Death penalty, being preserved within the U.S. legal system, has repeatedly become a highly controversial subject in terms of international law-, the U.S. statutory and case law- and ethics-related discourses. For the purposes of future discussing this issue, we would like to state that, in my mind, preserving death penalty in the U.S. system of punishments contradicts international legal and ethical norms. To be more precise in legal terms, death penalty is the punishment, aimed at taking away person’s right to life, which is considered to be most important basic human right.
In the U.S. the usage of death penalty is limited under Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and its practical application usually concerns a very short list of crimes, including aggravated intentional murders, committed by mentally competent adults, usage of weapons of mass destruction, espionage, as well as certain forms of terrorism and was crimes. The history of death penalty as a punishment in modern U.S. dates back to the time, when English common law started to be enforced in British dominions. Despite the fact that death penalty was abolished in all the states, comprising the Commonwealth, it is provided for in the U.S. both in terms of federal and states’ criminal law systems. Nevertheless it is worth mentioning that the practical usage of death penalty in the USA is reported to be declining in recent years. In spite of such a decline, capital punishment is not currently going to be abolished in the USA. The history of death penalty in the USA already knows suspension of death penalty (Furman v Georgia) due to its having been recognized unconstitutional as cruel and unusual punishment, whose usage violated Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, dedicated to prohibiting excessive fines and bails, as well excessive and unusual punishment (U.S. Const. Amend VIII). The death penalty was thereafter resumed by a combination of several decisions of Supreme Court of the U.S. After the reinstatement of death penalty in majority of the states (except 18 states and the District of Columbia), anti-death penalty movement rose in the U.S. Let us proceed with analyzing arguments, supporting my anti-death penalty thesis.
First and most important reason for us to claim that death penalty is to be abolished in the U.S. deals with the fact that this punishment is designed to infringe the right to life of a human being. The right to life is a complex construct, which can be considered from philosophical, religious and, finally, legal perspectives. In terms of philosophical debate it was almost universally agreed that human beings have the right to life, which cannot be taken away despite the fact that it may be considered that individuals misuse this right. World religions also assume that the right life is t one, which is granted by God, and, therefore, can be taken away only by God. In other words, religious viewpoint is based on the assumption that humans do not have to intervene in the sphere of life and death, which is initially the one to be governed by religious norms, as well as legal ones. Despite controversial nature of such a view (for instance, I consider it acceptable for humans to intervene in the sphere under study in case a human can help another human to preserve his/her life, providing for necessary medical treatment), I consider it immoral for human beings to legalize taking away lives of other human beings.
In legal terms the right to life finds its manifestations in various sources of international, regional and national law. Main international treaties, which provide for inalienable right to life, are the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Convention of the Rights of the Child. Furthermore, it is worth mentioning that inalienable right to life is explicitly referred to in the United States Declaration of Independence, which provides for the fact that everyone has the right to life, liberty and security. Explicit referral to the fact that the right to life belongs to everybody and is “inalienable” brings us to the conclusion that death penalty practice contradicts basic formulations, which international law states on. Moreover, the application of death penalty contradicts Eighth Amendment to the Constitution of the U.S., which is aimed at prohibiting violent and unusual punishments.
Another reason to oppose death penalty lies in the fact that there are no ways to remedy the occasional mistake. In case if a person had been wrongfully executed, there are no chances to compensate this mistake. Furthermore, it is necessary to mention that studies show that there is racial and economic discrimination in application of death penalty in the U.S. As for discrimination it is also necessary to refer to the fact that the way the death penalty is excised in arbitrary and capricious way. For instance, one person, who has committed murder, can be punished capitally, while another one can experience imprisonment. Furthermore, it is worth mentioning that death penalty tends do have an important effect on public image of severe offenders as they get publicity they do not deserve.
Last, but not least argument to mention relates to the fact that death penalty represents an absolute manifestation of the power of the state, despite the fact that modern states are not expected to manifest absolute power under modern provisions regarding the rule of law, human rights and democracy. Moreover, application of death penalty by states creates a bad image of the state, especially in eyes of children. Usage of capital punishment creates an assumption that if state is allowed to take one’s life, one can also commit murder.
Summarizing my ideas, I would like to state that death penalty contradicts internationally recognized ethical, religious and legal norms due to the fact that it limits the right to life, which is considered to be an inalienable right, inherent for every human being, represents the manifestation of absolute power of the state, which should to exist under modern provisions of international law on the rule of law, democracy and human rights, as well as allows no way to compensate the loss of life of an innocent person in case a wrongful execution took place.
