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Capital Punishment

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Capital Punishment

Many positions can be defended when debating the issue of capital punishment. In Jonathan Glover's essay "Executions," he maintains that there are three views that a person may have in regard to capital punishment: the retributivist, the absolutist, and the utilitarian. Although Glover recognizes that both statistical and intuitive evidence cannot validate the benefits of capital punishment, he can be considered a utilitarian because he believes that social usefulness is the only way to justify it. Martin Perlmutter on the other hand, maintains the retributivist view of capital punishment, which states that a murderer deserves to be punished because of a conscious decision to break the law with knowledge of the consequences. He even goes as far to claim that just as a winner of a contest has a right to a prize, a murderer has a right to be executed. Despite the fact that retributivism is not a position that I maintain, I agree with Perlmutter in his claim that social utility cannot be used to settle the debate about capital punishment. At the same time, I do not believe that retributivism justifies the death penalty either.

In Martin Perlmutter's essay "Desert and Capital Punishment," he attempts to illustrate that social utility is a poor method of evaluating the legitimacy of it. Perlmutter claims that a punishment must be "backward looking," meaning that it is based on a past wrongdoing. A utilitarian justification of capital punishment strays from the definition of the term "punishment" because it is "forward looking." An argument for social utility maintains that the death penalty should result in a greater good and the consequences must outweigh the harm, thereby increasing overall happiness in the world. Perlmutter recognizes the three potential benefits of a punishment as the rehabilitation of an offender, protection for other possible victims, and deterring other people from committing the same crime. The death penalty however, obviously does not rehabilitate a victim nor does it do a better job at protecting other potential victims than life imprisonment. Since a punishment must inflict harm on an individual, deterrence is the only argument that utilitarians can use to defend the death penalty. The question then arises as to whether capital punishment actually deters people from committing the same crime.

Jonathan Glover attempts to answer this question in his essay titled "Executions." According to Glover, the statistical evidence measuring the effectiveness of the death penalty is extremely vague. It is difficult to determine whether alterations in the murder rates and the presence of capital punishment have a causal relationship. The only other method of justifying the deterring ability of the death penalty is through an intuitive argument. Hypothetically, if a person knows that murdering another will result in their own execution, he or she will not commit the crime. The intuitive argument fails however, because murderers do not face certain death when they go to trial. The long-term effects of murder seem so distant that capital punishment may fail to act as a deterrent at all. Such is the case with cigarette smokers. Any educated person knows that cigarette smoking can cause lung cancer and many other fatal health problems. The negative results of this activity are so distant though, that people believe that "it will not happen to me." Another failure in the intuitive argument defending the deterring ability of the death penalty is whether it actually serves as a greater deterrence than life imprisonment. Bodily mutilation may deter many people from committing a multitude of crimes, however this sort of punishment is inconceivable in American society. Glover does not believe that the argument of deterrence can be effectively defended, however he feels that the social utility of capital punishment is the only thing that can justify adding more misery to the world.

Perlmutter disagrees with this point because he believes that the validity of a punishment should correlate with the extent of the crime, as opposed to the benefits that result from imposing it. Social utility should not be used to determine the fairness of a punishment. A punishment occurs because a rule exists and someone broke it with full cognizance of the negative consequences. After outlining the utilitarian approach to capital punishment, Perlmutter criticizes it because reform, protection, and deterrence do not involve harm or deprivation, which is essential to the definition of punishment. He claims that by living in a society with laws, everyone enters a social contract or a promise to abide by those regulations. Breaking this promise is a conscious decision by the offender and the punishment is a result of the crime. Perlmutter states that by rejecting the death penalty, a fair punishment for murder, a criminal fails to be treated as a person because their choices cease to be honored. Since people know that murder is wrong and choose to disregard this fact when the crime is committed, Perlmutter's retributivist view can be defeated by demonstrating specific examples of the cruelty of the

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