Sunday, 26 October 2014

Morality 25: Secular Views on Capital Punishment

 Higher RMPS Podcast
Capital Punishment - Secular Views on Capital Punishment

This is available as an MP3 or to download as a podcast through iTunes
for Desktop and Apple devices, as well as PodcastHD for Android Devices.

Secular Views on Capital Punishment

Utilitarian Views
In Utilitarianism right is whatever brings the greatest amount of happiness to the greatest number of people.  The GHP is the foundation of all moral decisions in Utilitarianism.  Whether executing a criminal is morally right or wrong depends on how much happiness the act produces.

As with other utilitarian problems we first identify those involved.  Let’s assume that we have someone on death row for murder, those involved would then be: the criminal, the victim’s family, the criminal’s family, the executioner, the prison staff, the courts and legal staff, and then society at large.  When we say happy we don’t always mean laughing on the floor.  Both Bentham and Mill both agreed that happiness was simply the absence of pain, or contentment/satisfaction.  From this really simply approach we can see that before we get to the societal level more people are satisfied by executing the criminal than not.  The criminal’s family may be questionable as they may be okay with them being executed.  When we get to a societal level it becomes harder to calculate this.  However, as stated previously 55% of Americans are in favour of the death penalty.  As more people are made happy by this act then a Utilitarian would be in favour of this as a punishment.

However, Rule utilitarian’s consider happiness in the long-term; would we as a society be okay with the execution of the guilty?  What if we get it wrong?  Wouldn’t the pain of this far outweigh the current happiness?  Utilitarianism is a consequentialist theory where there possible outcomes should be charted and considered.    The UK, after all, abolished Capital Punishment as many thought that the long-term consequences and the harm it would do to our countries morals outweighed the benefits of deleting one bad egg.  This view has been supported by many current Utilitarian philosophers such as Peter Singer. 
Both Bentham and Mill were not against the death penalty.  Mill argued that if a person had no possibility of release from prison because their crime was so terrible, e.g. murder, then the greatest amount of happiness will be achieved by ending the criminal’s life thus preventing them from years of pain in prison.

Utilitarian’s are, for the most part, for capital punishment if the act generates more happiness for the more people. 

Kantian Views
Kantian Ethics does not consider the consequences, only the action and the motivation for doing it.  Whether Capital Punishment is morally right or wrong would depend on the maxim passing the categorical imperative test of universality and whether it uses anyone as a means to an end.

First we would think of a maxim for the death penalty that we can then test with then categorical imperative.  For this we should keep it as simple as possible: “if someone murders then they should be executed”.  From there we can test this with the categorical imperative.  The first test is to universalise the maxim.  Can everyone, everywhere follow this maxim?  The maxim has the conditional “if” therefore everyone could follow this as long as they have someone who has killed another human being.  It has then passed the first test.  The next test is to ask if it respects the person and not use anyone as a means to an end.  This part isn’t as clear.  The person does seem to be the focus of the maxim, they aren’t being used as such as the maxim is focused on them.  However, is it respecting them?  We could argue yes because they are being treated equally with other murderers and that they are receiving justice.  However, Kantian Ethics elevates good-will as the main motivator for our actions.  We should act out of duty to one another and have both the good intentions and will to respect society.  We need to ask if the maxim does this.  Many would argue that it does not pass the second test as it is using the convicted as a means to an end.  Therefore Kantian Ethics would be against Capital Punishment.

Morality 24: Religious Views on Capital Punishment

Higher RMPS Podcast
Capital Punishment - Religious Views on Capital Punishment

This is available as an MP3 or to download as a podcast through iTunes
for Desktop and Apple devices, as well as PodcastHD for Android Devices.

Christian Views
Christians can, confusingly, be both for and against the death penalty.  The use their sacred writings as well as their leaders for guidance on the matter.  We have noted that capital punishment has been a feature of society for most of recorded history.  It was accepted as necessary for societies to function without self-destructing.  Pope Innocent III noted: "The secular power (government) can, without mortal sin, exercise judgment of blood (execute), provided that it punishes with justice, not out of hatred, with prudence, not precipitation."  Therefore the church backed capital punishment as long as it was to balance justice and not the arbitrary killing of citizens.  However, we are still required to use reason to interpret what both Sacred Writings and Religious Leaders say on the matter.

