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Is Capital Punishment Morally Required? The Relevance of Life-Life Tradeoffs


Cass R. Sunstein


Harvard Law School

Adrian Vermeule


Harvard Law School

March 2005

U Chicago Law & Econ, Olin Working Paper No. 239; AEI-Brookings Joint Center Working Paper No. 05-06; U of Chicago, Public Law Working Paper No. 85

Abstract:     
Recent evidence suggests that capital punishment may have a significant deterrent effect, preventing as many eighteen or more murders for each execution. This evidence greatly unsettles moral objections to the death penalty, because it suggests that a refusal to impose that penalty condemns numerous innocent people to death. Capital punishment thus presents a life-life tradeoff, and a serious commitment to the sanctity of human life may well compel, rather than forbid, that form of punishment. Moral objections to the death penalty frequently depend on a distinction between acts and omissions, but that distinction is misleading in this context, because government is a special kind of moral agent. The familiar problems with capital punishment - potential error, irreversibility, arbitrariness, and racial skew - do not argue in favor of abolition, because the world of homicide suffers from those same problems in even more acute form. The widespread failure to appreciate the life-life tradeoffs involved in capital punishment may depend on cognitive processes that fail to treat "statistical lives" with the seriousness that they deserve.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 53

Keywords: death penalty, capital punishment, moral theory, political theory, theory of punishment, deterrence, life

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Date posted: March 25, 2005  

Suggested Citation

Sunstein, Cass R. and Vermeule, Adrian, Is Capital Punishment Morally Required? The Relevance of Life-Life Tradeoffs (March 2005). U Chicago Law & Econ, Olin Working Paper No. 239; AEI-Brookings Joint Center Working Paper No. 05-06; U of Chicago, Public Law Working Paper No. 85. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=691447 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.691447

Contact Information

Cass R. Sunstein (Contact Author)
Harvard Law School ( email )
1575 Massachusetts Ave
Areeda Hall 225
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States
617-496-2291 (Phone)
Adrian Vermeule
Harvard Law School ( email )
1525 Massachusetts
Griswold 500
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States
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