Introduction to Political Theory

(Marvins-Underground-K-12) #1

Respecting persons versus using them

We will deal with some broader objections to the death penalty in the next section,
but an illustration is useful in drawing out the distinction between a retributivist
and a consequentialist attitude to the death penalty. Consider these two questions:

  1. Is capital punishment ever justified?

  2. Even if your answer to question 1 is ‘no’, consider two scenarios: (a) a person
    is ‘straightforwardly’ executed with a bullet through the heart: death is
    instantaneous; (b) that person is executed with a bullet through the head (death
    is instantaneous) but then his or her organs are ‘harvested’ for transplant
    operations. Are (a) and (b) equally bad, or is (b) worse/better than (a)? (Assume
    that in both scenarios the condemned person has not given consent for the use
    of his or her body parts.)
    Obviously, in the United States most defenders of capital punishment do not
    support this policy. But if we are concerned with good consequences then why not?
    If a person is going to die then why not use their body parts? One consequentialist
    argument against this practice is that people might feel distaste towards it: it just
    seems unpleasant and for that reason is disutilitarian. Another consequentialist
    argument against it would be that it might encourage the state to kill people for
    their body parts.
    A retributivist would have a very clear answer: in executing a person we respect
    her. We do not use her as a means to an end, but simply give her what she deserves:
    she brought her execution on herself. Killing a person is not, morally speaking, a
    violation of that person’s integrity – strange as this may sound: after all it is her
    physical destruction – but using her body partsisa violation. There is an interesting
    moment in the British film Pierrepoint(2005) when the state executioner Albert
    Pierrepoint is washing down and preparing for burial the woman he has just hanged,
    when his assistant asks why they should be doing this – why cannot it be left to
    the people at the morgue? Pierrepoint responds that they would not show sufficient
    respect: she is innocent now because she has paid the price. Whether the real Albert
    Pierrepoint actually said this, or the scriptwriter put the words in his mouth, is
    irrelevant: it encapsulates the retributivist view of the executed person.

Arguments against capital punishment

We can now draw together arguments against capital punishment and consider how
much force they have. It is important when considering these arguments to keep in
mind the two main theories of punishment: retributivism and consequentialism. One
of our aims in discussing capital punishment is to draw out the distinctions between
the two theories. Also, it is worth considering the implications of the various
arguments for other forms of punishment, such as imprisonment.

Killing is wrong
We kill in self-defence, both individual self-defence and collective self-defence, so
it is not a widely held assumption that killing is alwayswrong. Perhaps the argument

156 Part 1 Classical ideas

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