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Debating capital murder on whether its is murder or not

Messenger The execution, by hanging, of Yakub Memon for his part in the 2003 Mumbai bombings invites us to revisit the vexed issue of capital punishment.

Arguments against capital punishment

Few topics incite such moral passion and controversy. While many European countries urge an ethic of rehabilitation in their criminal justice systems, many jurisdictions in the United States stand firmly in favour of capital punishment for serious crimes. Even a federal jury in Massachusetts, a liberal bastion, recently doled out the death penalty to the sole surviving perpetrator of the Boston marathon bombing.

And while the United Kingdom abandoned the death penalty in 1964 — the year of the last executions — nearly half of the British public favours a reintroduction of it though that figure has been dropping steadily.

We will not make progress in the public debate about the death penalty unless we realise that it is only one element in a much bigger controversy: As The Conversation invites us to rethink the death penalty over the next few weeks, we must not conduct this discussion in a vacuum.

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Before you ask yourself whether we should have the death penalty, consider: Considering the three main families in the philosophy of punishment can help us organise our conversation. Why do they deserve it? Retributivists also think that the severity of punishment should match the severity of the crime.

So, just as it is wrong to over-punish someone executing someone for stealing a pair of shoesit can be wrong to under-punish someone giving him a community service order for murder.

If you are a retributivist, you might support the death penalty because you think that certain or all murderers and perhaps other criminals deserve to suffer death for their crimes.

Depending on how you think about death, however, you might oppose the death penalty on the grounds that it is disproportionately harsh — perhaps you think that no matter what someone has done, she does not deserve to die for it.

  • This was then updated in 1996;
  • Do murderers and some other criminals commit crimes so horrific that they forfeit the right to life?
  • Is the death penalty a necessary means of demonstrating the horror felt by a family and a society at a crime?
  • Many people who opposed the recent death sentence for the Boston bomber did so on the grounds that life in a maximum-security prison would be a worse punishment — and so more fitting — than death.

On the other hand you might oppose the death penalty on the grounds that it is disproportionately light. Many people who opposed the recent death sentence for the Boston bomber did so on the grounds that life in a maximum-security prison would be a worse punishment — and so more fitting — than death.

Australia withdrew its ambassador to Indonesia after the execution, in April, of two of its nationals for drug trafficking. If this sounds sensible to you, you probably believe the point of punishment is not retribution, but rather deterrence.

Debate: Death penalty

The idea here is familiar enough: Threats of punishment realign those demands by making it irrational for self-interested individuals to break the law. If you are a defender of deterrence, you must answer two questions about capital punishment before determining where you stand.

The first is empirical: Does the threat of the death penalty actually deter people from committing heinous crimes to a greater extent than the threat of life imprisonment? The second question is moral. After all, imagine if we threatened execution for all crimes, including minor traffic violations, theft, and tax fraud.

Deterrence

Doing so would surely slash the crime rate, yet most people would judge it to be wrong. Deterrence theorists tend to defend some upper limit on the harshness of punishment — and it may be that death simply goes beyond what the government is ever permitted to threaten.

  • Before you ask yourself whether we should have the death penalty, consider;
  • To make a scapegoat scheme effective it would be necessary to go through the appearance of a legitimate legal process and to present evidence which convinced the public that the person being punished deserved their punishment.

But the basic idea is that punishment should make the wrongdoer understand what he or she has done wrong and inspire her to repent and reform. Whatever version of this view one supports, its implication for the death penalty is reasonably clear.

What is the point of a criminal reforming herself as she prepares for the execution chamber? To be sure, many people try to mix and match different elements of these three broad views, though such mixed theories tend to be unhelpfully ad hoc and can offer conflicting guidance.

Then, and only then, can we proceed to think about the justice or lack thereof of governments who kill their citizens. This article is part of a series on capital punishment that The Conversation is publishing. Click here to read more.