Category: Justice
Religious, Legal, and Ethical Issues of the Death Penalty

The discussion around the issue of the death penalty has been raging for a very long time. People wonder whether it can hold back the growth of crime and if it should be applied at the current stage of the development of society. Scientists, lawyers, politicians, and public figures, as well as ordinary citizens, give different answers to these questions. At the present time, there are two points of view on the issue of the death penalty as a form of punishment. Some legal practitioners support the use of the death penalty, considering it not only as a certain legal limiter, but also as a physical elimination of criminals which guarantees the safety of people. Other lawyers fully oppose the death penalty. They explain their position by the fact that this kind of punishment is inappropriate or even immoral. All these points of view are quite reasonable. The purpose of the paper is to determine legal, religious, moral, and ethical issues of the death penalty, as well as to determine whether it has punitive functions or it is just an inhuman way of killing people.

The Institute of the Death Penalty: General Characteristics

The death penalty is a form of punishment executed by the deprivation of a person’s life, permissible by law. It is considered one of the most archaic forms of punishment, as the death penalty had existed long before the appearance of criminal law in its modern sense. Thus, deprivation of life as a form of public punishment for criminals has occurred much earlier.

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The main feature of the death penalty is that it is a form of punishment. It has the features that characterize it as a measure of state coercion. At the core of every punishment, there is penalty. It is a complex of limitations established by law that are solidly expressed in the application of a certain form of punishment. On the basis of this definition, it is clear that penalty deprives a person of their rights, or introduces a special procedure aimed to rehabilitate them or to reduce the level of their threat. There is also a set of special duties which are not normally assigned to the law-abiding citizens. The death penalty is, therefore, a higher degree of punishment as a person is deprived of the most expensive thing – their life. As a result, they lose the rest of their rights — however, not entirely. A citizen who is sentenced to death remains a citizen of the state until the last moments of life. Thus, this person still has some civil rights, as well as the legal status. For example, they may dispose of the property which was not confiscated by the court decision.

Researchers of the issue of death penalty particularly emphasize the fact that it is accompanied by suffering. It is an integral part of any punishment. However, suffering of the person condemned to death has a different nature. At this point, the vast majority of convicted experience a fear of death coupled with a sense of despair and remorse. Despite this fact, sufferings of the offender are no longer meaningful to the society because the death penalty is not designed to change the offender. The society deletes an offender from its ranks entirely, and thus a person ceases to exist.

Consequently, the most important question arises, contemplating the direct relation between the purpose of the death penalty and its final result. It lies in the understanding of whether the society wants to punish the offender for the criminal acts committed, or if people simply want to deprive a person of life, thereby protecting themselves from the new offenses on their part. People respond differently to this question. In many countries, there are still methods of the death penalty which cause additional physical suffering. For example, there is a punishment by stoning a person to death. The climax of the suffering of the convicted person is a humiliation of the human dignity. In the book The Death Penalty, it is stated that the death penalty is not useful because of the example of savagery it gives to men. However, many countries try to find more humane ways of the death penalty, thereby minimizing the pain of a person. These methods may include the use of the electric chair, lethal injection, shooting, or a gas chamber.

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Religious Problems of the Death Penalty

Religion always promotes a normal level of morality within the society. In the book Religion and the Global Politics of Human Rights, it is noted that the religious impact on the politics of the death penalty was probably the most significant. Both countries that have abolished the death penalty and countries that continue to use it refer to a variety of religions and are not grouped on similar religious grounds. From this, it can be seen that the death penalty is not the hallmark of a particular religion. In the teachings of the major religions of the world, ideas of charity, compassion, and forgiveness play the key role. Therefore, any religion must be against causing death to accomplish justice.

If to analyze the attitude of Christianity during the entire period of its existence to death, it can be seen how it changes. The early Church was against the death penalty, based on the teachings of Jesus Christ. This doctrine is very clearly expressed in the words of the Savior: Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also (Matthew 5:38-39). Subsequently, the majority of Christians started to believe that the death penalty was permitted for the sake of justice, in order to preserve the rule of law and to prevent violence. Despite this, the death penalty has never been considered by Christians as a perfect and desirable act, but as something inevitable.

