Deterrence Or Retributivism Which Theory Philosophy Essay

Looking at punishment as a whole, its aim varies from retribution to social ben

Capital punishment is defined as execution as a punishment for a person convicted of committing a crime. This form of punishment is usually perceived in the United States as being reserved for crimes such as aggravated murder, felony murder, and contract killing, but in reality the application of capital punishment varies widely. When you look at the world, capital punishment is imposed for a wide array of crimes, such as espionage, treason, as part of military justice, sexual crimes (such as rape, adultery, incest and sodomy), religious crimes such as the formal renunciation of the State religion in Islamic nations, drug trafficking, human trafficking, serious cases of corruption, and in militaries around the world, court martials have imposed death sentences for offenses such as cowardice, desertion, insubordination, and mutiny. ( It is therefore not surprising that capital punishment has a huge following of supporters both for and against it. Those against it usually center their arguments on the morality of capital punishment. Through my ethics class, I have learned that the best way to evaluate morality is to look at three things: the motivation, the act itself, and the consequences. For capital punishment the motivations are punishment, retribution, and deterrence. The act itself varies, but can be such things as lethal injection, electrocution, and hanging; and of course the consequence is death. Death is by inhumane methods and not only affect the prisoner who is losing his life, but also the person performing the execution. Although capital punishment is legal in many countries and parts of the United States, I seek to prove that it is an inhumane and immoral form of punishment, whose detrimental effects well outweigh the benefits.

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In order to prove that capital punishment is inhumane, it is necessary to look at the history of capital punishment. The execution of criminals and political opponents has been used by nearly all societies-both to punish crime and to suppress political dissent. The use of formal execution extends to the beginning of recorded history. Most historical records and various primitive tribal practices indicate that the death penalty was a part of their justice system. Historical forms of capital punishment were often extremely violent and repulsing. Some examples of this are: quartering (as seen in The Song of Roland), being devoured by animals, boiling to death, being buried alive, burning (as was done to suspected witches), crucifixion, crushing, decapitation, dismemberment, drowning (like in the mafia movies), and stoning (as seen in the Bible).

I list all these horrific methods of punishment by death to juxtapose them with the modern, more humane forms of capital punishment. In the recent history of the United States, capital punishment has existed in the form of hanging, electrocution, and lethal injection. Electrocution and lethal injection still exists to this day. It is true that these modern methods are more acceptable than those used by ancient people, and even some other modern societies but all the current methods are far from humane. For example, electrocution is inhumane because it is extremely painful until the prisoner becomes unconscious and brain death occurs. Anyone who knows how painful it feels to bump into an electric fence would not want to endure death by electrocution. There have even been occasions where the electric chair has malfunctioned, which could prolong suffering. The electric chair should not be considered as a humane method of capital punishment in modern society.

Another modern method of capital punishment is lethal injection. Lethal injection was introduced in Oklahoma by Reverend Bill Wiseman in 1977, but the process was originally conceived by state medical examiner, Jay Chapman, and was approved by anesthesiologist Stanley Deutsch. Texas was the first state to use it. It has since been adopted by The People’s Republic of China, which began using this method in 1997, Guatemala in 1998, the Philippines in 1999, Thailand in 2003, Taiwan in 2005, and in all but 17 states in the United States. Lethal injection uses a combination of three drugs to kill the prisoner: sodium thiopental to induce unconsciousness, pancuronium bromide to cause muscle paralysis and respiratory arrest, and potassium chloride to stop the heart. This is a very humane method of execution compared to all the others; however, it is unclear as to whether the drug sodium thiopental is efficient in maintaining unconsciousness, since it does not do so when used for surgery. Also, a study done by the University of Miami and published in the medical journal, “The Lancer”, shows that many of the people performing the lethal injection have no anesthesia training; that the drugs were administered remotely with no monitoring for anesthesia; and that the data was not recorded and no peer review was done. So it is unclear as to whether the prisoners were being executed humanely or if they were in excruciating pain. This form of capital punishment is viewed as the most humane, but in reality it is inhumane just like electrocution.

