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Is Capital Punishment Effective Philosophy Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 1857 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Whether the Capital punishment or the death penalty should be abolished has been one of the most controversial topics for a long time. Although many nations have abolished capital punishment, over 60% of the world’s population live in countries where executions take place. One of the debatable points of this topic is the function of deterrence and prevention of this extreme penalty. In my opinion, the deterrence and prevention of Capital punishment is limited and insufficient to reduce the crime.

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Skepticism in history

The deference and prevention of death penalty has been widely doubted for more than 200 years. In 1764, Italian penal juris Cesare Bonesana (1770) took the lead in denying the deterrence of death penalty, contending that death penalty is not only cruel, but also useless in preventing crime. Afterwards, more and more scholars around the world argued against the effectiveness of death penalty has in terms of deterring and preventing crimes, which make “death penalty should be abolished” a mainstream view in in the field of criminal jurisprudence.

Opposite view

The arguments made by those proponents of “death penalty is effective in terms of deterrence of crimes” is confusing and misleading, thus we must critique their defense: They argue that the deterrence of penalty is derived from the criminals’ fear as to the punishment, while the fear originates from the fact that punishment will bring suffering and pain. Therefore, according to the supporters of death penalty, punishment has the deterrent effect on criminal because no one can deny the pain punishment causes. Then, as death penalty refers to depriving one’s life, which brings the largest suffering and pain, the proponents believe it has the most deterrent effect on the potential criminals. Some scholars move forward to exemplify their stance, for example, by using the results of survey on the change of prisoners, who tend to avoid the great sins if possible, after the enactment of Criminal Law of China in 1997, which they think testify the deterrence of cruel torture including death penalty. (邱兴隆, 2000)

Refutation on the opposite view (Theoretical)

On the surface, these arguments above sound valid and persuasive. However, they are all based on an essential hidden assumption that all man is rational and thus will pursue joy and escape from suffering and pain. Before we examine this assumption, we must know the premise that all crimes can be divided into two categories: impulsive style (crime of passion) and rational style.

For the impulsive criminals, they are so reckless when they are committing a crime that they ignore any legal repercussions including being sentenced to death. Namely, such cases occur in the heat of the moment. Thus the deterrence of death penalty has no effect on them. Some jurists may refute that those impulsive cases are just in the minority. But the reality is quite the opposite: According to ZHOU Wei’s statistics and analysis, impulsive criminals are not the minorities. They even outnumber the rational ones in some years. Besides, pertinent data from Chinese government suggest that crimes of passion, which make up over sixty percent of homicide cases, account for one third of all crimes in China. 1 Therefore, such refutation lacks of evidence.

Even for the rational criminals who are rational, the deterrence of death penalty is still limited. Here I take three common cases to illustrate.

First, some criminals commit a crime because of a political conviction or religious belief. These kinds of people often consider death as the sacrifice to realize their faith and belief, so they have no fear over death.

Second, some for those underclass people living at the bottom of society, their primary consideration is, according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, physiological need, safety and basic love and belongings. Unfortunately, the inequality in society always oppress them both physically and mentally. When the suffering and pain they are enduring (i.e. Hanger, illness, discrimination, etc.) accumulate and finally exceed what they think death can bring to them, which, in Chinese sayings, is described as a “fate worse than death”, they will go to extreme and resort to violent means to either satisfy their pressing needs or retaliate the society which they consider responsible for their dismal state of affairs. In such circumstances, life and death is no longer the matter of primary importance. So far, we have discussed the above two types of criminals which can be described as “desperados”, who abound all over the world. For example, one out of every four murder suspects suicide in Britain, (Hart 1985) while in Germany the rate is up to 35%.

Third, Other than the “desperados”, there exists some criminals to whom the deterrence of death penalty is ineffective. These criminlas confidently believe their methods of committing a crime are so brilliant and high-tech that the case will not be detected and they will never be arrested. In other words, the hubris and conceit of these criminals overwhelm their fear of penalty. As a matter of fact, even in the country with mature police system, the escape rate of murderers is high. In Britain, for instance, the numbers of convicted murderers account for only one sixth of the numbers of cases reported to the police. (Hart, 1985)Therefore, the deterrence death penalty can bring to those types of criminals is very little.

