Why Capital Punishment Is No Punishment at All
65 Pages Posted: 3 Jul 2016
Date Written: September 1, 2015
Capital punishment has generated an incredible amount of public debate. Is the practice constitutional? Does it deter crime? Is it humane? Supporters and opponents of capital punishment disagree on all of these issues and many more. There is perhaps only one thing that unites these two camps: the belief that the death penalty is society’s most severe punishment.
In this Article, I argue that this belief is mistaken. Capital punishment is not at the top of the punishment hierarchy. In fact, it is no punishment at all. My argument builds from a basic conception of punishment endorsed by the Supreme Court: for something to qualify as a punishment, it must be bad, in some way, for the person who is punished. By drawing upon the philosophical literature regarding death, I show that this is not the case. Contrary to our intuitions, the death penalty is not bad, in any way, for a condemned criminal.
This conclusion should not be understood to suggest that death is never bad. In most circumstances, death is bad. There are, however, situations in which it is not, and capital punishment, as employed in the United States penal system, is one such situation. By showing that capital punishment is not bad for the condemned criminal, I provide a strong constitutional objection to the practice.
Keywords: capital punishment, death penalty
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