A Contractarian Argument Against the Death Penalty

48 Pages Posted: 22 Nov 2002 Last revised: 14 Jun 2011

See all articles by Claire Finkelstein

Claire Finkelstein

University of Pennsylvania Law School

Date Written: June 9, 2011


Opponents of the death penalty typically base their opposition on contingent features of its administration, arguing that the death penalty is applied discriminatorily, that the innocent are sometimes executed, or that there is insufficient evidence of the death penalty’s deterrent efficacy. Implicit in these arguments is the suggestion that if these contingencies did not obtain, serious moral objections to the death penalty would be misplaced. In this Article, Professor Finkelstein argues that there are grounds for opposing the death penalty even in the absence of such contingent factors. She proceeds by arguing that neither of the two prevailing theories of punishment - deterrence and retributivism - is capable of justifying the death penalty. More generally, she suggests that while each theory captures an important part of the justification for punishment, each must appeal to some further limiting principle to accommodate common intuitions about appropriate punishments for crimes. Professor Finkelstein claims that contractarianism supplies this additional principle, by requiring that individuals consent to the system of punishment under whose threat they must live. Moreover, on the version of contractarianism for which she argues, they must do so based on a belief that they will benefit under the terms of that system as compared with how they would fare in its absence. While the notion of benefit is often best understood in terms of maximizing one’s expected utility, Professor Finkelstein argues that with respect to choices about the basic structure of society, rational contractors will conceive of benefit in terms of a conservative, “no-gambling” decision rule. She then argues that rational contractors applying this conception of benefit would reject any system of punishment that includes the death penalty. For while contractors would recognize the death penalty’s deterrent value, they must also consider the high cost they would pay in the event they end up subject to such a penalty. This Article presents both a significant new approach to the death penalty and a general theory of punishment, one that incorporates the central intuitions about deterrence and desert that have made competing theories of punishment seem compelling.

Keywords: Criminal Law, Jurisprudence, Death Penalty, Retribution, Deterrence, Social Contract

JEL Classification: K10, K14, K00

Suggested Citation

Finkelstein, Claire, A Contractarian Argument Against the Death Penalty (June 9, 2011). New York University Law Review, Vol. 81, p. 1283, 2006, U. of Penn. Law School, Pub. Law Research Paper No. 15, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=347323 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.347323

Claire Finkelstein (Contact Author)

University of Pennsylvania Law School ( email )

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Philadelphia, PA 19104
United States
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