Classical Thoughts on Capital Punishment

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While talking about the opinion of Plato on death penalty, what comes to understand is that he is aversive to retributive punishment which has the sole purpose of making the guilty suffer for earlier crime that he had committed. capital punishment discussion goes long way back in history and it traces can be assimilated in the Greek literature, precisely in the speech given by Diodotus.

The idea that comes across through his dialogue is that human beings are selfish and their nature cannot be changed even by enforcement of fear of death. what Plato thinks of death penalty as a form of punishment as the simplest form of punishment and infant according to it’s the least vicious. Plato addresses the concept of capital punishment in number of dialogues and particularly in Punishment in Plato’s” laws “.it comprises of ideas of education, jurisprudence and ethics etc.

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The” laws “have a practical element attached to it. the discussion over Socrates trial holds an imperative part. in Socrates –on Life and Death – (Plato, Apology -) what Socrates claims is that he has no reason to fear death. according to him death is a good phenomenon and in any case it’s the “worst of evils “Socrates who had died a convict’s death by having a cup of hemlock, holds relevance while considering morality of death penalty. Socrates also gives a further evidence to prove that death is good, he introduces a ‘constructive dilemma ‘. the traditional notion that was a part of Plato’s eschatological myths that one’s a person dies in his afterlife some of the dead are punished for their unfair acts and others are incentivised for their positive acts. Plato tries to argue that a person’s ill –deeds never go unnoticed and rather will be subsequently punished. but what Socrates is trying to say is that death isn’t bad, it just leads people to” dreamless sleeps “. The major argument that comes is that can be giving death to something really punishing them for their deeds not maybe what it just does according to Socrates is give them sleep, so how can then giving death penalty be a morally just act on the part of the judiciary. giving death penalty is just removing the offender from the society but not actually punishing the person guilty of an offence.

A utilitarian approach to death penalty

While death penalty is considered to be one of the most controversial topics of the present day, it’s a severe form of punishment and is considered to be barbaric and inhumane. The arguments around capital punishment remains highly polarised. the utilitarian theory can be applied because it produces both positive and negative effects.

Firstly, due to its deterrence aspect: under this view its considered to more ethical. since the people can enjoy peace and stability in the society Secondly, incapacitation the idea of permanent incapacitation, it is taken as probability that if the offender is removed from the society, it will bring about justice stability and peace in the family .it also advantage of reducing emotional stress to an extent. Thirdly retribution, it is thought to be providing maximum retribution for the crime.

John Stuart mill was the first utilitarian to defend capital punishment, it’s interesting to ponder on the fact that mill in his speech which he gave in opposition to the proposal to ban capital punishment. He had given this speech in the parliament in 1986. According to him punishment is supposed to have deterrent effect on criminal behaviour.

Mill thinks its humane to give death penalty to the criminal and he compares death penalty to life imprisonment with hard labour and this was only possible in his time but today the alternative in life imprisonment without parole. Mill considers the argument that we cannot teach respect for life by destroying life. Death penalty has a biggest problem that is of error of justice, considering accidental executions, here mill argues that this problem is like a bonus for the other countries to be careful and provide complete evidence for the guilty. There is significant problem with Mills claims that is that death penalty has a deterrent effect which clearly doesn’t have. even today in states of America the cases of homicide have increased quite significantly. Mills distinction between higher and lower pleasures, he says comparing the two needs a group of experts who have personally experienced both higher and lower pleasures then in that scenario it also becomes necessary for a group to have experienced both death penalty and life imprisonment but that not possible. then lastly the sanctity of human life is an important aspect, giving death penalty violates that. Hence what comes across through the above claims is that Mills ideas to retain capital punishment is non relatable.

Jeremy Bentham

In the key text principle of moral and legislators. he begins with claiming that human beings are ruled by two sovereign masters they are pleasure and pain. his ideas of utilitarianism draw out focus on attaining happiness. for him utility means happiness. happiness is considered a whole vision of good .this can be measured by maximizing pleasures .for him morality of law is very important ,it’s an egalitarian way of thinking .Bentham’s critique of death penalty is very interesting .Jeremy Bentham provides with an extensive discussion in his book Rationale of Punishment .his attempt to give enough utilitarian grounds against death penalty fails to an extent .for Bentham punishment must morally justified in terms of its conduciveness ,according to him morality of law forms an essential part of utilitarianism .he is of the view that the main idea behind the establishment of a law is happiness of the community ,and this could only be ensured by awarding rationale and justifiable punishments for a society and bringing happiness for its members . his general theory of punishment proposes multiple criteria so that there is fair and proper appropriation of the punishments. Bentham gives these criteria in terms of direct connection with death penalty.

While presenting case against death penalty he is puts emphasis on the theme of pardon which means mercy. So the argument that he is proposing is that mercy is the greatest virtue of morality and hence it justifies and helps in achieving the maximum happiness for all.

What Bentham tries to point is the fact that giving capital punishment is ensuring justice and fairness in society because giving punishment brings happiness to the society but is this happiness long term perhaps not because it only brings temporary joy in the society. what we need today is a society free of offenders but giving death penalty is necessarily not the way out as crimes continue to take place.

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Classical Thoughts on Capital Punishment. (2022, Jun 16). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 23, 2024, from
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