Ethics and capital punishment

IF YOU have read this column regularly hopefully you have noticed I try to demonstrate there are many different ways of looking at ethical problems. There are three major schools of ethics which can be summarised by the following three simple questions:

1. What are the consequences of what I am about to do? This is the utilitarian approach to ethics which equates the moral act with the act that leads to the greatest happiness for those affected.

2. What if everyone did that? This is the Kantian school where an act is moral if the act can be universalised without contradiction; that is everyone in the same circumstances must be morally required to do the same thing.

3. What would a virtuous person do? This is Aristotle's virtue ethics where we focus on the character traits of the person we ought to be.

One issue not yet discussed in this column is capital punishment. Given the global nature of our community the use of capital punishment in other countries affects Australian citizens, or perpetrators of crimes against Australians such as the Bali bombers. Julian Assange could be extradited to the US and tried for treason which carries the death penalty. By doing nothing to assist Assange, the Australian government could be complicit in a form of punishment it presumably considers immoral.

Capital punishment involves execution after proper legal trial for specific extreme criminal acts. The countries in which most executions take place are China, Iran, the USA, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. The main arguments in support of the death penalty are the belief it deters potential murderers; it prevents re-offending and supporters believe it provides just retribution for heinous crimes.

Opponents believe that capital punishment is an act of vengeance that violates the basic human right to life; will always result in innocent people being executed given inherent flaws in the legal system (in the USA 116 people have been subsequently found not guilty and released from death-row and 56% of death row inmates are black or Hispanic, suggesting racial bias); and the methods of execution are believed to cause unnecessary pain and suffering.

Applying the second question above specifically to capital punishment leads to 'what if every country executes criminals after due legal process for specific crimes?' This policy could be applied globally without inherent contradiction. This is not the type of world I want to live in, but that is a question of consequences which is not relevant to Kantian ethics. Using this one simple test does not lead to the conclusion that capital punishment is unethical.


But the implications of the third question applied more generally 'what kind of society ought we to be' I feel has a more compelling outcome. The actions of this virtuous society that we aspire to must not in any way resemble the actions of perpetrators of heinous crimes whom we are punishing. We should aspire to be a compassionate, peaceful and tolerant society which values every human life. Sanctioning a system which takes away human life of both guilty and inevitably some innocent victims in the name of justice doesn't fit my understanding of this virtuous society.

Admittedly the selection of specific virtues is subjective. However taking this aspirational approach to ethics does force us to examine our values, priorities and what we believe we should be.

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