Americans remain ambivalent about the
death penalty as a punishment for murder; they believe strongly that
some murderers deserve the death penalty and yet they are reluctant to
impose them. In opinion public polls, a majority insist that they
support the death penalty and do not want it abolished.
Nonetheless, in the courts, prosecutors ask for far fewer death
sentences than they legally might, and juries return death sentences in
only a fraction of the cases in which it has been asked for.
Moreover, when states allow juries the possibility of sending
murderers to prison for their whole lives without chance of parole,
the rates at which juries return death sentences plummet dramatically.
In the debate that follows, philosophers
Stephen Nathanson and Jeffrey Reiman argue for the abolition of the
death penalty from unusual angles.
In “Is the Death Penalty What Murderers Deserve?,” Nathanson
contends that even if some murderers do deserve to die, the decision as
to which ones do is extremely complex and difficult to make, with the
result that juries in some jurisdictions will return death sentences for
murderers who in other jurisdictions would have been spared.
For Nathanson, this means that death sentences are subject to
serious error and handed out arbitrarily.
From this he concludes that “[t]o recognize the likelihood of
error and arbitrariness here is to recognize the possibility that people
will be executed who do not deserve to die, and this must be something
that people who have the highest respect for human life must oppose.
In his “Against the Death Penalty,”
Jeffrey Reiman defends the lex talionis (“an eye for an
eye,”) as a valid standard of desert--criminals deserve punishment
that harms them roughly equivalently to the harm they tried to impose on
their victims. However, he points out that this principle also implies that
torturers deserve to be tortured and rapists to be raped, both of which
penalties are normally judged to be too brutal to be imposed by a
civilized society. Thus,
Reiman concludes that while criminals deserve harm equivalent to what
they attempt to cause, it is not unjust to punish them less harshly
(down to some limit), and the state’s example in refraining from
executing even those murderers who deserve death “contributes to
reducing our tolerance for cruelty and thereby fosters the advance of
human civilization as we understand it.” Reiman also contends that the evidence fails to show that
capital punishment is necessary to deter murder, and that the continued
existence of race and class bias in the handing out of death sentences
constitutes an independent reason for refraining from capital
Ernest van den Haag rejects Nathanson’s
idea that, since it is hard to determine desert, society should not try,
and he contends that the fact that different juries will issue different
sentences is an unavoidable consequence of having different lawyers and
different individuals on the juries in different cases.
Van den Haag holds that we take numerous precautions to try to
avoid injustice in our courts, but we must accept that they are staffed
by fallible human beings and, as in every human endeavor, face some risk
of error. Against both
Nathanson and Reiman, van den Haag contends that the fact that some who
deserve capital punishment get it and others equally deserving of it do
not is not unjust to the ones who were sentenced to death--they still
got what they deserved even if others who deserved the same did not.
Also against Reiman, van den Haag rejects the idea that it is
just to give criminals less than the punishment they deserve, and he has
a different reading of the deterrence research. He claims it is
reasonable to suppose that capital punishment will deter some murderers
not deterred by imprisonment, so it is both just and prudent to continue
For many readers, religious principles
and ethics furnish the basis for an opinion about capital punishment.
Although some scriptural passages can be interpreted to support the
death penalty, the high ranking policy bodies within Christian
denominations and Judaism have statements opposing executions. The
National Council of the Churches of Christ’s statement, “Abolition
of the Death Penalty” is one such example. Sister Helen Prejean’s
book, Dead Man Walking (New York: Vintage Books, 1993) is a
thoughtful application of Catholic social thought to the death penalty
and many of the issues that surround it, including racism and poverty.
Her opinion about capital punishment is also notable because she has
worked extensively with families of murder victims as well as with men
on death row.
The existence of a death penalty creates
moral dilemmas for individuals who must work with condemned men and must
make life and death decisions – or even bring about a premeditated
death. Prejean, for examples, ponders the conflicts between being a good
Christian and an executioner. The last two articles in this section
explore the issues of professional ethics facing doctors who participate
in executions and psychiatrists who have condemned men as clients. In
“Physician Participation in Capital Punishment,” the Council on
Ethical and Judicial Affairs of the American Medical Association states
that a physician’s opinion on capital punishment is a personal matter,
but as a profession dedicated to preserving life they should not
participate. Marianne Kastrup’s article, “Psychiatry and the Death
Penalty” reviews a range of ethical concerns including evaluation for
competence, predictions of future dangerousness, and the treatment of
the incompetent who will be executed when restored to competence.