Nowadays, from the point of view of Christian ethics, there are different opinions on the issue of the death penalty. The main argument in favor of the death penalty lies in the fact that the elementary justice requires that the perpetrator who forcibly deprived another person of life deserve the same fate. Another argument is that the death penalty serves the common good of society. Opponents of the death penalty also use an idea of the sanctity of human life as an argument, as well as the thesis that human judgment is not infallible. In its latest statements, the Catholic Church serves as an active opponent of the death penalty worldwide. The Vatican strongly supports all those who work toward the abolition of the death penalty and toward the imposition of a universal moratorium on it. There is a special emphasis on the fact that there is always a risk of condemning an innocent man. It is a highly significant argument because even with all the seriousness the modern society treats the justice process with, there are still egregious cases of judicial errors, and it is impossible to correct them due to the nature of this type of punishment.

It can be concluded that religion contributes to the overall level of morality in society and plays a role of a serious deterrent of the application of the death penalty. Its canons forbid the infliction of death and at the same time carry an idea of the sanctity of human life. By virtue of its authority, religion influences the society by pushing people to the gradual abolition of the death penalty.

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Moral and Ethical Issues of the Death Penalty

Along with the rest of the problems standing in the way of the death penalty, it is necessary to regard another kind of contradictions that prevent the use of this kind of punishment on the parts of morality and ethics. To address this aspect, it is important to determine what such concepts as morality and ethics represent. Morality is one of the main ways of normative regulation of human actions. It embraces moral views and feelings, life orientation and principles, goals and motives of actions and relationships by drawing the line between good and evil, honest and dishonesty, honor and dishonor, justice and injustice. Morality is the value structure of consciousness and a way to regulate human actions in all spheres of life, including work, family life, and environment. Ethics is a doctrine of morality.

In terms of restoring social justice, the death penalty is justified. Nonetheless, it should not be forgotten that the inadmissibility of the use of the death penalty is justified by the fact that such a punishment is extremely harsh. Proponents of this view claim that life is given by God and only God can take it away. A man has no right to take the life of another person. The thesis about the value of another person’s life can not be challenged. However, the life of the victim has the same value, but it does not bother the killer.

Some authors who are against the cruelty of such kind of punishment argue that the injustice of its appointment lies in the fact that the suffering of a person sentenced to death is heavier than suffering of the victim. Thus, Barbara MacKinnon and Andrew Fiala claim that the horror of the death penalty is greater than the terror experienced by the victim of the murder. According to the authors, in the vast majority of cases, physical suffering of the victim of the death penalty is nothing compared to the mental agonies associated with the expectation of death, as well as separation from family and friends. However, this argument is unlikely to evoke the sympathy to the murderer, as those people have been doomed to this suffering by themselves. In addition, evaluating the sufferings of the murdered and the murderer, it is impossible to ignore the fact that one of them is an innocent victim while the other is a criminal. Moreover, the mere fact of such a comparison seems immoral. It is hardly possible to weigh the suffering of the victim and the offender’s on the same scales. At the same time, it should be noted that long expectation of the death penalty brings additional suffering. Thus, it can be concluded that there is a necessity to establish the reasonable limits in regard to death penalty, the problem of which has existed for a very long time in some countries.

The problem of the death penalty does not lose its relevance. It includes many aspects of the legal, political, ethical, religious, and philosophical nature. At all times, this problem powerfully attracted the public attention as it is associated with the fundamental values of life. It is almost always polarized and dragged in opposite directions of opinions on its fairness, appropriateness, and legality. Politicians, legal practitioners, and citizens conduct active debates on the issue of the death penalty. People have released different literature devoted to this topic. Despite this fact, they have not come to a single conclusion. In such a way, a problem of this study is highly relevant in modern conditions. The current paper has studied the religious and moral attitudes to the death penalty. It is possible to make a conclusion that the death penalty as a criminal punishment serves as legal restriction that deters the criminals.

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