Having discussed the inhumane nature of capital punishment both historically and currently, what are the major arguments in support of it? The Supreme Court of the United States provided two reasons for capital punishment: retribution and deterrence. These are the main reasons that people support it. Many people feel that the punishment should fit the crime. So capital punishment should be the most fitting sentence for the most heinous of crimes. In the same way, capital punishment as a deterrence is supported because it prevents future heinous acts from being committed. This makes people feel safe. Deterrence cannot be effectively accomplished by the alternative to capital punishment, life in prison without the possibility of parole, because it would still be possible for the prisoners to commit crimes, either while in jail against other prisoners or guards, or by escaping from prison. Therefore, capital punishment is accepted as the best form of deterrence. It also gives the victim’s family closure knowing the criminal is no longer around to do anyone harm.

There are strong arguments opposing capital punishment. Some people feel that it is more of a punishment to make the criminals live in prison, incarcerated for the rest of their lives, rather than having a short life in prison. They believe that prison life would continually punish a criminal for years and years, with death as the only release. These opponents of capital punishment believe that the same objectives would be met by life in prison: deterrence, retribution, and closure. Unlike this closure, the closure received from capital punishment, can be delayed for a very long time due to the built in appeal system under capital punishment. The appeal process also causes the cost of executing a prisoner to skyrocket in relation to the cost of keeping him in prison for life. If we look as California for example, in June 2008, the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice found that California annually spends approximately $137.7 million dollars on the death penalty. By replacing the death penalty with permanent imprisonment, the Commission noted that the state could save in excess of $125 million per year. ( The high cost and long appeal system have caused many pro-capital punishment judges to change their minds. One judge, Judge Kozinsi, gave a speech in which he noted that “the number of executions compared to the number of people who have been sentenced to death is minuscule” and concluded that “whatever purposes the death penalty is said to serve – deterrence, retribution, assuaging the pain suffered by victims’ families – those purposes are not served by the system as it now operates.” Judge Kozinski added that the costs of death penalty prosecutions far outweighed the results, and that because of the proliferation of such prosecutions “there would have to be one execution every day for the next 26 years” to handle the volume. He recommended that death penalty prosecutions should only be brought against “the most depraved killers.” (

Ultimately, the most important argument against capital punishment is that it is immoral. No matter how you look at it, capital punishment is killing, and murder is always wrong! A further look at the morality of capital punishment is needed, because although murder is deemed a moral absolute, this is not always the case. Depending on what form of morality you believe in, murder can sometimes be deemed moral. In ethics class, we looked at five main types of ethical theories. Four of the theories are flawed: utilitarianism, Kantianism (deontology), egoism, relativism, and the fifth, virtue ethics, is not. Let us now examine each theory’s view of capital punishment.

The utilitarianism theory would view capital punishment as moral. This is because utilitarianism looks at what would make the most people happy. Utilitarianism was founded by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. It is a consequentialistic theory of morality. This means that it is only concerned with the consequences of an act. Moreover, utilitarianism is concerned solely with what increases the overall utility, happiness, of a society. This blind concern for consequences and ignoring the minority view is what makes utilitarianism a flawed theory. Therefore, although the consequence of capital punishment is the killing of prisoners, utilitarianism would view this to be moral since it helps society increase their overall happiness. By killing the prisoners the victim’s family would be happy at the justice being dispensed, and the rest of society would be happy because they would feel safer knowing that the prisoner can never escape and harm them or their families. The utilitarian view does allow for life imprisonment as a viable alternative to capital punishment, since the prisoner is still being punished and will not be able to cause the overall happiness of society to diminish.

