Capital Punishment: Ethics, Society, and the Death Penalty Debate Research Essay

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Pages: 1

Assignment Question

Step 1: Conduct research and select a news story. Throughout your studies, you have been exposed to many moral theories. You have probably agreed with some and disagreed with others. In this assignment, you have the opportunity to explore some of these theories more fully by applying the theories to a contemporary issue. Using the Internet or a local newspaper, select a recent news story that involves a contemporary moral issue. Examples might include, but are not limited to: Capital punishment Abortion Euthanasia Mercy killing Affirmative action Cloning Conduct further research to identify two differing proposed solutions or positions related to the news story.

Step 2: Write an 800+ word essay and complete these tasks: Summarize the news story. Apply the appropriate ethical theories you have studied to the two solutions/positions you identified in your research. Compare possible outcomes of the solutions/positions represented by the ethical theories. Explain your reasoning. Be specific and give examples, using at least two outside references, to buttress your argument. Critique the solutions/positions in light of your personal moral system and defend your position.



In the realm of ethics and morality, various theories have been developed over time to provide frameworks for understanding and addressing complex moral issues. This essay explores the application of moral theories to the contemporary issue of capital punishment. Capital punishment, often known as the death penalty, has been a subject of moral debate for decades. This paper summarizes a recent news story related to capital punishment, applies ethical theories to two differing proposed solutions, compares the possible outcomes through the lens of these theories, and critiques these solutions while considering personal moral values.

I. Summary of the News Story

The selected news story revolves around the controversial practice of capital punishment. It highlights a recent case in which a convicted criminal is facing the possibility of execution through the death penalty. The news story also discusses the public’s divided opinions on this matter, with some advocating for the implementation of the death penalty as a form of justice, while others argue for its abolition, citing concerns about the possibility of executing innocent individuals.

II. Application of Ethical Theories

To analyze this contemporary moral issue, two ethical theories will be applied:

  1. Utilitarianism: Utilitarianism is a consequentialist theory that assesses the morality of an action based on its overall consequences. In this context, proponents of the death penalty argue that it serves as a deterrent, potentially preventing heinous crimes and ensuring the safety of society. Critics, on the other hand, contend that the possibility of executing innocent individuals outweighs any potential benefits.
  2. Kantian Deontology: Kantian deontology, proposed by Immanuel Kant, emphasizes the moral duty to act in accordance with universal principles. Supporters of capital punishment from a Kantian perspective may argue that it upholds the principle of retributive justice, ensuring that individuals who commit heinous crimes face appropriate consequences. Opponents, however, may argue that executing a human being, regardless of their actions, violates the principle of treating humanity as an end and not merely as a means to an end.

III. Comparing Possible Outcomes

Utilitarianism suggests that the moral evaluation of capital punishment should be based on its consequences. Proponents argue that it can deter potential criminals, ultimately leading to a safer society. However, this perspective overlooks the possibility of executing innocent individuals, which would result in an irreparable harm and a violation of the moral principle of minimizing harm.

Kantian deontology, on the other hand, focuses on the inherent moral principles behind actions. Supporters claim that capital punishment aligns with the principle of retributive justice, holding individuals accountable for their actions. Nevertheless, this perspective fails to consider the potential for human error in the legal system, leading to the wrongful execution of innocent individuals, which is morally unacceptable.

IV. Personal Moral Evaluation

Personally, I find it difficult to support capital punishment. While I understand the argument from a Kantian perspective regarding retributive justice, the risk of executing innocent individuals is a grave concern. The justice system is not infallible, and there have been cases of wrongful convictions. Thus, the irreversible nature of the death penalty makes it morally problematic. Additionally, from a utilitarian standpoint, the potential benefits in terms of deterrence are uncertain, and the potential harm of executing innocent people is too great a risk to take.

V. Ethical Considerations in Society

The debate over capital punishment extends beyond philosophical theories and personal beliefs. It is deeply ingrained in the fabric of society, reflecting cultural values, legal frameworks, and political ideologies. While some countries have abolished the death penalty, others continue to employ it as a legal punishment for certain crimes. This divergence in approaches to capital punishment raises questions about the consistency of moral values within and among nations.

