The history of the death penalty is long and varied. Since human ethics and moral values are constantly evolving, so have our views on punishment and the death penalty.
All we know about punishment and retribution has been passed down to us through common law. Capital punishment passed into the American justice system through English Common Laws. Crime and punishment played an important role in the settlements of Colonial America. “Two of the most important buildings in any given town or city were a church and a jail (Jackson, 2013). Punishment was often swift. The death sentence was frequently and swiftly administered for a variety of crimes including petty theft, murder and even witchcraft. There were no strict rules or standard operating procedures applied. Much like crimes of passion – deeds done in the heat of the moment – putting someone to death in the name of justice was often also done in the heat of the moment. Hangings in the South and shootings in the Old West in retribution for some crime committed are perfect examples of this. However in today’s modern world we would like to believe that no sentence of death is issued in such an emotional manner. That is not always true.
Trying to determine if capital punishment is right or wrong is a very complex puzzle. We can all point to examples of crimes of such a heinous nature that a death sentence seems the only logical response. We rely on our justice system rather than our emotional responses to determine the punishment. Therein lays the problem.
There are several standard arguments both for and against capital punishment. Each side argues its case passionately. And each side presents some very valid points. The task before humanity is to decipher and adapt the views from each side to obtain the best possible moral approach to crime and punishment and especially capital punishment.
Most of the world’s countries have abolished capital punishment. The United States stands with only a very few others in allowing capital punishment. And it “stands alone as the only Western democracy that still practices capital punishment” (Lane, 2010). The European Union has enacted strict limitations on those nations who wish join. “No state who wishes to become or remain a part of the E.U. and to enjoy the many benefits of membership may practice capital punishment, even if its own citizens wish otherwise” (Lane, 2010, p. xvii). In this way, the E.U. has avoided the issue of dealing with the moral values of each individual country. At least as far as capital punishment is concerned there is no Cultural Relativism involved. The rules are set, and it is not up for discussion.
In the United States there is much discussion. Those who tend to support capital will say that they believe in “an eye for an eye” kind of justice. They believe that the best way to prevent violent crime is to have a strong deterrent. They tend to have a Kantian view of the subject. Kant was a strong believer in Retributivism. He believed that if people committed crimes, then they should be punished. He also believed that the punishment should fit the crime. Therefore, if someone willfully murdered another, then he should expect to be punished and he should expect that his punishment would be his own death.
Others believe that by putting a criminal to death, we are ridding the world of evil,thereby increasing the overall good. They say that the criminal will no longer be able to cause unhappiness by committing crimes. They argue that the victim’s family will experience happiness with the death of the criminal. These people are taking a strictly Utilitarian point of view.
However, I believe that those who support the death penalty in the United States today probably do so more in theory. We are only aware of all the media attention surrounding the most heinous of crimes and most of us base our opinion on what we see on the news.