Last updated on: 1/6/2009 | Author:

Should the Death Penalty Be Used for Retribution?

General Reference (not clearly pro or con)

The Justice Center of the University of Alaska at Anchorage, in its website section titled “The Death Penalty: Specific Issues – Retribution & Justice for Murder Victims” (accessed Aug. 21, 2008), offered the following:

“Death penalty advocates justify capital punishment under the principle of lex talionis, or ‘an eye for an eye’ — the belief that punishment should fit the crime. In particular, people who favor capital punishment argue that murderers should be executed in retribution for their crimes and that such retribution serves justice for murder victims and their survivors. Death penalty opponents emphasize the sacredness of life, arguing that killing is always wrong whether by individual or by the state, and that justice is best served through reconciliation.”

Aug. 21, 2008 - Justice Center of the University of Alaska at Anchorage

PRO (yes)


Louis P. Pojman, PhD, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at West Point Military Academy, in an essay titled “Why the Death Penalty is Morally Permissible,” from Adam Bedaus’ 2004 book titled Debating the Death Penalty: Should America Have Capital Punishment? The Experts on Both Sides Make Their Best Case, wrote:

“People often confuse retribution with revenge… Vengeance signifies inflicting harm on the offender out of anger because of what he has done. Retribution is the rationally supported theory that the criminal deserves a punishment fitting the gravity of his crime…

Retributivism is not based on hatred for the criminal (though a feeling of vengeance may accompany the punishment). Retributivism is the theory that the criminal deserves to be punished and deserves to be punished in proportion to the gravity of his or her crime, whether or not the victim or anyone else desires it. We may all deeply regret having to carry out the punishment, but consider it warranted.

When a society fails to punish criminals in a way thought to be proportionate to the gravity of the crime, the danger arises that the public would take the law into its own hands, resulting in vigilante justice, lynch mobs, and private acts of retribution. The outcome is likely to be an anarchistic, insecure state of injustice.”

2004 - Louis P. Pojman, PhD


Richard A. Divine, JD, Cook County Illinois State’s Attorney, in an Apr. 30, 2003 “Statement on the Death Penalty in Illinois” retrieved from the State attorney’s website, offered the following:

“The death penalty is a necessary and appropriate punishment. Many people treat ‘retribution’ as an unworthy purpose for such a harsh punishment. But criminal punishments are retribution for crimes. One cannot reject capital punishment because it is retribution; the issue is whether it is an appropriate form of retribution.

Everyone agrees that there should be some punishment for murder. This mandate turns capital punishment into a necessity when nothing else serves as real punishment for a murder… Everyone would also agree that besides imposing some punishment for murder, the law should also impose meaningful punishment…

Putting a monetary price on innocent life would not be a meaningful penalty for murder. We do not impose fines on murderers because it would seriously deprecate the value of human life… After a murderer has killed a certain number of victims, he reaches a point where the only meaningful retribution is the death penalty. There are murders for which alternative sentences of imprisonment are demonstrably meaningless…

Treating capital punishment as though it is ‘eye for an eye,’ ‘blood for blood’ or ‘murder for murder’ ignores the differences between public retribution and private revenge. Criminal punishment inherently imposes sanctions that private individuals are unable to impose on each other.”

Apr. 30, 2003 - Richard A. Devine, JD


J. Budziszewski, PhD, Professor of Government and Philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin, in an Aug./Sep. 2004 article titled “Capital Punishment: The Case for Justice,” wrote:

“Society is justly ordered when each person receives what is due to him. Crime disturbs this just order, for the criminal takes from people their lives, peace, liberties, and worldly goods in order to give himself undeserved benefits. Deserved punishment protects society morally by restoring this just order, making the wrongdoer pay a price equivalent to the harm he has done. This is retribution, not to be confused with revenge, which is guided by a different motive. In retribution the spur is the virtue of indignation, which answers injury with injury for public good…

Retribution is the primary purpose of just punishment as such. The reasons for saying so are threefold. First, just punishment is not something which might or might not requite evil; requital is simply what it is. Second, without just punishment evil cannot be requited. Third, just punishment requires no warrant beyond requiting evil, for the restoration of justice is good in itself… For these reasons, rehabilitation, protection, and deterrence have a lesser status in punishment than retribution: they are secondary.”

Aug./Sep. 2004 - J. Budziszewski, PhD


Charles E. Rice, JSD, Professor Emeritus at Ave Maria School of Law at the University of Notre Dame, in a June 22, 1987 The New American article titled “Retribution is an Obligation,” offered the following:

“The three purposes of criminal punishment are rehabilitation, deterrence, and retribution. While civic rehabilitation is irrelevant with respect to the death penalty, that penalty does in fact deter homicide in some cases. The basic justification for capital punishment, however, is retribution…

Anger is the sentiment aroused by the sight of injustice, and is therefore, intimately allied with justice — and civil society requires justice… anger is satisfied when retribution is exacted, yes, but that righteous anger is also rewarded when retribution is exacted. And that righteous anger should be rewarded, for its basis is the sentiment that to murder is wrong.

The common good requires that the punishment fit the crime, whether that crime be a theft of a bicycle or an ax murder. As an exercise in retribution, punishment serves to right the balance of justice that is disturbed by the crime, provided that the punishment is appropriate.”

