Is the Death Penalty Immoral?
Semon Frank Thompson, Jr., former Superintendent of the Oregon State Penitentiary, stated the following in his Sep. 15, 2016 article “What I Learned from Executing Two Men,” available at nytimes.com:
“As superintendent of the Oregon State Penitentiary, I planned and carried out that state’s only two executions in the last 54 years I used to support the death penalty. I don’t anymore…
I was charged with executing two inmates on the penitentiary’’ death row, Douglas Franklin Wright and Harry Charles Moore…
Regardless of their crimes, the fact that I was now to be personally involved in their executions forced me into a deeper reckoning with my feelings about capital punishment. After much contemplation, I became convinced that, on a moral level, life was either hallowed or it wasn’t. And I wanted it to be…
Since I retired from corrections in 2010, my mission has been to persuade people that capital punishment is a failed policy. America should no longer accept the myth that capital punishment plays any constructive role in our criminal justice system. It will be hard to bring an end to the death penalty, but we will be a healthier society as a result.”Sep. 15, 2016 - Semon Frank Thompson, Jr.
Bryan Stevenson, JD, Professor of Law at New York University School of Law and Founder-Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, in his article “Close to Death: Reflections on Race and Capital Punishment in America,” from Debating the Death Penalty: Should America Have Capital Punishment? The Experts on Both Sides Make Their Best Case (2004), wrote:
“Ultimately, the moral question surrounding capital punishment in America has less to do with whether those convicted of violent crime deserve to die than with whether state and federal governments deserve to kill those whom it has imprisoned.
The legacy of racial apartheid, racial bias, and ethnic discrimination is unavoidably evident in the administration of capital punishment in America. Death sentences are imposed in a criminal justice system that treats you better if you are rich and guilty than if you are poor and innocent.
Embracing a certain quotient of racial bias and discrimination against the poor is an inexorable aspect of supporting capital punishment. This is an immoral condition that makes rejecting the death penalty on moral grounds not only defensible but necessary for those who refuse to accept unequal or unjust administration of punishment.”2004 - Bryan Stevenson, JD
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), in an Apr. 9, 2007 website section titled “The Death Penalty: Questions and Answers,” offered the following:
“It [capital punishment] is immoral in principle, and unfair and discriminatory in practice… No one deserves to die. When the government metes out vengeance disguised as justice, it becomes complicit with killers in devaluing human life and human dignity.
In civilized society, we reject the principle of literally doing to criminals what they do to their victims: The penalty for rape cannot be rape, or for arson, the burning down of the arsonist’s house. We should not, therefore, punish the murderer with death… Capital punishment is a barbaric remnant of uncivilized society.”Apr. 9, 2007 - American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)
George Ryan, Governor of Illinois, in a speech given Jan. 11, 2003 at Northwestern University College of Law, stated:
“Because our three year study has found only more questions about the fairness of the sentencing; because of the spectacular failure to reform the system; because we have seen justice delayed for countless death row inmates with potentially meritorious claims; because the Illinois death penalty system is arbitrary and capricious – and therefore immoral – I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death…
Because of all of these reasons today I am commuting the sentences of all death row inmates. This is a blanket commutation.”Jan. 11, 2003 - George Ryan
Khaled Abou El Fadl, Professor of Islamic Law at the UCLA School of Law, in a Jan. 25, 2002 conference hosted by the Pew Forum, titled “A Call for Reckoning: Religion and the Death Penalty”, stated:
“The Koran says quite explicitly that God created human beings, and put into them, or put onto them a part of God’s breath. And to reach the conclusion of termination of that divinity requires that one reach a level of not just evidentiary, but a certain degree of moral certitude. And that moral certitude, although my position is not unequivocal and sort of categorical, but I find it difficult to hypothesize, to imagine abstractly a situation in which one would be so sure at a moral plain that the snuffing away or the taking away of that breath of God is justified.”Jan. 25, 2002 - Khaled Abou El Fadl, PhD
John Dear, Jesuit Priest from the Society of Jesus, in a June 17, 2008 National Catholic Reporter article titled “Abolish the Death Penalty Now!”, wrote:
“We, like Jesus, should feel free to side with the condemned, forgive those who hurt us, who injure or kill those we love, and in this way put an end to wheel of violence that keeps going around. And as Catholic Christians we should feel free to stand with the bishops and utter: the death penalty is immoral, evil and sinful.”June 17, 2008 - John Dear
The Jewish Social Policy Action Network (JSPAN), stated the following in its Jan. 24, 2017 policy position, “Death Penalty,” available at jspan.org:
“It is the position of the Jewish Social Policy Action Network to oppose the death penalty as it is currently applied in the United States and to press for the immediate abolition of capital punishment…
Our position is compelled by our mission. For some of us, our position is compelled by a moral imperative, our belief that the death penalty is immoral and constitutes an unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment that is at odds with our best traditions, fosters a culture of violence, and teaches our children the wrongheaded lesson that the way to settle scores is through violence, even to the point of taking a human life.”Jan. 24, 2017 - Jewish Social Policy Action Network (JSPAN)
Edward Feser, PhD, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Pasadena City College, and Joseph M. Bessette, PhD, Alice Tweed Tuohy Professor of Government and Ethics at Claremont McKenna College, stated the following in their July 21, 2016 article “Why the Death Penalty Is Still Necessary,” available at The Catholic World Report website:
“[W]e reserve the death penalty in the United States for the most heinous murders and the most brutal and conscienceless murderers. This is not, as some critics argue, a kind of state-run lottery that randomly chooses an unlucky few for the ultimate penalty from among all those convicted of murder. Rather, the capital punishment system is a filter that selects the worst of the worst…
