No, Capital Punishment is Not Morally Required: Deterrence, Deontology, and the Death Penalty

41 Pages Posted: 28 Nov 2005


Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule have argued that, if recent empirical studies claiming to find a substantial deterrent effect from capital punishment are valid, consequentialists and deontologists alike should conclude that capital punishment is not merely morally permissible, but actually morally required. While there is ample reason to reject this argument on the ground that the empirical studies are deeply flawed (as economists John Donohue and Justin Wolfers elaborate in a separate essay), this response directly addresses Sunstein and Vermeule's moral argument. Sunstein and Vermeule contend that recognition of the distinctive moral agency of the government and acceptance of "threshold" deontology (by which categorical prohibitions may be overridden to avoid catastrophic harm) should lead both consequentialists and deontologists to accept the necessity of capital punishment. This response demonstrates that neither premise leads to the proposed conclusion. Acknowledging that the government has special moral duties does not render inadequately deterred private murders the moral equivalent of government executions. Rather, executions constitute a distinctive moral wrong (purposeful as opposed to non-purposeful killing), and a distinctive kind of injustice (unjustified punishment). Moreover, acceptance of "threshold" deontology in no way requires a commitment to capital punishment even if substantial deterrence is proven; rather, arguments about catastrophic "thresholds" face special challenges in the context of criminal punishment. This response also explains how Sunstein and Vermeule's argument necessarily commits us to accepting other brutal or disproportionate punishments, and concludes by suggesting that even consequentialists should not be convinced by the argument.

Suggested Citation

Steiker, Carol S., No, Capital Punishment is Not Morally Required: Deterrence, Deontology, and the Death Penalty. Stanford Law Review, Forthcoming, Harvard Public Law Working Paper No. 125, Available at SSRN:

Carol S. Steiker (Contact Author)

Harvard Law School ( email )

Griswold 409
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States
617-496-5457 (Phone)
617-495-1110 (Fax)

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