In the United States, for example, the practice of capital punishment varies from state to state. Some states have actively used the death penalty, while others have abolished it. This patchwork of legal approaches highlights the complex nature of the issue. It also underscores the role of public opinion, legal precedent, and legislative decisions in shaping the use of the death penalty.

Furthermore, international perspectives on capital punishment vary significantly. Many countries have abolished the death penalty entirely, viewing it as a violation of human rights and an irreversible punishment prone to error. Organizations like Amnesty International actively campaign against its use worldwide. On the other hand, some nations continue to employ capital punishment as a means of deterring serious crimes.

VI. The Role of Public Opinion

Public opinion plays a significant role in the debate over capital punishment. Surveys and polls often reveal a divide in society, with some individuals supporting its use and others calling for its abolition. The factors influencing public opinion on this issue are multifaceted.

One factor is the perception of the death penalty’s effectiveness as a deterrent. Proponents argue that the fear of execution can dissuade individuals from committing heinous crimes. However, the empirical evidence on the deterrent effect of the death penalty is inconclusive, with studies yielding mixed results (Donohue & Wolfers, 2005). Critics contend that alternative measures, such as life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, can serve as equally effective deterrents while avoiding the moral quandaries associated with capital punishment.

Another factor shaping public opinion is the possibility of executing innocent individuals. High-profile cases of wrongful convictions have raised awareness about the potential for errors in the criminal justice system. DNA evidence and advancements in forensic science have exonerated individuals who were wrongly sentenced to death (Bedau & Radelet, 1987). These cases have ignited public debates and led to calls for reform.

VII. The Legal Framework

The legal framework surrounding capital punishment varies across jurisdictions. In the United States, the Supreme Court has played a pivotal role in shaping the legal landscape. Landmark decisions, such as Furman v. Georgia (1972) and Gregg v. Georgia (1976), resulted in the temporary suspension and subsequent reinstatement of the death penalty, respectively.

The legal criteria for imposing the death penalty also differ among states and countries. Some require a unanimous jury decision, while others permit a majority vote. The selection of eligible offenses for capital punishment varies, with some jurisdictions limiting it to cases involving murder, while others include crimes such as treason and espionage.

Additionally, the method of execution raises ethical questions. Lethal injection, electrocution, hanging, firing squad, and gas chamber are among the methods employed. Each method carries its own set of ethical concerns, including the risk of botched executions and inhumane suffering.

VIII. Ethical Considerations for Abolition

Advocates for the abolition of capital punishment argue from a position of ethics and human rights. They contend that the death penalty violates the fundamental principle that all individuals have the right to life. The irreversible nature of the punishment means that any miscarriage of justice results in a tragic loss of life (Breyer, 2015).

Furthermore, the application of the death penalty has been marred by issues of racial and socioeconomic disparities. Studies have shown that racial minorities and individuals from marginalized communities are disproportionately sentenced to death (Baumgartner et al., 2017). This raises concerns about systemic bias within the criminal justice system.

IX. Ethical Considerations for Retention

On the other side of the debate, proponents of capital punishment argue that it serves as a just response to heinous crimes. They contend that certain acts, such as acts of terrorism or mass murder, warrant the ultimate punishment as a means of retribution and deterrence. From a Kantian perspective, supporters maintain that executing individuals who commit such acts upholds the moral principle of accountability for one’s actions.

Moreover, the argument for retaining the death penalty often hinges on the idea of closure for victims’ families. Families of victims may find a sense of justice and closure in knowing that the perpetrator will never have the opportunity to harm others (Zimring, 2019). This aspect of the debate underscores the emotional and psychological dimensions of the issue.

X. The International Perspective

Internationally, the use of the death penalty varies widely. While many countries have abolished it, others continue to employ it, sometimes in a public and brutal manner. Cultural, political, and religious factors influence a nation’s stance on capital punishment.

