“It’s Just Violence”: A Discussion about Capital Punishment from a Historical, Economic, and Philosophical Perspective

Molly Ni’Shuilleabhain, Period 6

The conservative state of Nebraska is currently considering abolishing capital punishment- not necessarily out of mercy for the current eleven men on death row, but due to the growing cost and difficulty to carry out the executions [1]. With the recent news of botched executions and pharmaceutical company statements, the capital punishment debate is gaining attention as it is vocally discussed in all fields of study.

On the future of the currently charged national debate regarding the death penalty: last month Oklahoma signed a bill into law making nitrogen asphyxiation the state’s official execution method if other lethal drugs are pronounced unconstitutional [1]. This occurred after the botched execution of Clayton Lockett, which put the issue at the forefront of the national conversation.

In the medical field: The American Pharmacists Association (APhA) voted overwhelmingly that participation in executions is “fundamentally contrary to the role of pharmacists as providers of health care.” The healthcare community is now united in opposition to involvement in lethal injection, a form of execution that “masquerades as a medical procedure yet violates core values of all healing professions” quotes Routh [2]. With pharmaceutical companies limiting their supply of lethal injection drugs, there is a significant shortage in states like Texas that use the drug frequently, and states like Oklahoma are looking for other practices, which are undeniably experiments, of execution. This new solution, nitrogen – a gas relatively cheap and abundant in supply – is apparently simple enough to administer where in it does not have to rely on the support of the medical community, a concern in itself considering the procedure deals with human life.

From a historical perspective: death as part of the legal system has been established since the ancient laws of China, further outlined in the Code of King Hammurabi of Babylon. Other advanced ancient civilizations like the Athenians, Romans, and Jews codified the death penalty [3]. Socrates himself was ordered to drink poison on account of heresy and the corruption of youth. Britain continually increased the number of offenses worthy of the death penalty, which thus influenced the use of capital punishment in the new American colonies. The first major reforms of capital punishment laws occurred in the 18th century [4]. Italian jurist Cesare Beccaria published one of the most influential anti-death penalty expositions On Crimes and Punishment in 1767 which argued against any justification for the taking of a citizen’s life by the state. Delving into the relationship between the state and the citizen, he held that the death penalty was a “war of a whole nation against a citizen, whose destruction they consider as necessary, or useful to the general good.” Concluding, he stated that only when one’s death insures the security of a nation (rare) is capital punishment necessary [5].

This leads into contrasting the philosophical and moral views concerning the issue. From a religious perspective, the Catholic Church has undeniably flip flopped on its stance, as it previously recognized the death penalty as legitimate according to both Augustine and Aquinas. However, like Beccaria, Pope Leo in his Rerum Novarum discusses the relationship between the state and person: he affirms that “rights must be religiously respected wherever they exist, and it is the duty of the public authority to prevent and to punish injury, and to protect every one in the possession of his own.” He concedes that “the richer class have many ways of shielding themselves, and stand less in need of help from the State; whereas the mass of the poor have no resources of their own to fall back upon, and must chiefly depend upon the assistance of the State. And it is for this reason that wage-earners, since they mostly belong in the mass of the needy, should be specially cared for and protected by the government.” Likewise, John Paul II calls for followers of Christ to be all inclusively and unconditionally pro-life: “the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. . . . I renew the appeal I made . . . for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary.” [6].
These views, even from the heads of the Church, does not encompass all Catholics, however: Edward Feser, an American associate professor of philosophy at Pasadena City College, maintains the legitimacy of the principle of capital punishment as a matter of retributive justice as legitimate and in line with Catholic Church teaching. He states that “punishment consists of depriving someone of a good, and when punishment is deserved, it follows that the person has lost any moral claim to that good. And it therefore follows in turn that when what the person deserves is, due to the gravity of his offense, the penalty of death, he has lost any moral claim to his life. So even a “basic good” like life is something a person can in principle, legitimately be deprived of.” He contests that this fact in no way implies the denial of the “dignity” of the person executed, but rather that it affirms his dignity by treating him as a free and responsible individual who must be held accountable for what he does” [7]. Controversially, Feser’s argument places the person in an omniscient “God-like” position, implying that humans are capable of the sort of judgement that deals with another person’s life and death.

Aristotle also references the relationship between the state and citizens when he explicitly questions the purpose (or end) of the city or nation in his “The Politics”. Aristotle states that political society exists for the sake of noble actions and further, that the purpose of the city is to protect its citizens [8].

The ethical theory of utilitarianism, dealing primarily with the consequences of actions, touches on punishment, as it implies that punishment is justified only if it promotes the general happiness. For the utilitarian, capital punishment is not morally permissible as retribution or revenge, because of the ideology that the only purpose in life is to maximize utility rather than inflict suffering.