Moreover, we must consider a change of current death penalty compared to the past. For a deterrent to be effective, it would have to be agonized, immediate and certain1, unfortunately, though, nowadays death penalty adopts much more humanistic means such as injection, which is painless for the executed. More importantly, today’s death penalty cases often involve prolonged appeals and sometimes acquittals, allowing the possibility for criminals of not being executed. In this way, criminals will try to take a chance and gradually get increasingly emboldened to attempt heinous crimes.

To sum up, the hidden assumption of the argument made by pros of “death penalty is effective in terms of deterrence of crime” is incorrect. Not all criminals are rational, and not all rational individuals have the will to pursue joy and avoid suffering and pain. Even if they do, some other factor will influence their thinking and judgment. Therefore, the assertion that death penalty is effective in crime reduction is really doubtful.

However, this though issue has not been solved completely. It’s not convincible and rigorous enough only by the theoretical analysis. So we must adopt the empirical analysis methods to get close to the truth.

Empirical analysis

To clarify whether there exist close relationship between death penalty and murder, we will examine the changes of homicide rates before and after the abolishment of death penalty in some countries. Through analyzing table 1, we can find the homicide rates in most countries didn’t rise after the abolishment of death penalty, whilst the rates rose only in a few countries. From this finding, we believe that there is no close correlation between the death capital and murder. If death penalty is effective in deterring and preventing crime, there should be a general rise in terms of the homicide rates after abrogation. But the conclusion from the analysis of table 1 is exactly the same.

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Some objectors may contend that comparison results among different countries are not persuasive because there are many other irrelevant factors among countries from which the impact of death penalty cannot be disentangled , such as culture, economics, policy, background, etc. As a matter of fact, we will get to the same conclusion granted that we investigate in a single country. According to FBI data, Homicide rates for states that use the death penalty are consistently higher than for those that don’t.1 Therefore, it is almost certain that the influence of death penalty on murder rates is not as much as the supporters expected. There is, we might even say, no relation between death penalty and homicide rates.

In terms of these statistics, some scholars put forward different opinions. They think the conclusion above we have drawn is not convincing enough, because, as far as they concern, when abolishing death penalty, the country or region usually have a relatively good public security, so in the time after the abolishment of death penalty, it is natural that the homicide rates remain low. On the contrary, a county or region brings back death penalty when its public security is bad. By the same token, the homicides rates won’t fall at a later time, which is understandable given that the effect of the laws cannot be instantly got.

However, such claim is not tenable. From table 2 we find out that the homicide rates of Connecticut, where death penalty is retained, and Wisconsin, where death penalty has been abrogated, are roughly equal(i.e. 2.4). Namely, the public security of these two states is about the same in terms of murder. Even so, the homicides rate in Wisconsin after it abolished death penalty (during 1936-1946) is lower than rates in Connecticut. The same finding will be inferred when we compare Minnesota and Nebraska. These suggest that death penalty don’t have strong deterrent effect on murders. In fact, as Edwin Sutherland, who is considered to be the father of criminology in America, point out, it is the region differences that determine the homicides rates, rather than the presence and absence of death penalty. Indeed, the population structure and general culture affect the social phenomenon, including crimes, far more than a policy does.

In summary, there isn’t enough data and statistics indicating the correlation between the death penalty and homicide rates. No matter how we compare these data, (different countries or states, different time period) we come to the same conclusion that murder rates have little to do with death penalty. Therefore, form empirical perspective, the deterrence and prevention of death penalty is not distinct.


As we can see from both theoretical and empirical analysis, death penalty has little effect on deterring and preventing crimes. But this doesn’t mean death penalty should be abolished completely, because whether or not to abolish concern many other issues such as the complex feeling of the victim’s family and friends, justice of trial, cost, human instinct of “an eye for an eye”, wrongful conviction of innocent people, disparity among different regions, etc. There is probably no a universal answer to this intractable question. But one thing is for sure, that we must perfect legislation, restrict the use of death penalty, and guide the public to establish a correct view towards death penalty.


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