To the majority of the worlds population, any critical or rational assessment of the death penalty issue is bound to elicit mixed reactions and when the topic is viewed from the magnitude of public fury it propagates, its controversial nature is nonetheless out of question. As a critical analysis of the immorality of the death penalty, this presentation is neither polemic or representative of a diatribe but rather it presents the argument from a standing of morality that is not alien to the general public. It is no secret that political leaders have continually relied on the maintenance of the death penalty statute as a calculation for winning election to political offices. As for the general public the high approval rating for the death penalty is a natural consequence of the indignation and the fear associated with crimes punishable by death penalty(Nathanson ix). These strong support for the morality of death penalty aside, does the punishment by death serve the moral advancement of a society? Does it achieve the objectives of deterrence, rehabilitation, retribution or is it a more cost effective option compared to life imprisonment?
In commencing the morality of the death penalty, it is prudent to detail that in the society, to be held responsible for an act done, the doer must be accept liability for either praise or blame. It follows that for an act decreed as being good, the liability is praise and the society rewards it. Contrarily, for acts classified as evil, the liability is blame and such an act is punished by the society. It is on these basic social circumstances that the morality of death punishment is drawn. Specifically, the appropriate punishment for any given evil act is driven by the needs of either offering retribution, deterrence or rehabilitation. The committing of an atrocities or heinous crime calls on the society as the punishing representative of every single individual to take extreme measures against members of the society who have been accused of evil acts.
The society is nothing but a commune of social beings. It is a common understanding that human beings are rational beings and as such responsible for every action be it good or evil. As the administrative and legislative representative of the members of the society, statutes have been enacted not only to advance social harmony, cohesion and unity but also to protect the innocent and punish wrongdoers. In a civilized democratic society, the administrative and the legislative structures directly operate under the wishes of the general populace. As the sole agency responsible for enforcing the legal statutes that regulate individual behaviors, any miscarriage of justice must be met by an appropriate punishment to achieve the objectives of retribution, deterrence and rehabilitation. Since the laws are drawn from the moral underpinnings of the people themselves, death penalty is not only justifiable but also moral.
Death punishment succeeds in achieving the retributive objectives of punishment by meting the deserved payback to the wrongdoer. By physically eliminating the wrongdoer from the society it threatens, it shields the criminal from the future social utilities such as infliction of more suffering. By focusing on the nature of the misdeed itself, it avoids the controversies that may arise later on with regard to the assessment of the act. Nobody lays this better than Emmanuel Kant when he wrote that, “judicial punishment can never be administered merely as a means of promoting another good either with regard to the criminal himself or to civil society, but it must be imposed only because the individual on whom it is inflicted has committed a crime”(Pojman p. 8), therefore, “if you rob him, you rob yourself; if you slander him, you slander yourself …if you kill him you kill yourself”(p. 1). This is a categorical imperative. It cannot be erased by any attack from utilitarianism. If we fail to proportionately punish crimes such as murder, we endorse the criminal act hence create a criminal complicity. Thus, the principles of universal proportionality applies.
The respect for life is a fundamental constitutional principle that is not only universally accepted but also enshrined in almost every conceivable international and national legal statute. In essence, the death penalty constitutes a violation of this fundamental principle. Just as murder is abhorrent and heinous so is institutionalized legal murder. Respect for human life forbids us to resort to capital punishment as a punishment option(Nathanson 1). If murder is wrong or evil, then legal murder is equally evil and therefore immoral. On a broader context, any punishment that violates the respect, value and protection of human life fails to be morally right. Between, murder and legal murder, the difference whatsoever may serve the definitions of legality but never morality because both are social and moral evils(Nathanson 4).
On the other hand, death penalty can only be described as a barbarous, inhumane, atrocious, heinous, arbitrary, discriminatory and anti-God(Foley 2; Tatalovich 100). With regard to the progress of civilization, death penalty is a throw back to the Middle Ages as such it deserves nothing better than the historical dustbin. To use Rheiman’s words in his work, “Why the Death Penalty Should be Abolished in America”, he quotes Seneca, On Clemency, that “It is a fault to punish a fault in full”(Pojman & Reiman 67). By posing the argument that death can only be punishable by death so as to achieve the retributive objectives of punishment, we eliminate the murderer, but the punishment fails to deter nor does it significantly crime rate hence the high recidivism rates despite the maintenance of the death penalty.
Legal extermination of the guilty does not in any way punish the person for the crimes he has been convicted off. In fact, by exterminating the convicted, we succeed in perpetuating vengeance not justice(Pojman & Reiman 70). Moreover, in situations where we hang individuals for crimes they committed so many years before the conviction simply baffles reason. There are circumstances where these individuals had achieved a complete transformation, their crimes just a dark shadow in their lives. Executing such individuals simply because they have been convicted constitutes to almost punishing a different person altogether.
These situations aside, it should not be lost on pro death penalty advocates that the criminal justice system is seriously wreathed with miscarriages. Cases of wrongful convictions and executions are not a rarity. The fact that such executions are not in tandem with the principles of justice is uncontested. It is much better for the death penalty statute to repealed and replaced with life imprisonment because the latter not only serves the objectives of retribution, deterrence and rehabilitation but also protect innocent citizens who have been wrongfully convicted to seek avenues for their retrial and release. For those who are conversant with the operation of the judicial criminal system, the myths that the rule of law precedes in capital cases, that death penalty is congruent to the pursuit of equal justice, that the constitutional fidelity is upheld, that executions are carried out in a humane manners or that the death penalty is the best crime control mechanism are a reality they have to contend with every single day. In fact, a critical analysis of the objectives of the barbarous punishment will yield results to the effect that capital punishment barely achieves the purposes for which it was specifically instituted(Schabas 11).
It can be surmised that the majority of the American populace that vote for the maintenance of the death penalty know very little about the real issues surrounding capital punishment. It has been widely reported that Americans draw their conclusions from the information drawn from the extensive and largely biased nature of media portrayal of murder cases. On the basis of the legality, morality or the appropriateness of the death penalty statute, little is known. However, despite this paucity of reliable information, a majority of Americans agree that the death penalty is not only an unusual form of punishment in this day and age but that it reeks of immorality. Capital punishment has failed to achieve its objectives. While it is necessary that the death penalty be eliminated from the criminal punishment system, the society must be prepared to adopt life imprisonment which is better, human and is congruent to the principles of justice and the social underpinnings of morality.