A man lies strapped to a chair, several needles filled with lethal injections poised to strike. Several officers and doctors surround him, silently preparing the tools for his demise. He knows that, on the other side of the glass, several wounded family members and loved ones watch him. Only one of them is here for him: his mother. The rest are the kin of his victims. He is, of course, a murderer. That is how he got to this point. He pauses to question if he regrets his actions. In a way, he does not. He knows there are people outside this building right now that are protesting his death. Well, not his death specifically. They are against the death penalty. He knows it will not make a difference for him, here, today. But what about all those men still sitting on death row? Will they still meet this same fate? Or will their luck be changed?
Over the course of our country’s history, people have questioned whether or not the death penalty is morally permissible. After all, we are punishing those who have killed by killing them. Is that sound logic? Is that okay? There is great support on both sides: whether we should continue this practice or not. In sentencing killers to death, what kind of message are we sending? Is any lesson being learned? Can a lesson even be learned? So many questions and defenses arise when the topic of the death penalty comes up. However, the answer as to whether or not the practice should be continued lies in one fundamental consideration. Is the death penalty morally permissible?
According to many, it is. These people have “done the crime” and so they must “do the time,” so to speak. Murder is not to be tolerated and therefore those who commit murder must be stopped. The punishment, according to some, fits the crime. Let’s parallel this with Judith Jarvis Thompson’s “Trolley Problem.” You are a trolley driver and on the track ahead of you are five workmen. In order to save their lives, you must switch the lever to turn the trolley. However, on the other track there is a lone man. Is it morally permissible to turn the trolley onto that other track? According to Thompson’s interviews, it is morally permissible for you to turn the trolley. How does this connect? In both scenarios you are ending a life in order to save others. While you cannot bring back the theoretical victims of the man on death row, you can protect others from becoming his victims. In addition, this sends a message to the public that murder is wrong. If you kill someone, you will not be excused from punishment. It says, “if you commit murder, you may be made to forfeit your life.” As in the trolley example, neither option if preferable. However, one may be better than the other in the message it sends or the consequences it provides. It is morally permissible to turn the trolley because you will be able to save five lives, even at the cost of one. Along this logic, it is morally permissible to utilize the death penalty because the criminal has committed murder. “A life for a life,” as they say.
While many argue that the death penalty is morally permissible, many others say that it is not. They argue that all murder is wrong and that the death penalty counts as murder. They claim that allowing the death penalty to continue sends a mixed message a la “murder is wrong, except in the case of certain people.” The punishment, they say, is contrary to the reasoning behind it. To punish someone for murder with murder is not sound logic. Let’s go back to Thompson’s “Trolley Problem.” While many, according to Thompson, find turning the trolley morally permissible, others, feel very uncomfortable at the idea of turning it. They argue that, in deciding to turn the trolley and killing the lone man, you are valuing quantity of life over quality. In addition, you are devaluing that man’s life altogether by forcing him to give it in order to save others’. Why is the one life less significant than the lives of the other men? It is not. This is the same in the case of the man on death row. Why are we allowed to decide his life is less significant than others’? Who are we to say he does not deserve his life? Yes, he has killed, but he is still human. And no one has any right to say that any human’s life holds less value than another’s. In addition, it can be argued that, in killing at least one person, the man on death row devalued his victim’s life. He chose to end a life, suggesting he values their life less than, say, his own. If we sentence him to death, we are no better than the killer. We are saying that his life matters less than ours and therefore he must die. For many, there is no logic behind the death penalty. All it does is teach us that some lives are worth more than others.
When considering the morality of the death penalty, we must also consider our own role in allowing this practice to continue. By supporting it and by paying taxes (some of which inevitably goes towards death sentences), we are morally complicit in the carrying out of said sentences. Those who believe the death penalty is morally permissible and those who do not both have a stance on this as well. Those who believe the death penalty is morally permissible argue that this complicity is worth it. Those who believe the death penalty is not morally permissible argue that it is not. Let’s go back to Thompson’s “Trolley Problem,” but this time we’ll use the “Bystander’s Two Options” hypothetical. The situation stands as previously stated; however, this time you are not the trolley driver but a bystander. Your options remain the same. According to Thompson’s findings, most people find it morally permissible to turn the switch, killing only one. This view aligns with that of those who find the death penalty to be morally permissible. The accused and convicted committed a horrendous crime and therefore they feel no qualms about supporting their death at the hands of the government. They are perfectly content to let a portion of their tax dollars go to that. Those on the other side, however, still feel that this is a devaluing of human life and that the practice solves nothing. They openly oppose the idea and would prefer for their tax dollars to not go to such an antiquated practice. No matter which view you hold, however, your logic follows through on both sides. If the death penalty is morally permissible, then it is morally permissible to be complicit by supporting and paying for it. If it is not, then it is also not morally permissible to fund or support the death penalty.
We must also take into account whether death itself is an evil. Thomas Nagel says in his essay “Death,” “life is all we have and the loss of it is the greatest loss we can sustain.” This view of death is seemingly what is held by those who argue either for or against the death penalty. Those who claim the death penalty is morally permissible may cite this importance of life as the reason a convicted killer on death row may deserve it. They have committed a great evil and must therefore pay with what they value most. Those on the other side argue that the value of life is the very reason why the death penalty is not morally permissible. In allowing the death penalty, we are taking away that which is most precious to humans.
Both sides of this debate hold merit, making valid points on the morality of the death penalty. The conclusion drawn, therefore, is that the death penalty is morally permissible. However, it is only morally permissible in certain cases. Most cases of murder to not merit the death penalty and in fact serve only as a method of devaluing life and doing away with lives we deem corrupt or wrong. In addition, it actually undercuts the idea that murder is very, very wrong by its overuse. If the death penalty is not used sparingly, it loses its impact and ceases to enforce the lesson that murder is wrong. It ultimately only enforces murder itself. However, if it is used in only cases meeting certain criteria, it holds up the notion that murder is wrong and remains the ultimate punishment for only the worst crimes. Given this, the death penalty should only be used on serial killers, killers of minors, and particularly horrific cases. Ultimately, this saves the penalty for only the worst of the worst, those who likely could never fit back into society anyway due to severe mental deficiencies that make them dangerous. If the convicted serves that much of a threat, then the death penalty is morally permissible.
The man notices the doctors and police officers are beginning to cease their preparations. He knows his time is almost up. He tries to mold his face into defiant anger, but feels his heart rate increase. A bead of sweat forms on his forehead. This is really it. This is how it ends. He wonders if he made the best choice for his final meal. He wonders if the protestors outside have gotten rowdy. Will the police arrest any of them? He wonders how his mother must feel, bringing a killer into this world. Maybe she’ll be relieved when he’s dead. He wishes he could see her face one last time. He remembers when she asked him why he did it. He told her he didn’t know. It was a lie, one last lie to comfort his mother before she loses her only child. Maybe he should feel sorry for what he’s done. Mostly he’s only sorry he’s about to die. One of the officers ask if he has any final words. He thinks for a second, but finds nothing. He did what he set out to do, at least. He shakes his head. One of the doctors flips a switch. The cursed liquids flushes through the tubes before diving into his veins. It burns so bad. But wait, there’s a respite just at the end of this tunnel. Perhaps he did all those girls a favor.
Death is a blessing, after all.