Sunday, 26 October 2014

Morality 25: Secular Views on Capital Punishment

 Higher RMPS Podcast
Capital Punishment - Secular Views on Capital Punishment

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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.

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