June 22, 1987 - Charles E. Rice, JSD


In Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153 (1976), the US Supreme Court in a 7 – 2 decision written by Justice Potter Stewart, JD, stated:

“The death penalty is said to serve two principal social purposes: retribution and deterrence of capital crimes by prospective offenders. In part, capital punishment is an expression of society’s moral outrage at particularly offensive conduct.  This function may be unappealing to many, but it is essential in an ordered society that asks its citizens to rely on legal processes, rather than self-help, to vindicate their wrongs…

The instinct for retribution is part of the nature of man, and channeling that instinct in the administration of criminal justice serves an important purpose in promoting the stability of a society governed by law. When people begin to believe that organized society is unwilling or unable to impose upon criminal offenders the punishment they ‘deserve,’ then there are sown the seeds of anarchy — of self-help, vigilante justice, and lynch law.”

1976 - Gregg v. Georgia

CON (no)


Raymond A. Schroth, SJ, Jesuit Priest and Community Professor of the Humanities at St. Peter’s College, in a Sep. 5, 2008 email response to, wrote:

“Retribution is just another word for revenge,  and the desire for revenge is one of the lowest human emotions — perhaps sometimes understandable, but not really a rational response to a critical situation. For a Christian,  this is an urge to use  violence for one’s own purposes, and urge which should be resisted. To kill the person who has killed someone close to you is simply to continue the cycle of violence  which ultimately destroys the  avenger as well as the offender.

That this  execution somehow give ‘closure’ to a tragedy is a myth. Expressing one’s violence simply reinforces the desire to express it. Just as expressing anger simply makes us more angry. It does not drain away. It contaminates the otherwise good will  which any human being needs to progress in love and understanding.”

Sep. 5, 2008 - Raymond A. Schroth, SJ


Amnesty International, in a Sep. 2007 document retrieved from its website titled “The Death Penalty v. Human Rights, Why Abolish the Death Penalty?,” offered the following:

“When the arguments of deterrence and incapacitation fall away, one is left with a more deep-seated justification for the death penalty: that of just retribution for the particular crime committed. According to this argument, certain people deserve to be killed as repayment for the evil done: there are crimes so offensive that killing the offender is the only just response.

It is an emotionally powerful argument. It is also one which, if valid, would invalidate the basis for human rights. If a person who commits a terrible act can ‘deserve’ the cruelty of death, why cannot others, for similar reasons, ‘deserve’ to be tortured or imprisoned without trial or simply shot on sight? Central to fundamental human rights is that they are inalienable. They may not be taken away even if a person has committed the most atrocious of crimes. Human rights apply to the worst of us as well as to the best of us, which is why they protect all of us.

What the argument for retribution boils down to, is often no more than a desire for vengeance masked as a principle of justice. The desire for vengeance can be understood and acknowledged but the exercise of vengeance must be resisted. The history of the endeavour to establish the rule of law is a history of the progressive restriction of personal vengeance in public policy and legal codes.”

Sep. 2007 - Amnesty International


The Lancet, a British peer-reviewed medical journal, in an Apr. 16, 2005 editorial titled “Medical Collusion in the Death Penalty: An American Atrocity,” offered the following:

“What justification can there be for capital punishment at all? The two main arguments for the death penalty are deterrence and retribution. Few experts believe that the threat of capital punishment is an effective deterrent. That leaves retribution. But to justify capital punishment, the retribution must be meted out fairly, and that is clearly not the case. In only 1% of murders do prosecutors seek the death penalty. Whether you receive the death penalty depends not on what you have done, but where you committed your crime, what colour your skin is, and how much money you have.”

Apr. 16, 2005 - The Lancet


The National Council of Synagogues and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in a Mar. 23, 1999 meeting report titled To End the Death Penalty, A Report of the National Jewish/Catholic Consultation,” presented the following:

“Some would argue that the death penalty is needed as a means of retributive justice, to balance out the crime with the punishment. This reflects a natural concern of society, and especially of victims and their families. Yet we believe that we are called to seek a higher road even while punishing the guilty, for example through long and in some cases life-long incarceration, so that the healing of all can ultimately take place… The strongest argument of all is the deep pain and grief of the families of victims, and their quite natural desire to see punishment meted out to those who have plunged them into such agony. Yet it is the clear teaching of our traditions that this pain and suffering cannot be healed simply through the retribution of capital punishment or by vengeance.”

Mar. 23, 1999 - United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) National Council of Synagogues


Thurgood Marshall, JD, late US Supreme Court Justice, in his Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153 (1976) dissenting opinion, stated:

“The death penalty, I concluded, is a cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. That continues to be my view… The two purposes that sustain the death penalty as nonexcessive in the Court’s view are general deterrence and retribution… The notion that retribution can serve as a moral justification for the sanction of death… I find to be the most disturbing aspect of today’s unfortunate decisions…

The mere fact that the community demands the murderer’s life in return for the evil he has done cannot sustain the death penalty… The death penalty, unnecessary to promote the goal of deterrence or to further any legitimate notion of retribution, is an excessive penalty forbidden by the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. I respectfully dissent from the Court’s judgment upholding the sentences of death.”

1976 - Thurgood Marshall, LLB