Capital punishment is one of the most long-lasting and impassioned issues in civil society and political spheres across the world. A variety of justifications for and against capital punishment has been advanced over the last decade. Often the debates over these justifications are based on the overall justifications of criminal punishment. Ideally, punishment is inflicted to redress the wrongs that degrade values that are vital to society’s identity. From this perspective, some people argue that capital punishment is an extension of the notion of punishment as it exacts a higher penalty for serious crimes in the community. However, some think it is a violation of human rights, and it could promote unfairness in the justice system. In his support of capital punishment, Ernest Van de Haag argues that the practice acts as deterrence for potential crimes. He bases his argument on the theoretical reasoning that a higher penalty for unlawful action increases deterrence of such action in the future. However, Jeffrey Riemann refutes this proposition in his article “Justice, Civilization and the Death Penalty.” He argues that capital punishment is an inhumane practice, and there is no evidence that it serves as a deterrence to heinous crimes. Much controversy surrounds the capital punishment. The idea of killing someone for committing crimes seem cruel and inhumane to many, but others support it. I concur with Van de Haag that certain crimes require stronger punishment, and capital punishment is the ultimate deterrence.
Understanding and justifying capital punishment can be derived from the justification of criminal punishment. All criminal punishments have some aim which serves to justify the suffering that is inflicted on the offender. The main purposes of the Death penalty are deterrence, retribution, and incapacitation. Van de Haag considers capital punishment as the social exercise of the value of reinforcement rather than as it the isolated activity of a distant legal system. He claims that the practice deters potential murders from committing the same crime. Capital punishment is imposed for a wide array of crimes, which include treason, manslaughter, first-degree murder, espionage, human trafficking, and sexual crimes. Van de Haag uses utilitarianism approach to show how capital punishment serves as deterrence. This approach holds that the action is morally right if it produces happiness for a greater number of people. The consequences of the action should be more favorable than unfavorable to everyone. In this perspective, the deterrence of the crimes is more favorable than unfavorable to everyone. Every person wants to live in a society where they feel secure and happy to progress. Using various techniques to deter crime could guarantee the much-needed safety in the community. Capital punishment largely serves and upholds the best interests of society.
Based on common knowledge of human nature and efficiency of punishment, capital punishment has the capacity to produce fear and avoidance reactions. It brings the significant benefits which outweigh the harm it causes. People tend to fear capital punishment more than life imprisonment because of its severity and finality. The notion of being executed deters some prospective criminals who are not threatened by the prospects of life imprisonment. The society has always used punishment to discourage would-be criminals from unlawful action. Since society is much interested in preventing murder, it should use the strongest punishment available to deter murder, and that is capital punishment. It is based on the notion that if criminals are sentenced to death and executed, potential criminals would think twice before committing such crime for fear of losing their lives. Van de Haag argues that even though there is little evidence, capital punishment is more likely to deter more than other punishments because humans fear death more than anything else.
Van de Haag maintains that deterrence doesn’t work only by means of cost-effective benefits (147). Many people believe that appealing a capital sentence is excessive. He argues that the suggestion that life imprisonment has no judicial cost is flawed. Van de Haag holds that the actual monetary costs are trumped by the quest for justice. This implies that capital punishment provides justice, which is much needed by crime victims. The judicial cost cannot be compared with the importance of justice. In any legal system, justice prevails over anything. If capital punishment provides justice, then it should be allowed. Executing the guilty is worth if it provides the much-needed justice, no matter at what cost. Justice is what happens when someone breaks the social order. Van de Haag believes that by executing the murderer, they are only receiving what they deserve.
Capital punishment is based on retributivism, which holds that the purpose of the punishment is to restore the balance of justice in society. Most of the individuals handed capital punishment are usually found guilty of inhuman crimes such as murder and aggravated sexual assaults. Capital punishment is based on the strand of proportionality that the people found guilty deserve punishment in proportion with the harm they have caused the society. In this case, the punishment imposed is the social expression of the personal vengeance the criminal victims feel. Van de Haag argues that he would favor retention of capital punishment as retribution even when the threat of execution could not deter prospective murderers (140). This implies that the act of justice is more important in the legal system. The punishment imposed on serious crimes is usually proportional to the offense. The criminal victims would be more comfortable with justice if it produces a proportional effect. Although the crime victim cannot be preceded to the status before the crime, at least the capital punishment brings closure to the suspect’s crime. It also ensures that the criminal will not create more victims. It serves more justice to the whole society at the end. The lesser punishment to the cruelest and heinous crimes would undermine the values the society places on protecting lives.