Counter-arguments and response
Those, approving of preservation of death penalty, present variety of counter-arguments to challenge the ones of those, who oppose to capital punishment being a part of the system of punishment both at federal and state level. The first and most often represented argument deals with the fact that maintenance of person’s right to life is dependent on whether he/she respects the right to life of other people. It was universally recognized that human beings are conscious moral agents and are expected to have the understanding of morality (immorality) of their actions. One could think that particularly their moral goodness (or innocence) is the feature, which bestows dignity and the right to life on them. Intentionally taking the right to life from another person is such an evil act that the perpetrator gets deprived of his own right to life, and deserves to die (Bedau&Cassell 56). Such an assumption rests on three main provisions. The first one is that any guilt should be punished. Another ne is that only guilty should be punished, while the last one is that the guilty should be punished in accordance with severity of crime, which was committed by person. It is often considered that a person should earn the right to life, and in case he/she does not respect the right to life of other people, he/she does not deserve to enjoy this right (Jacquette 53).
Secondly, international human rights law provides for the fact that the right to life is not inviolable, legitimizing capital punishment as a morally and legally acceptable practice. Other examples of justifiable examples of taking away one’s life include deaths resulting from legal warfare (laws, meeting the requirements, set by international humanitarian law) and deprivation of life as a result of use of force, which was absolutely necessary under certain conditions. Nevertheless, here I would like to state that modern humanities-related discourse is not explicitly considering the interrelation between internationally recognized ethical and religious norms and international law. Despite the fact that between internationally recognized ethical and religious norms obviously lack universal understanding, binding force and enforceability, it is still necessary to consider chances to observe them in terms of modernizing and developing international and national law.
Coming to the issue of the consequences of wrongful execution of death penalty, the ones, who consider it necessary to preserve it, state that the proportion of wrongful executions is so small that it does not influence overall effectiveness of capital punishment being applied to offenders, who have committed most serious crimes. In my opinion, every life of a human being is invaluable, so, any death (especially, the wrongful one) of a human being is a sacrifice, which cannot be put up with.
Advocates of preserving death penalty agree with my view that it represents a revealed manifestation of absolute power of state. Nevertheless, vast majority of these advocates consider that a strong state is required both to develop laws, able of ensuring public safety and security of an individual in the state, and to get them implemented. In this regard they often offer to consider the examples of Arab states, where crime rates are much lower than in majority of developed states, which conducted humanization of criminal law system, and severe punishment are provided for almost all crimes, starting from bribery and ending up with murder. In other words, they mean that lack of severe punishments leads to the lack of security, safety and justice in society. In my opinion, this argument can be easily challenged as usual logic allows us understand that violence calls forth violence. Furthermore, in case a state has excessive presence in all the spheres of human relations, and imposes severe norms to govern the relations between it and individuals, individuals feel the pressure and start uniting to create a response to state’s misconduct. Concluding this section I would like to state that, despite existence of various counterarguments, advocating for preserving the death penalty within legal systems of states, almost all of them can be challenged with the help of tools of formal logic, as well as ethical, philosophical and legal knowledge.
For the purposes of this argumentative assignment I got involved in the discourse on preserving the death penalty in the USA. After considering arguments, providing for death penalty contravening internationally recognized religious, ethical and legal norms, as well as counterarguments, which are being presented by advocated of death penalty, I cannot help concluding that death penalty violates the norms of ethics, religion and law due to number of reasons. Firstly, death penalty is a manifestation of state’s absolute power to take away the right to life of its citizens. Then death penalty’s being preserved in state means granting particular individuals with the right to deprive other individuals of the right to life, which is the one, naturally belonging to person, and having been granted naturally. In other words, preserving death penalty means promoting violence and creating the vision of the state, which serves not as the main body to protect human rights, but the one to infringe them.
Supporting the U.S. anti-death penalty discourse activists, we would like the U.S. authorities to pay necessary attention to the issue under study and take measures, allowing for humanization of existing system of punishment in the U.S. federal and states’ law.
Bedau, H.A., Cassell P.G. (eds.). Debating the death penalty: should America have capital punishment? The experts on both sides make their case. Oxford: Oxford University Press.2005.Print.
Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238, 1972.
Jacquette, D. Dialogues on the ethics of capital punishment. Lahnham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.2009. Print.