Justice and the death penalty

Iling Chen asked:

I have a question about the connection between justice and death penalty. There was once, our class was discussing if there is a justice behind “a life for a life”, the classmates who oppose such saying were much more than those who support. However, when the question changed to”Do you support death penalty?” The supporters were much more than those who opposed. But such a difference doesn’t make sense to me. If you oppose the former, how come you support the later at the same time? Do you have any explanation for such a result? Thank you.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Your question is an example of the kind which regularly puzzles producers of opinion surveys. At first glance it seems that your two questions amount to the same thing. However, in this case there is an important nuance. ‘A life for a life’ is a condensed argument. Is it always the case that you have to forfeit your life if you cause a human being to die? Consider, for example, death caused by dangerous driving.You are undoubtedly to blame, but you had no intention to case another human being to die. In the UK, as I believe in many countries, you would expect to spend some time in jail, even where there is a death penalty.

On the other hand, there are countries where you can receive a death penalty for theft, notably China. Is this deserved? In the time of Charles Dickens, you could be hung for stealing a loaf of bread. According to Wikipedia, ‘Although unused, the death penalty remained a legally defined punishment for certain offences such as treason until it was completely abolished in 1998’. The death penalty for murder was abolished in 1969, and the last hanging took place in 1964.

To some persons, there is something horrendous and frightful about the very act of judicial killing. I have an opinion on this but the Ask a Philosopher site is not a forum for expressing personal opinions. The question is whether there is an argument in favour of the death penalty for any offence, however severe, or whether, on the contrary, the death penalty is never justified, in any circumstances whatsoever.

So there will be persons who reject the simplistic, ‘a life for a life’ argument, who would nevertheless be willing in principle to support the death penalty, perhaps for mass murder, or rape and murder. I think that answers your question. I don’t have a compelling argument for or against the death penalty in principle, except to say that a supporter of the death penalty ought to be prepared to be the one who does the killing, the execution, rather than leaving this to a functionary of the state.

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