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The second theory of ethics is Kantianism also called Deontology. Kantianism views capital punishment as being immoral. Deontology is an ethical theory, founded by Immanuel Kant, that focuses on the rightness or wrongness of intentions or motives behind action such as respect for rights, duties, or principles, as opposed to the rightness or wrongness of the consequences of those actions. It is sometimes described as duty based ethics, because deontologists believe that ethical rules are bound by duty. This theory is flawed because it only looks at intentions and not the act or consequences. Many times good intention can have unintentional bad consequences and vice versa. This is called the double effect principle. Deontologist view capital punishment as being wrong by its nature, a violation of the right to life, which is a universal law for them. They also look at the inhumane ways that capital punishment is carried out. An argument that they make against capital punishment is that by killing the prisoner, it causes the prisoner’s family and friends to become victims themselves. On the other hand, Deontologists can view capital punishment as moral by saying that it is only natural for the families of the victims to seek retribution for the loss of life, that the punishment fits the crime. The belief is that without proper retribution, the judicial system further brutalizes the victim or victim’s family and friends, which amounts to secondary victimization. In the context of deontology, life imprisonment cannot be used as a substitute for the death penalty, since any length of incarceration is a violation of the right to liberty. In deontological terms, nothing is gained by substituting the violation of one type of right (the right to life) with that of another (the right to liberty).

From the egoism perspective, capital punishment may be viewed as moral. Egoism states that all individual conduct has a motivation. This primary motivation is self-interest. By this theory, everything is fair game. Egoism looks at the motivation as the sole determinate for morality. In egoism, an act is moral if the motivation is for one’s own self-interest. That is why it is a flawed theory of ethics. The individual who commits the crime does so out of self-interest, even if it merits capital punishment. I believe that egoism would say that since one person can act out of self-interest and take away the life of another, then equally capital punishment should be an acceptable response. Egoism would also allow for life imprisonment to be an alternative for capital punishment.

The final flawed theory of ethics is relativism. Relativism believes that capital punishment is both moral and immoral. Moral relativism is an extreme form of Individualism. Individualism is the belief that all actions are determined by, or at least take place for, the benefit of the individual, not of society as a whole. Moral relativism can also be view as a form of Solipsism, the theory that only the self exists, or can be proved to exist. Relativism does not only have to apply to an individual but it can be a cultural relativism, in which the moral beliefs of a culture is deemed to be correct. If two culture’s or people’s beliefs are in direct contradiction, then moral relativism would state that both beliefs are correct. This would make it impossible for anything to be immoral. Therefore, the morality of capital punishment to a relativist depends on who is being asked.

Virtue Ethics is the only non-flawed theory of ethics and was founded by Aristotle. One way of looking at capital punishment through Aristotle’s eyes is to apply Teleology to the issue. Teleology means the end of the process. The end to capital punishment is to put to death the person guilty of the crime. Capital punishment is intended to punish a person by taking his or her life. But there can be a second interpretation of the ethical issue of capital punishment and that is that the end of capital punishment is the prevention of a crime in the first place. Thus according to teleology, capital punishment could be considered to have two different ends. However, this is not the complete picture. Virtue ethics uses the motivation, the act itself, and the consequences to decide morality. I believe that virtue ethics would ultimately find capital punishment to be immoral. The motivations of capital punishment are punishment, retribution, and deterrence. The first and last motives are positive ones, and the second is not. The act varies, but can be things such as lethal injection, electrocution, and hanging. The act of killing is a universal law and is always wrong. The consequence of capital punishment, death, does not only affect the prisoner who is losing their life, but also the person performing the execution. The consequences can also be viewed as wrong because it harms people. Since all three criteria combined is wrong, the act is immoral. But this is still not the whole answer. Thomas Aquinas came after Aristotle and revamped virtue ethics. Aquinas believed that although there were moral absolutes and universal laws, it is dangerous to apply it to everyone indiscriminately. He believed that exceptions to all rules are needed since people live in very different conditions. Through this theory, one could argue that the death penalty is immoral but there can be circumstances in which capital punishment is moral.

