Death Penalty: Two Critiques

By Geoffrey F. Reed and John F. Bash

The Liberal Case—Geoffrey F. Reed

Opponents of the death penalty are fortunate in that they have a variety of effective arguments that help them argue their case. They can protest that the death penalty is not cost effective, that it has a high rate of error or that it does not deter crime. Each of these arguments is sound and can be supported with strong empirical evidence. Even so, we should disregard these arguments entirely because it is simply unjust for the state to execute its citizens. Our government does not have the authority to commit murder.


Supporters of the death penalty argue that the government has the authority to implement the death penalty as part of the criminal justice system. This argument, however, is fallacious. The criminal justice system is intended to be rehabilitative. Incarceration, probation and house arrest are each structured so as to convert criminals into law-abiding citizens. But the death penalty is clearly not rehabilitative; it is entirely retributive. The application of the death penalty represents a disjuncture in our criminal justice system because, for some unfathomable reason, the U.S. government seeks retribution against murderers and mere rehabilitation for rapists and arsonists. Most people would probably agree that rehabilitation should be the goal for our criminal justice system. If we were to apply the level of retribution that we use against murderers to all crimes, our government would be in the business of raping rapists and setting arsonists on fire. Citizens would view such measures as barbaric and unacceptable for a civilized society.

The question, then, becomes why do we choose to avenge only murderers, while we rehabilitate other criminals? Some would argue that with government-mandated executions, we guarantee that they can never murder again. But this is not the way our criminal justice system operates; criminals are punished for crimes they have already committed, and not for those they may commit in the future. Of course, we fortunately do not generally employ this logic in our criminal justice system. Criminals must be rehabilitated so that they can operate within society; they should not be incapacitated by a brutal system of retribution.

The Conservative Case—John F. Bash

I support capital punishment—but only in theory. When someone chooses to take another’s life, he commits an act so contrary to fundamental moral principles that execution should be justified. Contrary to the liberals of the Left, I believe the state has the power—and the right—to take human life; after all, it quite frequently exerts this power through its military forces. Like the Slobodan Milosevics and Saddam Husseins of the world, the Timothy McVeighs and Susan Smiths should pay the ultimate price for their crimes.

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