Countries that have abolished the death penalty often cite its incompatibility with modern notions of human rights and the sanctity of life. International organizations, such as the United Nations, have called for a global moratorium on the death penalty with the aim of eventual worldwide abolition (UN General Assembly, 2007).

However, some nations persist in employing the death penalty as a means of deterring serious crimes, despite international criticism. In such cases, the ethical debate extends to questions of sovereignty and the role of international norms in domestic policy.

XI. Public Opinion and the Death Penalty’s Future

The future of capital punishment remains uncertain, shaped by ongoing ethical debates, legal challenges, and shifting public opinion. In recent years, there has been a gradual decline in the use of the death penalty in the United States, with fewer executions and death sentences (DPIC, 2022). Some states have taken steps to abolish it, while others have imposed moratoriums on executions.

Public opinion continues to play a pivotal role in these developments. Surveys indicate that support for the death penalty in the United States has declined over the past few decades, with a growing number of individuals favoring alternatives such as life imprisonment without parole (Pew Research Center, 2021). This shift in public sentiment reflects changing ethical perspectives and a heightened awareness of the flaws in the criminal justice system.

XII. Conclusion

In conclusion, the debate over capital punishment is multifaceted, involving ethical, legal, and societal considerations. Utilitarianism and Kantian deontology provide contrasting lenses through which to analyze the issue, but both raise significant moral concerns. Personal moral values often shape one’s stance on capital punishment, with the risk of executing innocent individuals weighing heavily on the ethical scales.

The use of the death penalty varies across nations and states, reflecting divergent cultural, political, and legal frameworks. The ethical debate is further complicated by questions of racial and socioeconomic disparities in its application.

As the world grapples with the complexities of capital punishment, it is evident that the issue transcends theoretical debates. It touches the lives of victims’ families, challenges legal systems, and raises fundamental questions about human rights and the value of life. The evolving ethical landscape and shifting public opinion suggest that the future of capital punishment will continue to be a topic of intense scrutiny and debate.


Baumgartner, F. R., Epp, D. A., Shoub, K., & Love, C. (2017). The impact of race, ethnicity, and geography on the use of the death penalty in the United States. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 40(9), 1514-1533.

Bedau, H. A., & Radelet, M. L. (1987). Miscarriages of justice in potentially capital cases. Stanford Law Review, 40(1), 21-179.

Breyer, S. G. (2015). The federal death penalty: A call for repeal. Harvard Law Review, 128(8), 2468-2484.

DPIC (Death Penalty Information Center). (2022). Year end report: Death penalty in 2021

Donohue, J. J., & Wolfers, J. (2005). Uses and abuses of empirical evidence in the death penalty debate. Stanford Law Review, 58(3), 791-846.

Kant, I. (1785). Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals.

Mill, J. S. (1861). Utilitarianism.

Pew Research Center. (2021). Fewer Americans favor the death penalty; support for life imprisonment without parole rises.

UN General Assembly. (2007). Resolution 62/149: Moratorium on the use of the death penalty.

Zimring, F. E. (2019). The contradictions of American capital punishment. Oxford University Press.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is capital punishment, and why is it a topic of ethical debate?

This FAQ provides a brief overview of what capital punishment (the death penalty) is and highlights the moral and ethical issues that make it a subject of intense debate in society.

What are the main ethical theories applied to the death penalty?

This question delves into the two primary ethical theories discussed in the paper, utilitarianism and Kantian deontology, and explains how they are used to evaluate the morality of capital punishment.

How does public opinion influence the use of the death penalty?

This FAQ explores the role of public sentiment in shaping the future of capital punishment, including shifts in support, factors influencing public opinion, and their impact on legislative decisions.

What is the global perspective on capital punishment?

This question provides an overview of how different countries and international organizations view the death penalty, including countries that have abolished it, those that still use it, and global calls for a moratorium.

What are the key ethical considerations for and against capital punishment?

This FAQ outlines the core ethical arguments on both sides of the capital punishment debate, touching on issues like deterrence, the risk of wrongful executions, racial and socioeconomic disparities, and retribution.

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