Therefore it is clear that one could reach different conclusions when determining the morality of capital punishment using the five different theories of ethics. Yet a strong case can be made that it is immoral because the motivations (punishment or revenge) the act itself (killing the person by electrocution, lethal injection, or any other way) and the consequences (death of the prisoner, the pain and suffering of the prisoner’s family, and the psychological effects to the executioner) are all immoral. In conclusion capital punishment is an inhumane form of punishment that has been around for a very long time and should be abolished in these modern times. The execution of a person is cruel, and even lethal injection has not been proven to be painless. Although there are good arguments both for and against capital punishment, the arguments against it whether financial, moral, or other, far outweigh the arguments for it. My personal opinion of the capital punishment is that it is a just punishment for the crime committed but should be banned because it is immoral and life in prison offers an alternative punishment that can obtain the same goals. There are also financial ramifications. I believe that the prisoners who are sentenced to death row belong there. In many cases, the way that they are executed is way more humane than how they murdered their victims. It is unfortunate that the process takes so long. As a result, many of the prisoners on death row die of natural causes before their execution date. The prisoners are often kept too comfortable while waiting for their executions. For example, the prisoners have televisions in their cells, and are kept away from other prisoners who may want to bother them. Some prisons even allow the death row inmates to keep cats as pets, and in others, the inmates eat so well that they become obese and are then not allowed to be executed because the lethal injection or electric chair protocols are not equipped for people of their size. Finally I believe capital punishment should be banned because of the cost. I do not think it is right or fair to pump so much money into executing a prisoner.


efit or rehabilitation. In behaviourism, punishment is referred to as the consequence for undesired behaviour: it can be positive or negative, depending on the nature of the consequences (B.F, Skinner, n.d). In all, punishment is uncomfortable for the one experiencing it. It is with great effort that modern philosophers have tried to explain what punishment it. Kant in his book ‘The science of right’, stated that to punish an offender is the sole right of the sovereign as the supreme power of the head of the state (Kant and Hastie, 1790, p.82). Based on Kant’s philosophy, if justice and righteousness should perish, the world would have no purpose. Kant is for the notion that punishment is some form of retribution for the offended which is implemented by the authority to the offender. For Kant, the minute a person commits an unjust act, he already gives himself the right to be punished (Kant and Hastie, 1790, p.82; Barber 1994). As stated by Kant “In every punishment, as such, there must first be justice, and this constitutes the essence of the notion” (Kant, 1788, p.35), meaning that the punisher must feel that justice is served and that the punished must also feel that justice has been served unto him. In this sense, punishment is mentally and physically evil, but not morally evil (Kant, 1788, p.35).

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The practice of punishment can be greatly reflected from prehistoric scriptures and from the words of prehistoric philosophers like Plato, Aristotle and Socrates. For Socrates, punishment is necessary “to serve as a corrective measure that would be of benefit to the criminal by helping him to overcome his evil tendencies” (Patterson, 1975, p.44). On the other hand, Aristotle sees punishment as a paternal, where the punisher exercises his power as that of a father to a child and a king to his subjects. Another view was conveyed by Crito, where punishment “was to enable society to get even with the criminal by inflicting upon him an evil that was equivalent to the one he had caused others to suffer” (Patterson, 1975, p.44).

Let us now look at the question as to which should be morally preferred between deterrence and retributivism. The first question that pops to mind is why should either of the two be preferred? What is morally superior about any of them? Is deterrence morally superior to retributivism and is retributivism morally superior to deterrence? Deterrence is a theory believed by Jeremy Bentham, a Utilitarian philosopher, influenced by the works of Beccaria. In his book An introduction to the principles of morals and legislation, he argued that “nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure” (Bentham, 1948, p.125). Bentham’s approach is to act in way that creates the greatest good for the greatest number. The good is a product of pleasure and the bad is a product of pain, therefore in a Utilitarian system pleasure and pain are the standards for value. To illustrate, if there is an epidemic of sheep being stolen and the desired outcome is for the sheep to stop being stolen, whoever is stealing the sheep should be caught and punished. As much as this is a lot of pain for one person, it benefits the majority and also serves as a deterrence mechanism. Generally, the moral theory of utilitarianism proposes that right and wrong are products of the balance of good and bad in a specific action (Corlett, 2008).

The practicality of deterrence theorized reduction in crime that results from making crime too costly of a proposition for a potential criminal. That is, from economic perspective, by disincentivizing crime for individuals, the price becomes too high.