Put another way, to sentence killers like those described above to less than death would fail to do justice because the penalty – presumably a long period in prison – would be grossly disproportionate to the heinousness of the crime. Prosecutors, jurors, and the loved ones of murder victims understand this essential point…
Perhaps most importantly, in its supreme gravity it [the death penalty] promotes belief in and respect for the majesty of the moral order and for the system of human law that both derives from and supports that moral order.”July 21, 2016 - Edward Feser, PhD Joseph M. Bessette, PhD
Antonin Scalia, JD, Justice of the US Supreme Court, in a May 2002 First Things article titled “God’s Justice and Ours,” wrote
“While my views on the morality of the death penalty have nothing to do with how I vote as a judge, they have a lot to do with whether I can or should be a judge at all. To put the point in the blunt terms employed by Justice Harold Blackmun towards the end of his career on the bench, when I sit on a Court that reviews and affirms capital convictions, I am part of ‘the machinery of death.’ My vote, when joined with at least four others, is, in most cases, the last step that permits an execution to proceed. I could not take part in that process if I believed what was being done to be immoral…
In my view the choice for the judge who believes the death penalty to be immoral is resignation, rather than simply ignoring duly enacted, constitutional laws and sabotaging death penalty cases. He has, after all, taken an oath to apply the laws and has been given no power to supplant them with rules of his own. Of course if he feels strongly enough he can go beyond mere resignation and lead a political campaign to abolish the death penalty-and if that fails, lead a revolution. But rewrite the laws he cannot do.”May 2002 - Antonin Scalia, JD
Alex Kozinski, JD, Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in a Nov. 7, 2002 Hoover Institution interview, stated:
“Immanuel Kant said it best. He said a society that is not willing to demand a life of somebody who has taken somebody else’s life is simply immoral. So the question really… when the system works and when you manage to identify somebody who has done such heinous evil, do we as a society have a right to take his life? I think the answer’s plainly yes. And I would go with Kant and I would say it is immoral for us not to.”Nov. 7, 2002 - Alex Kozinski, JD
Bruce Fein, JD, constitutional lawyer and general counsel to the Center for Law and Accountability, in an American Bar Association’s website section titled “Individual rights and Responsability – The Death Penalty, but Sparingly,” (accessed June 17, 2008), wrote:
“The crimes of rape, torture, treason, kidnapping, murder, larceny, and perjury pivot on a moral code that escapes apodictic [indisputably true] proof by expert testimony or otherwise. But communities would plunge into anarchy if they could not act on moral assumptions less certain than that the sun will rise in the east and set in the west.
Abolitionists may contend that the death penalty is inherently immoral because governments should never take human life, no matter what the provocation. But that is an article of faith, not of fact, just like the opposite position held by abolitionist detractors, including myself…
The death penalty honors human dignity by treating the defendant as a free moral actor able to control his own destiny for good or for ill; it does not treat him as an animal with no moral sense, and thus subject even to butchery to satiate human gluttony. Moreover, capital punishment celebrates the dignity of the humans whose lives were ended by the defendant’s predation.”June 17, 2008 - Bruce Fein, JD
Adrian Vermeule, JD, Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, and Cass R. Sunstein, JD, Professor of Law at the University of Chicago Law School, in a Mar. 2005 Stanford Law Review article titled “Is Capital Punishment Morally Required? Acts, Omissions and Life-Life Tradeoffs,” wrote:
“Defenders of capital punishment can be separated into two different camps. Some are retributivists. Following Immanuel Kant, they claim that for the most heinous forms of wrongdoing, the penalty of death is morally justified or perhaps even required.
Other defenders of capital punishment are consequentialists and often also welfarists. They contend that the deterrent effect… is significant and that it justifies the infliction of the ultimate penalty. Consequentialist… tend to assume that capital punishment is (merely) morally permissible, as opposed to being morally obligatory…
We suggest… that on certain empirical assumptions, capital punishment may be morally required, not for retributive reasons, but rather to prevent the taking of innocent lives. In so saying, we are suggesting the possibility that states are obliged to maintain the death penalty option…”Mar. 2005 - Adrian Vermeule, JD Cass R. Sunstein, JD
J. Budziszewski, Professor of Government and Philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin, in a Jan. 25, 2002 conference hosted by the Pew Forum, titled “A Call for Reckoning: Religion and the Death Penalty,” stated:
“The normal moral reason for upholding capital punishment is reverence for life itself. Indeed, this is the reason why scripture and Christian tradition have upheld it, a fact which suggests that, if anything, it may be the abolition of capital punishment which threatens to cheapen life, not its retention…
If you look at the Latin roots of the word [rehabilitation], it really means restoring him [the killer]to his former condition, and that includes to his former moral condition… Killing him obviously does not promote his reintegration into earthly society, although it may promote his moral healing before his death, because of the prospect of death looming on him…
We should not assume that it’s impossible for the prospect of death to make its own contribution to moral healing, to restoration.“
[Editor’s note: Transcript corrected by author via email to ProCon.org, July 25, 2008]Jan. 25, 2002 - J. Budziszewski, PhD
WithChrist.org, a Christian ministry, in its website section titled “Capital Punishment – Death Penalty,” (accessed Jan. 24, 2017), stated:
“The Death Penalty is moral and just. Judicial death for the purpose of maintaining justice or righteousness is well established in human history. However, the rise of death penalty executions in the United States against a backdrop of liberalism has triggered protests from various anti-capital punishment factions. Often shouting the loudest are liberal religionists and clergy who erroneously claim to speak for God. These folks are grossly confused and seriously wrong.”Jan. 24, 2017 - WithChrist.org