All punishments are meant to be unpleasant so that justice can prevail. Van de Haag holds that killing a murder does not encourage or legitimize unlawful killings in society (141). Capital punishment is aimed at vindicating the law and maintaining social order in society. Capital punishment restores social order in the society as it inflicts fear to the potential murders. Van de Haag argues that imprisonment is not aimed to legitimize kidnapping or robbery. Likewise, capital punishment is not imposed to legitimize unlawful murder. By committing a crime, the criminal volunteers to face the risk involved as many know that they will end up in prison. The punishment that persons are the punishment he risked suffering. It is no more unjust to him to receive the punishment he already thought about before committing the crime. Therefore, when an individual commits a heinous crime, they already thought about the possible death penalty but risk. If they receive capital punishment, it cannot be termed as unjust because they already thought about it. The possibility of capital punishment may prevent an individual from committing the intended crime. Van de Haag claims that disregarding capital punishment as excessive punishment or unethical practice; one should believe that no crime, no matter how heinous it can be, could possibly justify the death penalty. Such believe is impossible because people knowingly commit heinous murders and aggravated sexual assaults. Capital punishment provides proportional justice to these crimes.
There have been claims of a miscarriage of justice in handling the victim’s death penalty. Van de Haag does not refute the possibility of miscarriage justice in capital punishment. He claims that miscarriages of justice occur even in capital cases (140). However, the advantages of capital punishment outweigh such disadvantages. Van de Haag asserts that the possibility of miscarriages of justice is offset by the moral benefits and usefulness of doing justice. Besides, the jury keenly goes through the due judicial process before imposing capital punishment on an individual. They consider all factors ranging from an individual’s mental health to the impact on the criminal victim to ascertain that the criminal deserves the death penalty. The possibility of miscarriage is very minimal in serious crimes. The evidence implicating the criminal is thoroughly revised to ensure justice is well served.
Van de Haag believes that victims have the same right to life as the murderers (142). Everyone’s life deserves to protected in society. The law should not deprive some people of the right to life. When an individual commits murder, the deprive their victims of the right to life. Capital punishment serves as the balance of justice as murderers also face death. Furthermore, life imprisonment deprives the same convicts of the right to autonomy. Locking them up in cells violates human dignity more than the death penalty. Van de Haag argues that murderers usually dehumanize themselves. Thus he cannot remain among the living. The social recognition of his self-dehumanization serves to demonstrate the essence of capital punishment. When an individual intentionally kills, he drives the message that he is not worth living among the people. Thus, capital punishment serves as social justice to the community.
However, in his article, Justice, Civilization and Death penalty, Riemann refutes Van de Haag’s justification of capital punishment. Riemann applies the Kantian concept of respect for persons, which holds that humans should be treated as ends, not the means. This implies that people should respect the ends others choose for themselves but never the decision to treat others as means. In this case, punishment should be imposed to make a statement but not to end someone’s life. Riemann believes that it’s not right for the people to beat torturers, rapists, or murders, even if this was the only way to make them suffer (144). He holds that the idea of “eye to eye” is not justice at all. Riemann believes that humans have advanced into some form of civilized society. He argues that the progress in civilization is characterized by a lower tolerance for one’s pain and that suffered by others. This means that disallowing the execution of rapists, torturers, and murders signifies the level of civilization in society.
Riemann holds that capital punishment removes humanity and makes people subhuman. He argues that it is beneath a civilized society to take away humanity. Riemann believes that capital punishment is not morally permissible because executing a convict is not always seen as an act of justice. He claims that allowing execution of the convicts, it’s an admission that we are yet to reach a level of civilization where the society can protect itself without necessarily imposing horrible fate to the murderers (146). Riemann claims that there is no concrete evidence that capital punishment serves as a deterrence to crimes. He insists that life imprisonment poses a real deterrent threat, just like capital punishment. Riemann concludes that the death penalty should not be allowed until people get conclusive evidence that it is a better deterrence than life imprisonment.
Riemann’s claims of civilization are not enough to refute capital punishment. He thinks that death is not civilized because it involves total subjugation to others. Van de Haag (150) claims that Riemann forgets that murderers run the risk of execution voluntarily, which could have been avoided by not committing the crime. In this case, imposing capital punishment cannot be termed as total subjugation to others. Furthermore, he argues that a civilized society is characterized by a lower tolerance of one’s pain and suffering of others. However, tortures, murderers, and rapists do not fit in his description of a civilized society. Thus, capital punishment serves as retribution of justice. Van de Haag claims that execution of the individuals who have committed heinous can deter one murder per year. Furthermore, the notion that one will be executed can deter an individual from committing the crime.
In conclusion, I concur with Van de Haag that certain crimes require stronger punishment, and capital punishment is the ultimate deterrence. Based on human nature and efficiency of punishment, capital punishment has the capacity to produce fear and avoidance reactions. It brings the consequential benefits which outweigh the harm it causes. Therefore, the potential murders will refrain from committing such acts in fear of losing their lives.
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