The Moral Permissibility Of The Death Penalty

“Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement.”

― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Since the beginning of time, civilizations and societies have punished murderers gravely while at the same time tried to justify that practice based on moral and rational justifications. Many attempts to elucidate the relationship between punishment and justice have resulted in the development of deontological justifications and retributivist justifications, or a combination of these two so as to validate the imposition of severe penalties on offenders who have committed murder crime (s). Some of the most controversial philosophies of justice that would arise when the death penalty is brought up would be the philosophy of retaliatory justice and retributive justice.

Many would assume that retaliatory justice and retributive justice are synonymous with each other, however one is an act of revenge and the other is a moral obligation that the state takes in order to ensure that the murderers takes responsibility for their crime(s) (Conrad, 1983). The separating factor between these two philosophies of justice is the element of reconciliation. Retaliatory justice often take the form of capital punishment for murderers as it responds to an offender’s wrong by doing the same wrong to him and the offender is permanently rejected by the state through death, whereas retributive justice is concerned with ensuring the murderer is punished justly according to the severity of his crime(s) and yet still be able to reconcile with society (Conrad, 1983).

 The death penalty is morally impermissible because it prevents murderers from being able to reconcile with society for they are permanently repudiated by society through death.

1.The death penalty is morally impermissible for it is an act of vengeance

Pojman, a retentionist contends that retaliatory justice (which supports the death penalty), is needed as a means to balance out the crime with punishment; The deep grief of families of murder victims would result in a natural and justified desire to seek revenge meted out to those who have harmed them so gravely .He shares in the same philosophy as Immanuel Kant and supports “equal” justice (1998). This means that when someone kills, the balance of justice is disrupted and until that balance is restored, society will yield to a rule of violence and it is only by retaliating by acquiring the life of the killer will the balance be re-established. This would also allow for society to show convincingly that it does not condone murder and which will be punished in kind .He also adds that any lesser punishment such as a life sentence which supporters of the retributive justice strongly recommends as the penalty for murderers ,would be unsatisfactory for such an inexcusable crime (1998).

It is important to mention that it is moral for a state to punish murderers according to the severity of their crimes(s) for even Conrad (1963), a retributivist agrees that it is justified as it ensures that whatever benefits the murderer gained or wished to gain is annulled by punishment. The Kantian theory which stands for retaliatory justice is in agreement with retributivist justice in this aspect, for both believe that punishments should be regarded as instruments of justice and should be carried out by the state for the sake of the law, for if injustice is unpunished, justice is not completed and that would undermine the concept of law and order as people would think that violating the law is disregarded by the state (Conrad, 1963; Pojman, 1998). Thus it is necessary to punish law breakers especially murderers for their crimes so that the state shows its disapproval of the crime committed and expresses the stand that it doesn’t condone the violation of laws. However, although punishment is essential and moral, it should not be an act of vengeance (Conrad, 1963).

Now, what distinguishes a punishment as one which is committed as an act of revenge and the other as a form of retribution? Revenge is predominantly emotional while retributive justice is primarily rational for revenge by nature is personal for it wishes to execute a personal vendetta and achieve personal justice so as to get gratification from harming those that hurt them (Davis, 1983).Retributive justice is impersonal and revolves around moral correction when moral or ethical values have been broken and when justice is successfully carried out it will benefit and protect both the offender and society; For the offenders pay for their crime(s) justly and society would be a moral one for it expresses distaste for the violation of laws (Davis, 1983). Though it is our first instinct to afflict harm on someone who has wronged us and while that emotion is human and natural, the emotional yearning is not a satisfactory justification for condoning the death penalty and must not be the foundation of social policy (Conrad, 1963).

A state should be impersonal and not emotional when meting out punishments so as to impose penalties on grounds of fairness for if a state based on emotional outrage at the crime, mete out punishments, the punishments may be biased against the murderer due to the emotional influence behind the punishment. In addition, if a state is impersonal and still carries out the death penalty it would be distasteful and less justified as it is calculated , methodical and severely lack human emotions as compared to an individual seeking revenge which is motivated by impulsive emotions like grief which is reasonable and perfectly human . The fact that it rejects the murderer permanently from society by killing him off makes the death penalty an act of revenge and is thus morally impermissible.

