The Philosophy of the Death Penalty; Part 1- Definitions

Before we even talk about capital punishment and all its controversial goodness, the first thing that needs addressing is one’s right to life. Just to be clear, I’m not talking about this as in the case of abortion. To put it simply, right to life in abortion arguments more refers to the right to have a life whereas right to life in capital punishment arguments is the right to keep your life.

What exactly are the rules one has to break in order to lose their life? But even from there we have the question of what does it mean to lose your life? If you receive a life imprisonment sentence, have you lost your life? If you have to be on the run forever, have you lost your life? What about if you’re abused as a kid and end up developing a mental disorder that renders you an enemy of the state, have you lost your life since your childhood? Or are all these incorrect, do you lose your life only when you die?

Even with this large-scale philosophical questioning we have yet another one to address if the previous one gets answered: who is entitled to be judge, jury and executioner in this world? The people? The government?

To keep this reading short, sweet, and down-to-the-point, I’ve decided to divide this topic into two parts.

The rules of life! “Mama once said that life was like a box of chocolates, you never know which one you’re going to get.” In a way this is both accurate and false. You don’t pick your parents, that’s for sure, and as we saw, different parenting methods implement a different sense of morality in each of us. Yet at the same time, many of us are provided with a lot of opportunities that we, in a way, choose our own path in life. We don’t have to be like our parents, though cognitive information/experiences gathered in our childhood are at their most influential.

In the end, however, it shouldn’t matter what life you got, as we need to establish universal rules in the 21st century that don’t differentiate/discriminate on the bread-and-butter categories (i.e. race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.), with the exception of age, which we’ll be getting to soon.

To get rid of the differing opinions on what constitutes a lost life, I’ve developed a small solution. We will set up a tier system, similar to murder, thereby allowing us to implement a sense of ‘fairness’ in the legal system.

Here’s how the categorization will work out:

·      Third Degree – a subject has been rejected by society.

·      Second Degree – a subject has been imprisoned by society.

·      First Degree – a subject has been executed by society.

From here we can take a look at crimes and determine which area they fall into. However, since this article is focusing solely on the death penalty, we will only be looking at offences that land in under First Degree. And by offences, I have no choice but to limit myself to just murder as execution on the basis of rape (and hitherto other crimes) was outlawed by the Supreme Court in Coker v. Georgia (1977).

As much as I’d like to kick-off things from there, complications arise in the form of three points: one I addressed before, and that’s the treatment of the subject in their childhood. The second is the treatment of the victim, and the third is the age of both the victim and killer.

That first point is a large enough topic to merit its own article so I won’t focus on it here. The next two, though, bring up a variety of controversy in their own right. If A tortures C before shooting him while B simply shoots D, is A to be placed in a higher tier than B? Or what if A rapes C and C ends up dying from internal bleeding while B still simply shoots D. What then?

All this culminates in an additional variable to the mix: suffering.

Suffering is vital because it plays to everyone’s empathy (this is also a very important part in animal rights arguments, but that’s for another time).

Lastly, we have age. Age is often what causes many anti-death penalty advocates cognitive dissonance in their beliefs because human beings (and psychologists) consider the childhood a vital and innocent part of everyone’s development. However, this is a two-way street with the perpetrators as well, so we have to look at three different situations (note that I’m going to loop childhood and adolescence years together into one word; juvenile, because that’s how our legal system works):

  1. Juvenile murders Juvenile
  2. Adult murders Juvenile
  3. Juvenile murders Adult

We actually have no choice but to ignore the first and third situations as the United States Supreme Court, in Roper v. Simmons (2005), ruled that juveniles cannot be executed. Also on that note, juveniles are not allowed to be given a life sentence without parole (Miller v. Alabama 2012).

So we’re forced to just look at the second situation. If an adult murders a juvenile, should they be given less sympathy than an adult who murders an adult (I know that a lot of readers are probably thinking about Trayvon Martin right now)? In my personal opinion, I believe so. Self-defense is one thing, but if you have someone who’s going to commit a premeditated murder or kill a juvenile out of passion (1st and 2nd degree murder respectively), then their thinking has become irrational to the point of no return.

I understand things must be a little confusing what with all the questions being asked, but unless everything is taken into consideration and answered, you cannot make any progress on a delicate matter such as the death penalty. And that’s what progressives are here to do: progress!

To recap, we’ve established that the death penalty is the highest point on a tier system I made regarding the definition of a lost life. When considering whether or not someone should be assigned to this tier, we have to look at only the crime of murder and whether that murder was of a juvenile (younger than 18) and/or involved suffering beforehand.

This concludes the first part of my article on the philosophy of the death penalty. I know that we haven’t really discussed much philosophical implications, but that’s something that’ll be covered in part two. We had to get these definitions down first as there’s no point in even saying we should ban the death penalty if there’s no established criteria for debate.

Click here for part two.

About Red Stewart

Big liberal and gamer.



  1. Pingback: The Philosophy of the Death Penalty Part 2 – Revelations | Young Progressive Voices - October 9, 2013

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