalty but that is all they are, opinions. Whether we agree with the death penalty or oppose it we must learn to recognize other points of views and educate ourselves. Murder is the most severe of crimes and the death penalty is the most severe of punishments. Therefore, each one of us has a choice to decide whether they go hand in hand.