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Analyse the philosophical principles of at least one ethical theory and evaluate its application to a moral dilemma.

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Introduction

Analyse the philosophical principles of at least one ethical theory and evaluate its application to a moral dilemma. UTILITARIANISM AND THE DEATH PENALTY I The debate over capital punishment usually revolves around several theories of punishment and social justice: retribution, right to life, deterrence, forfeiture of rights, and utilitarianism. Practical objections arise over issues of the culpability of the state, the inconsistent way in which death-as-justice is applied, and the danger of executing innocent people. E.g. Robert Brown. These arguments and objections appear to hail from different schools of thought and types of reasoning, but they can all be assessed within a utilitarian framework. Applied to the whole of society over a long period of time, utilitarianism takes into account all but two extreme arguments for and against capital punishment. The death penalty must, to be acceptable, be supported by positive arguments, not merely the negation of objections. As in the criminal justice system, the burden of proof must lie with those seeking to impose punishment. To argue otherwise is an absolute negation of human worth. The death penalty is the taking of a life, no matter how little value society places on that life. To justify this act, supporters of the death penalty must prove that there is a far more important good to be served by ending a life than by preserving it. II Utilitarianism is not in itself an argument for or against capital punishment. It is a framework in which most ethical and practical considerations will fit to produce a balanced view of the whole capital punishment debate. A utilitarian outlook also separates the few morally absolute arguments from all other arguments that are based, at some level, on a utilitarian approach. The non-utilitarian arguments for and against the death penalty are retribution (of the biblically based variety) and the absolute right to life. It is possible to deal with these arguments from a utilitarian standpoint. If eye-for-an-eye retribution does not provide a net gain in happiness, abolish it. ...read more.

Middle

Moderate retributionism is a utilitarian argument that it promotes the long-term stability of society and the respect towards others to put murderers to death. One can little doubt the value in such a position. The death penalty is a clear message that society values the life of the victim enough to kill the criminal, and this message is a good one: good conduct is valued over bad; the lives of the good are valued over the lives of the bad. The magnitude of the good provided, how it is provided, and its side effects then become the important issue. Retribution is only an abstracted separation of deterrence. It seeks to deter would be murderers by setting a societal standard of conduct and respect for life, and an expectation of just punishment of transgressions. Deterrence may also have short-term value. Although no hard data indicates that the death penalty prevents murders, it is sensible to say that it may. Some argue that even if the deterrence value of capital punishment cannot be determined exactly, it should still be used as the Best Bet: "If we were quite ignorant about the marginal deterrent effects of execution, we would have to choose-like it or not-between the certainty of the convicted murderer's death... and the likelihood of the survival of future victims of other murderers on the one hand, and on the other his certain survival and the likelihood of the death of new victims" (Van Den Haag ). The greater penalty offers the greater deterrence, but there is likely a point of diminishing returns. That convicted murderers prefer ninety-nine to one to spend life in prison rather than be killed does not provide convincing proof that the death penalty is the greater deterrent. Life in prison in not an insignificant punishment, and if a rational person would not be deterred by fifty or sixty years and eventual death in a small concrete box, it seems surprising that a painless death would have a much greater effect. ...read more.

Conclusion

The answer is no. In some cases the choice of life or death is clear, but more often, confounding circumstances of race, finance, and lack of good counsel make the difference between life in prison and death. Minorities and the poor suffer disproportionately under the death penalty. The unequal use of this punishment makes it a frightening weapon of social opinion, which does nothing to uphold the innocence and purity of the state, or the dignity of the victim's memory. V No defensible argument for or against the death penalty can be taken as an absolute. The harm caused or prevented by the death penalty and the utility in using or not using it must be considered the final arbiters of the acceptability of the punishment. The death penalty, exacted for retributive or more directly deterrent reasons, has a significant value to society. The symbolic importance of taking the life of the killer does, in a way, express society's belief in the sanctity of innocent life. These benefits come at a high price. For what is a useful symbol and a hope of some prevention, society pays in the hard currency of life, of criminals and innocent victims of the state. The death penalty is a last resort punishment when the worst of crimes has been committed, and in invoking it we as a society must recognize that we have failed in making other preventive measures and punishments effective. Such a thing is not impossible; other countries have done it. The death penalty represents the frightened, fortress mentality of a society pushed to kill in order to punish murder, of a society incapable of finding better, more humane, more effective means of punishment than those was used in committing the crime. We must recognize that innocent people die when the death penalty is used. We must deal with the fact that its application is influenced by race, gender, and economic status. We must recognize that when a man is injected with poison for his crime, it is done in our name, as our judgment. Is everyone that sure of the verdict? ...read more.

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