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

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



        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.


        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.  If the right to life is not useful to society, ignore it.  However, to argue the issue this way is unfair to the absolute arguments, because discarding them on the basis of utility is to begin by voiding their supposed fundamental inviolability.  Working from the assumption that they are not absolute makes it an unfairly easy task to disprove them.  For a practical treatment of capital punishment, it is necessary to allow for differences of opinion on the nature of absolute rights.

        Biblical retribution offers little room for exploration of the acceptability of capital punishment.  “A life for a life” is an inflexible standard and does not allow for a principled argument against the death penalty in all cases.  The main objection to this standard is that in light of mitigating circumstances, killing a killer may be too harsh a punishment for some murders, but this objection is purely one of application if the penalty is accepted on principle.  Arguing against it would require showing that even the most heinous crime should not be punished by death.  Beginning with the principle of a life for a life, this is essentially an impossible task.

        Equally, a belief in the absolute right to life could not allow for the death penalty under any circumstances.  If as a basic principle of humanity one accepts that all humans have a right to life, regardless of any crime they commit, then there is no arguing for the death penalty.  Similarly, if one believes that, criminal’s rights aside, no entity, including the state, can rightly take a life, then there is no use in arguing for capital punishment.

        As a middle ground, most people would probably consider the assertion that criminals forfeit certain rights in some proportion to their crimes (this in itself is not incompatible with either absolutist argument) and that society may choose to call in the forfeited rights if and when it finds some use in doing so.  There would be, then, the possibility that the death penalty could be an appropriate punishment under some circumstances.

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        From this jumping-off point, it is possible to analyse the death penalty from a utilitarian perspective.  This perspective does not exclude a principled objection to the death penalty.  It simply allows that an objection to the death penalty must depend on harm and benefits to the criminal and society, and not on an unsupported statement of opinion or principle.

        The argument for non-biblical retribution draws upon practical utilitarian principles.  Much of what is labelled retribution is actually a simple but extended application of purely utilitarian principles.  Kant argues the true retributive stance: “Even if a civil society were to dissolve ...

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