Deterrence comes in two basic forms, general deterrence and specific deterrence. Specific deterrence is designed to deter only the offending individual from committing that crime in the future (Deterrence theory, n.d, p.233). General deterrence is designed to prevent crime in the general population. Consequently, the states punishment of offenders serves as an example for others in the general population who have not yet participated in criminal events (Deterrence theory, n.d, p.233). Based on general deterrence, some may morally favour deterrence over retributivism; it does not seek to create harm against those who perpetrate offences, it merely seeks to deter them. Looking at deterrence in general, research shows that genes may influence or cause criminal behaviour (Daily reporter, November, 2010). In light of this, will it be right to punish an individual for an action that was probably beyond his/her control.

Unlike deterrence, Kant’s philosophy of retributivism is more concerned and based on morality instead of the political nature of punishment (Clear, 1994). In that the victim feels a sense of involvement, justice and fairness. Retributivism is a backward looking theory on punishment and aims to create a just society by looking to the past to determine what is to be done in the present, so long as it is just, deterrence does not matter. Kant supports the concept of retributive justice on the basis of a “principle of equality” (Kant, 1972). This is associated to the impartiality of interests a utilitarian considers in ethical decision-making. Therefore, the opinion that the “scale of justice” ought neither lean no more to one side than the other amounts to an eye-for-an-eye justice procedure that punishes an offender as much as the victim. Ideally, the severity of punishments should be equivalent to the seriousness of crimes. Realistically, it is challenging to match punishments and crimes, since there is no way to accurately standardize the moral depravity of certain crimes and/or the distress of precise punishments. Disparate to the utilitarian theory of punishing innocent persons for the good of others, retributive justice does not allow for the possibility of punishing innocent people by no means. Though retributivism seems to deliver justice and fairness more seriously than the deterrence theory of utilitarianism and seems to be on the victim’s side, this still does not necessarily mean it is a superior theory.

The case of Derek Bentley is an example of retributivism. This case roused widespread controversy amongst people and received great media attention in the 1950s. Derek Bentley was sentenced to death for allegedly killing a police officer during a burgled break in at a warehouse in Croydon, Surrey, when in actual fact it was his friend and accomplice Christopher Craig that fired the shot which killed the police officer. Bentley was sentenced under the reasons that he encouraged Craig to shoot by shouting out “let him have it”, when all he was trying to say to his friend was for him to hand over the gun to the police officer. Craig was aged 16 and a minor and therefore could not receive the death penalty. Derek was 19 years old so he got the death penalty even though he had the mental capacity of an 11 year old; this fact was not disclosed to the jury during the trial. The home secretary at the time, Sir David Maxwell Fyfe said he could not see any reason for intervening in the case after petitions were signed by the people. Eventually 45 years after his death, Bentley was granted a partial pardon and scientific evidence also showed that the three police officers who testified about Bentley shouting “let him have it”, had lied under oath (BBC News, 28th January 1953). The main aim of the system was to use Bentley as a scapegoat to others to deter them from committing not necessarily murder in general but the shooting and killing of a police officer. It could be said that if it we’re not a police officer who was shot, the case might have had a different outcome. It was a very unjust decision which indeed might have favoured the victim’s family and close cohort and sent a message to the society and people and therefore regarded as just.

Another case is that of Timothy Evans, who was wrongly hanged in the 1950s for the murder of his wife and baby daughter. His wife and daughter had been strangled in bath, Mr Evans blamed his neighbour Christie but he was believed by no one. At trial Christie went ahead to give evidence which would convict Mr Evans. However three years later, Christie was found guilty of a string of murders. At Christie’s trial he admitted that he had murdered Mrs Evans and might have also been responsible for murdering Evans’ daughter. The police investigation was never prepared to entertain the possibility that anyone other than Mr Evans could have carried out the murders, despite evidence to the contrary. Though in 1966, Evans was given a posthumous royal pardon, but his convictions have still not being quashed (BBC News, 9 March 2010). If Christie was never eventually caught out for other murders, it would have still been assumed that Evans was the perpetrator and Christie would’ve been out in the society committing more crime. Just like the case of Bentley, unjust outcome for the family but as long as it deters the population and society at large from committing such crime it is deemed just. Retributivism seeks to use the offenders as scapegoats, it fails to recognise and punish the real criminals; the aim to reduce crime is not achieved because if innocent individuals are being convicted, the criminals are still out there wrecking more havoc.

