Officially, thousands of people are sentenced to death every year in countries where the death penalty is practiced. The death penalty is still prevalent in many parts of the world, especially in the Middle East, Asia, and North Africa, with notable countries including Iraq, Egypt, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, and the USA.
Given the prevalence of the death penalty in the modern world, it is fair to assume that there are perhaps justifications for it, though there are plenty of people who categorically oppose it. Without going into the details of any given judicial system, there are number of reasons to support both sides of the argument.
The Death Penalty: Pro
There are a number of practical arguments made for the death penalty. Because the death penalty is such a powerful construct, many argue that it decreases crime rates through deterrence. While many believe that the death penalty is more of a deterrent than a lengthy prison sentence, the very concept of ‘deterrence’ is argued by many as inapplicable to criminal psychology, especially if mental illness is involved. Criminals rarely think about the consequences of their actions and this is especially true with crimes of passion.
By killing felons, the death penalty removes the burden of housing them within the penitentiary system. Prison overcrowding and overstretched resources are key issues in prisons in many countries. Due to the severity of prisoners’ crimes on death row, it costs much more to feed, house, and seclude these often dangerous inmates than if they were simply put to death. And if they were paroled, there is always the chance they could re-offend, which is completely eliminated with the death penalty. The concept of retribution, that the perpetrator is punished in a manner fitting to the crime, is also used to support the death penalty.
The Death Penalty: Con
There are many arguments against the death penalty that are both practical and ethical. It is very difficult to know the exact moral status of the death penalty, though many see it to be a degrading, barbaric, and amoral. The opponents of the death penalty argue that it causes incredible suffering and pain for the sentenced and brutalizes society as a whole where it operates. Both of these factors could have negative effects on crime and criminality. The vast majority of people would at least argue that human life is highly valuable and should be preserved, though the extent at which preservation should make-way for retribution is where things become very debatable.
Misconduct in institutional systems can also lead to incorrect sentencing. While this is bad enough for non-death sentencing, these constitute a heinous breach of justice if the death penalty is involved. A psychological argument that may become prominent in the future is the concept of self-control and free will. Do we have free will or not? If not, this could bring into question not just the death penalty but all forms of sentencing whether it is capital punishment or not. New neurological research can now predict the likelihood of someone becoming violent and may help with future awareness on these issues.
From a global perspective, far fewer countries operate the death penalty when compared to countries that don’t. More importantly, there appears to be a general reduction in the number of death sentences even in the countries continuing to uphold the death penalty.
It is arguable that countries still using the death penalty do so purely in response to criminality and try to deter future criminals with it. Ironically, many of the countries that have the death penalty suffer from higher crime rates. The death penalty does not cause the problem but it is merely a response to it. And while the death penalty is usually implemented by autocracy or religious doctrine, it is almost never used in response to actual modern societal values.
Therefore, the case against the death penalty is much stronger than the case for it. This would be the same for anyone who believes that ethics are more important than any of the possible practical benefits.
A Japanese argument
This is a rather quirky argument, and not normally put forward.
Japan uses the death penalty sparingly, executing approximately 3 prisoners per year.
A unique justification for keeping capital punishment has been put forward by some Japanese psychologists who argue that it has an important psychological part to play in the life of the Japanese, who live under severe stress and pressure in the workplace.
The argument goes that the death penalty reinforces the belief that bad things happen to those who deserve it. This reinforces the contrary belief; that good things will happen to those who are 'good'.
In this way, the existence of capital punishment provides a psychological release from conformity and overwork by reinforcing the hope that there will be a reward in due time.
Oddly, this argument seems to be backed up by Japanese public opinion. Those who are in favour currently comprise 81% of the population, or that is the official statistic. Nonetheless there is also a small but increasingly vociferous abolitionist movement in Japan.
From an ethical point of view this is the totally consequentialist argument that if executing a few people will lead to an aggregate increase in happiness then that is a good thing.