Government Policy and Death: Death Penalty

Kowitz P4 redo2 .doc

“The Ultimate Punishment: A Defense”, Ernest Van Den Haag, Lewis Vaughn, Chapter 10 of Doing Ethics

Ernest Van Den Haag is of the opinion that the death penalty should be sustained regardless of the arguments against it. Van Den Haag believes that the immorality or morality of capital punishment does not lie in how it is handed out in the justice system, and scoffs at those that cry that it is unfair, because the death penalty deals with justice, not fairness. The only time that capital punishment can be considered truly immoral is when it is carried out on an innocent party, due to the fact that it is irrevocable; life cannot be given back after it has been taken (301). However, according to Van Den Haag, this is unrelated to the nature of the punishment, as in itself the death penalty is the best form of punishment to the guilty party.

To support his argument about the morality of the death penalty, Van Den Haag emphasizes that justice obliges that as many as possible of the guilty be punished, regardless of whether others have eluded  punishment. Though some innocents will undoubtedly be the victims of the death penalty, miscarriages of justice will in the long run always occur and will be counterweighed by the moral benefits of executing justice (302). Van Den Haag also supports the death penalty because its finality is feared by a prospective murderer more than the prospect of incarceration; thus, the allure of crime is deterred by the threat and severity of the death penalty. In addition, Van Den Haag believes that if an individual chooses to commit a crime while being fully aware of the consequences, the individual is, in effect, choosing to accept the consequences as a result of his actions, including the death penalty.

A weak point in support for the death penalty comes, however, in that there is no conclusive statistical demonstration that it prevents crimes at a greater rate than other, alternative punishments. While punishments are threatened as a deterrent to crime, and carried out to maintain credibility of the threat, it has not been proven that threatening execution as a consequence helps to deter crime. Van Den Haag is of the opinion that he would still favor the death penalty being used, since even if it prevented a small number of lives every year from being the victims of crime, especially murder, then it could be considered effective (303). However, the small number of lives that might be saved is not a valid argument against larger consequences of using the death penalty, such as wrongful executions, which Van Den Haag concedes can happen. In opting instead for life imprisonment, offenders can be released if their convictions are overturned; due to the finality of the death penalty, this is not possible. In such cases, no crime was prevented, and the only victim was the innocent person that was executed. For this reason, life imprisonment carries a stronger argument for support than the death penalty, as the consequences are not as severe, nor are they as final.

Let's make that grade!