2. The death penalty undermines the sanctity of human life thus it is immoral

However, John Locke, a retentionist,( as cited in Pojman ,1998) gave a defence of the death penalty on moral justifications; He expresses that although all living beings have the absolute right to live, it is however possible to forfeit that “right” to life just by committing that grave inexcusable crime of murder which justly deserve death (1998) . This implies that if the murderer violates the right of another’s life, the state is not obligated to respect the murderer’s right to life for he has “forfeited” it. Another theory is the moral solidarity concept which argues that if citizens are held by a shared consensus of what is immoral and moral, then those who encroach upon the moral code of conduct must be chastised so that the moral balance of the community will be re-established (Conrad & Van Den Haag, 1983). This is similar to Locke’s theory which emphasises on restoring balance and though this may seem justifiable, not everything can be righted by the wrong that was committed.

But does that mean we have the right to kill murderers just because by killing they have forfeited their right to live? Every human being has dignity, irrespective of age, gender, accomplishments or social status. How is sentencing people to death and restraining them to a dingy cell with the awareness that their life could end so soon preserve that offender’s self-worth, self-respect as well as their dignity? A person’s right to live, is both innate and unconditional and everyone has a right to live, even the vilest offender and the state should never infringe on this right as it administers punishment (Davis , 1983)

The highest goal of the law is to respect life and a state must cherish it and must fight to protect it at all cost for the purpose of law and order is not to terrorise or beat down the spirit of people but to chaperon the state along the path of healthy progress (Davis , 1983). Even in the philosophy of retributive justice which is concerned with ensuring that the criminal pays for their crime(s), it still rejects the idea that killing is a permissible action for anyone, even if it is carried out by state officials (Conrad, 1963). By insinuating draconian laws and tackling crimes with capital punishment, we run the risks of committing irremediable “miscarriages” of justice and morality (Conrad, 1963).

3.The death penalty prevents murderers’ reconciliation with society

According to Archbishop Temple (as cited in Conrad, 1983), the execution of the most evilest murderer clashes with the true purposes of retributivist justice which is the denunciation of the evil done (not the person) and being able to later reconcile with the society that he/she has aggrieved. This means that a murderer should not be solely identified by his crime(s) and be regarded as nothing more than a murderer as his sanctity of his life is undermined.

However, the death penalty says some are people are beyond redemption and beyond second chance for it completely incapacitates the offender and cut him off completely from society. It denies the right to the offender to changes that are the after-effects of remorseful self-examination or the yearning for penitence. Repudiating him from society by a scheduled death identifies him as completely evil and that in itself is immoral for no human is completely evil by nature (Conrad, 1983).

Punishments should be meted out based on the hopeful assumption that everyone, even the most vilest, can convalesced. Reconciliation allows a murderer to prove to himself and others that he has learned his lesson and thus ought to be restored to society as an equal for his life is inviolable .Now, if we choose to refute that assumption just because a few have horrified us with their murder record(s) or type of murder(s) (e.g. child murders), we should then question its applicability to every murderer ( Davis, 1983).

The death penalty has no value in the justice system for this severest of penalties stems from ancient philosophies of vengeance which is contrary to the path of reconciliation and progress that a states needs to purse when dealing with serious crimes like murder and is somewhat paradoxical for it models the very behaviour it seeks to prevent from happening in society. We may impose harm as an instrument of condemning violations of the law but in doing so we have to set cautious limits on the harm we inflict (Conrad, 1963). The way to restore an evil is not through another evil but a counterweight is needed so that the immoral on one side is balanced with moral on the other side. The severest ultimate penalty has little chance of healing and reconciliation for to kill an offender is to respond to his wrong by doing the same wrong to him and he /she in turn becomes a victim themselves.

“What one thinks is right is not always the same as what others think is right; no one can be always right.”

Roy T. Bennett


Davis, M. (1983). How to make the punishment fit the crime, Ethics Vol 93(No.4), 726–752.

LaFollete, H. (2005). The oxford handbook of practical ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press


Van den Haag , E., & Conrad, John P. (1983). The Death Penalty A Debate PRO Ernest van den Haag Con John P. Conrad. New York: Plenum Publishing Corporation.

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