Are either of these theories effective?

Statistics from Crime survey for England and Wales (CSEW) shown on the website of the office for national statistics, shows that there were 8.9 million crimes against adults in England and Wales in this year ending September 2012, an 8% decrease compared with the previous year’s survey. This reduction was driven by statistically significant decrease in vandalism, burglary and vehicle-related theft. Also, the police recorded 3.8 million crimes in the year ending September 2012, a decrease of 7% compared with the previous year. Looking at these figures it can be said that punishment is effective as a deterrence factor because crime is reducing. However, its effectiveness does not extend to stopping crimes as people are still committing crime. Having said all that, not all crimes are recorded. This known as the dark figure of crime. So due to this dark figure of crime, it cannot be concluded as to whether crime is actually being reduced. Also not all criminals are caught, for example, not every street graffiti artist is caught, so if the criminals that have not been caught are still in the society, they will continue to commit crime.

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According to Garland (1990, p.1) “The punishment of offender is a peculiar unsettling and dismaying aspect of social life. As a social policy it is a continual disappointment, seeming always to fail in its ambition and to be undercut by crises and contradictions of one sort or another. As a moral of political issue it provokes intemperate emotions, deeply conflicting interests and intractable disagreement”.

Punishing an offender does not always guarantee a desired outcome as majority of offenders are given the chance to finish their sentences earlier than proposed; hence the reason for punishing is defeated.

Selected crimes, such as crimes of passion and crimes which are committed while the offender is under the influence of drugs, cannot be deterred because their perpetrators don’t logically evaluate the benefits versus the costs (which include punishment) before committing an unlawful act.

Having said all that, the deterrence theory being effective comes down to what type person an individual is. If one is brought up in a loving home surrounded by care and positive role models, such individual will most definitely be deterred because he/she has a sense of belonging and has a good foundation of morals, norms and values. However if one has grown up in hard and tough conditions, being bullied with no positive role models to look up to, it is more likely that such an individual will not be deterred from committing crime as he/she will not have that sense of belonging, he/she may be angry at the world and lack morals and values. Looking at religion, retribution to some may seem outrageous and unjust, some may that only God gives life and only God should be the one to take life and that murder is a sin regardless of what justification it holds. However a life for a life may not hold such an emotive controversial stand and seem such an outrageous thing to do when it is concerned with dictators like Sadam Hussain, Hilter and Idi Amin. In that such a punishment will bring about the liberation of millions.

Retributivism fails to promote morally right conduct because it seeks to severe the punishment to the offender rather than to seek to rehabilitate him or to keep him for disciplining (Shook, 2004). Some may say that it is fair for offenders of genocide crimes to have their punishment fit their crime. However others might say that, in inflicting capital punishment upon such an individual it does not allow the individual to suffer appropriately for their offence.

In conclusion, the evidence base for deterrence approach is uncertain, so it is unknown if it deters crime or not. Will it be moral to implement a deterrence philosophy when there is no idea if it works or not. According to Braithwaite’s restorative justice, communities need to let their feelings known and to be recompensed for the wrong that has been done against them. That doesn’t necessarily mean, they seek an eye for an eye. Retributivism doesn’t essentially mean for the punishment to fit the crime, it means that the offender is named, shamed and made to give something back as a means of repayment which is a kind of retributivism, which can be seen as quite moral.

The evidence base for deterrence is not strong, it also can act, not necessarily as a deterrent but as a ‘why should one care if one is going to get done anyway regardless of who offended’. Retributivism can mean vengeance whereby the victim’s mentality becomes harsher. But on the other hand studies in modern retributivism argue that reintegration, naming and shaming are better ways forward.


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