Additionally, Marx states that punishment is useful in preserving society as it is an instrument used by society to defend itself so that it may maintain itself. However, this claim takes root in the Marxist ideology in opposition to a capitalist government and society which is divided between two classes: the property-owning bourgeoisie and the property-less proletariat. The Marx theory asserts that the state, with its legal and political apparatus, claims to represent the interests of all members of society, but in fact it allows the property-owning class to perpetuate its unjust domination over the property-less [9].

Opponents of the death penalty also call to mind the debate as a racial issue. According to some, the death penalty, both in the U.S. and around the world, is discriminatory and is used disproportionately against the poor, minorities and members of racial, ethnic and religious communities. Apparently, between 1977 and 2013, 47% of all murder victims in America were black, according to “Black Lives Don’t Matter”, a report by the University of North Carolina. Yet only 17% of the victims were black in cases that resulted in execution [10]. And as a moral issue, opponents cling to the grotesque reality that since 1973, 151 people have been released from death rows throughout the country due to evidence of their wrongful convictions. This 4.1% risk of killing an innocent life is not justification for the death of others who “deserve” it [11]. Likewise, the ingrained inequality of the justice system as proved by the above statistics demands a movement away from the death penalty as a solution to crime.

From a global perspective: America ranks fifth behind China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq in the number of people it executes, according to Amnesty International. (Putting it ahead of Yemen, Pakistan, North Korea and Sudan.) Last July, The United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon declared that “the death penalty has no place in the 21st century” [12].

From an economic perspective: the death penalty diverts resources from genuine crime control measures. For example, in California the current system costs $137 million per year. In contrast, it would cost $11.5 million for a system without the death penalty [13]. Thus the death penalty can be considered a waste of taxpayer funds due to the absence of a public safety benefit. Additionally, the vast majority of law enforcement professionals surveyed agree that capital punishment does not deter violent crime; a survey of police chiefs nationwide found they rank the death penalty lowest among ways to reduce violent crime [5]. The debate can reasonably put into focus the economic concept of “opportunity cost”: the value of the other alternative forgone, or potential for improvement of society and its quality of justice with the national abolishment of capital punishment – Since there is not an abundance of lethal injections and money required for the process, the concept does apply. Because of the lack of hard evidence that the death penalty decreases the rate of crime, specifically homicides, the price of public safety is not in question. Likewise, the ethical dilemma of closure in regards to the death sentence is not necessarily forgone according to studies by psychologists and numerous accounts where the execution process is unhealthy for the family of the victim. The 4.1% innocence statistic rate, though seemingly small, is obviously significant in regards to human life as a cost of a legal death penalty. And further, tax payer money for the cost of the process of state executions is a significant cost.

The issue must be discussed on a political, philisophical, and economic level in order to comprehend its brevity. Even then, it’s significance is too much to grasp. Because of this fact alone, coupled with the above arguments, we should abstain as a race from taking the lives of other individuals in all situations.


[1] Sanburn, Josh. “The Dawn of a New Form of Capital Punishment.” Time Magazine. The New York Times, 17 Apr. 2015. Web.

[2] L. Edloe, W. Fassett, and P. Hantsen, “Pharmacists and executions.” The Hill. April 10, 2015.

[3] Reggio, Michael H. “History of the Death Penalty.” PBS. KERA North Texas. Web.

[4] John Laurence, A History of Capital Punishment (N.Y.: The Citadel Press, 1960), 1-3.

[5] Cesare Beccaria, On Crimes and Punishment, trans. Henry Paolucci (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1963).

[6] Papal Mass, St. Louis, Missouri, January 27, 1999.

[7] Feser, Edward. “Catholicism, Conservatism, and Capital Punishment.”Edward Feser. 30 Mar. 2011. Web.

[8] Aristotle. “The Politics.”

[9] Tunick, Mark. “Marxist as Radical Critic.” Punishment: Theory and Practice. Berkeley: U of California, 1992. 47-56. Print.

[10] Frank R. Baumgartner, Amanda J. Grigg & Alisa Mastro. “#BlackLivesDon’tMatter: Race-of-Victim Effects in US Executions.” 2015. (Politics, Groups, and Identities, 1976-2013).

[11] Samuel R. Gross. Rate of false conviction of criminal defendants who are sentenced to death. Vol. 111 No. 20. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

[12] “The Death Penalty and the UN Chief.” UN News Centre. United Nations, 02 July 2014. Web.

[13] California Commission for the Fair Administration of Justice, July 2008.


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