Why Retribution Is Immoral
Posted by Michael Dickens on June 11, 2010
We as a society commonly assume that the guilty are less deserving of life. The state administers the death penalty to those who commit serious crimes, and many people feel that this is justified. Using similar logic, some other people argue against the death penalty by saying that life imprisonment is a worse fate than death. This sort of thinking makes me wonder what goes on in people’s heads when they think that we need to punish criminals. If punishment is what you’re looking for, why do we not simply submit felons to torture for the rest of their lives?
The idea of torturing criminals may sound absurd. After all, they are still human. Torture would be out of the question. And yet, people are okay with the idea of submitting criminals to the death penalty (or life imprisonment) in order to punish them. This seems to be a contradiction. The concept of capital punishment is strange, to say the least.
One can think of plenty of good reasons for life imprisonment. A dangerous criminal should be kept away from society. But punishment is not necessary except as a deterrent. If it’s not preventing crime or helping out the victims, then it’s useless. And punishment certainly does not help the victims except to provide them with a sadistic sense of vengeance.
A proponent of the death penalty might say that the guilty need to be punished with death. This argument only makes sense if capital punishment is a more effective deterrent than life imprisonment. Although researching the subject is rather difficult, most evidence says that it is in fact not more effective. Since deterrence is the primary practical purpose of capital punishment, it appears that using the death penalty for its practical benefits is a waste of resources.
The argument that I most want to address is related to this idea of punishment. It states that murderers are guilty, and deserve to be punished. This argument for retribution is a popular argument, but at the same time it is horribly wrong.
Murderers, although they have committed an atrocity, are still people. Perhaps they don’t deserve the normal level of respect or dignity, but they certainly deserve life. The logic behind the argument for retribution is a serious glitch in human reasoning. A murderer has robbed another human being of life, so why should we make the problem even worse by continuing the killing? The “eye for an eye” system of retribution is primitive and outdated; continuing to follow such an archaic philosophy would be a mistake of epic proportions. We do not want to get revenge for its own sake; are we truly so sadistic? Our goal should be to maximize happiness, and this includes the happiness of the murderer.
Don’t get me wrong on this point. We should by all means prevent the murderer from causing further harm, and if that means a life sentence, then so be it. But mandatory execution is not justified, even for a murderer. The way to prevent suffering is most certainly not to cause more suffering.
It could be said that I have not yet addressed various other arguments in support of the death penalty. That is true, but not especially relevant. One of the most pervasive arguments out there is the argument for retribution. My purpose here is to explain why it is a terrible argument. Once it is addressed, many other pillars in support of the death penalty will topple as well. Most other arguments are insignificant in comparison to this one. Furthermore, the argument for retribution applies not just to capital punishment but to other facets of justice as well, and even to daily life; for example, look at the idea of revenge. Revenge is essentially just retribution by another name. It is generally irrational and tends to make the situation worse than it already is; fortunately, most people already recognize this. But when 65% of Americans still think that getting revenge for murder — albeit by a different name — is a good idea, you know something is wrong.
It would be wise to remember that the purpose of morality is to do good. Retribution, except as a deterrent, does no good. The evidence for capital punishment being an effective deterrent is minimal to nonexistent. It helps no one but the relatives of the victim, and only then if their petty feelings are soothed by the thought of another’s suffering.
It is argued by some that the murderer has lost his rights, so his suffering no longer matters. This argument is no less flawed, nor are its conclusions any less cruel. The murderer may have killed another person, but he is still human: he still has the same wants and needs that we all do. If murder is wrong then it is always wrong, even in response to a capital crime.
Using the death penalty as retribution is unjustifiable and immoral. Death causes great suffering; why should we cause even more death, leading to even more suffering? Killing is wrong, and it is no better when permitted by law. The concept of retribution is based on an archaic sense of ethics which is not only irrational, but goes so far as to compound the very suffering that it is intended to prevent.