Literalists interpret Sacred Writings as the literal (word-for-word) word of God, whereas others interprets the Bible as metaphor to guide them.  When Moses led the Jews from Egypt he went up Mount Saini to pray.  There God spoke to Moses and gave him Ten Commandments (laws) that Jews, and then Christians and Muslims, were to follow to keep their relationship with God.  The fifth commandment states: Thou shalt not kill.  This one little passage has caused a lot of confusion with Christians and Jews.  It’s the one where both sides nod thinking it supports their side.  Death penalty supporters will claim that God’s law is clear, if you break a commandment then you should be put to death (Deuteronomy 5:32).  However, abolitionists claim that the law supports their view that we do not have the right to kill, if we do we are equally guilty of breaking this commandment.  Abolitionist hold that God gives life and only He has the right to take it away (1 Samuel 2:6).

As mentioned in the retribution section of the notes Christians can be seen to be both for and against the death penalty depending on how they interpret their scriptures.  The Old Testament teaches Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth’, therefore some Christians will support capital punishment as a form of punishment.  However, Jesus also taught forgiveness.  If someone wrongs you, forgive them for what they have done. 

It is up to each Christian to decide how to act in each situation.  The interesting part of this is the debate in America between capital punishment and abortion.  Anti-abortion groups will use many of the anti-death penalty arguments to campaign against abortion.  However, there are an
overwhelming number of Christians who are anti-abortion, for many of the arguments above, but are also PRO death penalty.  The conflict that exists in Christian scriptures also exists within the believes of Christian groups.  Recent surveys do show that white Protestants are largely in favour of the death penalty.  Recent polls show that 55% of Americans are in favour of the death penalty[1].  This is 12% lower than white evangelistic Protestants suggesting that more are following a pro-death penalty interpretation of the bible rather than one of forgiveness.

Archbishop Rowan Williams condemned the execution of Saddam Hussein, saying that it offered him no chance to change or reform.  One of Pope Benedict XVIth’s top aides said that it punished a crime with another crime: that execution is not a natural death and no-one, not even the state can give death.  We then can understand why Christians may be conflicted about the use of capital punishment.

Buddhist Views
Like Christianity, there are many different denominations of Buddhism and therefore there is no singular position on capital punishment.  However, the teachings of the Buddha are clear and easy to access.  The death penalty is clearly inconsistent with Buddhist teaching.  Buddhists place great emphasis on non-violence and compassion for all life.  The First Precept requires individuals to abstain from injuring or killing any living creature.  The Buddha did not explicitly speak about capital punishment, but his teachings show quite clearly that we should not kill any living creature no matter how bad the crime.

This can be hard for us to process.  No matter how bad the crime.  A US reporter once asked a Buddhist monk how far their stance on non-violence went.  He asked the monk to imagine that he was the last monk on Earth.  He then asked what he would do if someone was forcing him at gunpoint to kill another human being; what would he do?  The monk replied that it would be better to die holding on to one’s believes and values than to live knowing you had broken one of the fundamental laws of the Dhamma.  He noted that the Dhamma is eternal and manifested itself when the world was ready with the Buddha and if he were to die the Dhamma would once again resurface when the world needed it.

For many Buddhists, the death penalty is wrong because it allows no chance of reform. Buddhists use the stories of Milarepa and Angulimala to show the possibilities of reform: both were violent criminals who became great gurus after learning the Dhamma. The Buddha intervened directly in the case of Angulimala and showed the king that it was possible to reform criminals without resorting to violence.

Buddhists believe that all of our actions create kamma.  Our kamma determines both our Samsaric rebirth as well as leading the way to Nibbana.  Killing, even if state sanctioned, is an

unskilful action rooted in anger and ignorance.  The Buddha is the embodiment of compassion and Buddhist look to the Buddha’s life as an example of how to live.  Capital Punishment goes against the fundamental principles of Buddhist and the teachings of the Dhamma.