Is Capital Punishment Justified

Capital punishment is an issue that has witnessed both intensive and extensive debate in relation to ethics (Heyd, p. 119). Capital punishment entails the execution of a person for a specific crime after a legal process. The act often involves the state executing the person, not individuals as it would entail mean murder when another person executes another person. Capital punishment is often used for serious crimes, such as murder. In some states, it is always used for serious crimes including rape, fraud, and treason, which are capital crimes. However, in the field of ethics, which is concerned with the rightness or wrongness of an act, capital punishment has been widely discussed with different philosophers and scholars taking different positions on the issue (Heyd, p. 119). The purpose of this essay is to describe how Kant, Locke, and Aristotle would have argued with regards to capital punishment. The paper concludes by taking a stand on capital punishment based on one of the philosophers.

Immanuel Kant

From Kant’s perspective, he was categorically in favor of the death penalty for the crime of murder. This is based on his belief that the death penalty is deserved for people who take someone else’s life (Potter, p. 267). This is evident in his statement that when a civil society decides to dissolve the society by consent of all its members such as a society in an island, they would have to kill the last remaining murderer in the prison because it matches his/her deeds. According to Kant, the failure to do so would mean that every person would have violated justice. The basis of this argument is Kant’s believe in retributive justice, which is based on logic and reason. Retributive justice is based on the argument that punishment is necessary and justified because every commission of crime needs to have a punishment (Potter, p. 267). The theory promotes the need for responding in kind to wrongdoers. This is the equivalent of the Biblical “an eye for an eye a tooth for a tooth”.

An important basis for Kant’s support for punishment such as the death penalty is the need to promote equality in justice (Anderson). As such, any evil that one inflicts on a person should have the same inflicted on them. At the same time, Kant noted that the state needs to carry out justice for the sake of the law. In this case, carrying out the death penalty entails promoting justice not for the sake of the victim or the criminal, but for the sake of the law. This is necessary for ensuring that the law is not undermined. An interesting point to note is that Kant only supported the death penalty in the case of murder (Anderson). This is despite the fact that he lived in an era when the death penalty was used for a range of crimes across Europe and the New World. The reason for this is that Kant argued that punishment should be proportionate to one’s crime. As such, in the case of murder, the only proportionate punishment for murder is death (Anderson). This is because there is no substitute for death. Death penalty satisfies justice in the case of murder.

Thomas Hobbes

Hobbes justifies the death penalty through the social contract theory. Hobbes’ moral and/or political obligations are based on the agreement among them to form the society in which they live in (Friend). Based on Hobbes’s social contract, people agree to limit their right to nature only retaining their right to defend themselves in case of an immediate threat. However, the sovereign retains his right of nature including the right to do all things such as judging disputes and deciding rules. In order for a person to escape the dangers of the state, his/her only way entails acting rationally to seek peace and to enter into an agreement with others not to harm one another (Friend). At the same time, the person should clearly understand that it would be irrational to break the agreement as long as others have kept it. On the part of the state, it is crucial that it enforces the contract or risk no one keeping it. According to the social contract agreement, Hobbes justifies the use of the death penalty by the state. This is because of an individual’s ability to threaten his/her fellow individual or the government.

An important point to note is that the killer, according to Hobbes should have the power over the person that is being killed. This is described as having influence over another. It is also explained as the ability to impose a cost or the capacity to modify the conduct of an individual (Heyd, p. 123). From Hobbes’ argument, the social contract and the balance of power between the parties would require that the state has the power to kill. Among the public, the best approach to avoiding the ultimate price that comes with threatening the state or the people is to remain within the wills of the people and executive: refraining from actions that can result to the ultimate price.

Hobbes’ justification for the death penalty is greatly influenced by the death being a major source of bargaining power in relation to the social contract, Hobbes noted that people’s passion for peace is greatly promoted by the fear of death (Heyd, p. 120). To avoid further conflict between humans, the state takes the full responsibility of killing people based on their commission of a capital crime or another. This is implemented through the court, which has the power and duty to discern whom and how the death penalty is implemented.

Karl Marx

Karl Marx was emphatically against the death penalty. Even though Karl Marx wrote so little about crime and punishment, the analysis of his voluminous literature brought about an important understanding of his thoughts on crime and punishment. Karl Marx’s first thoughts about capital punishment were noted from his article on the New York Daily Tribune, which argued that death penalty had a counter-deterrent or brutalizing effect: instead of deterring murder, executions resulted to more murder (Marx). He supported this argument with statistics that murder was greatly linked with executions (Marx). He even quoted the Bible noting that since the time of Cain, the world has never been intimidated by punishment.

Karl Marx disagreement with the death penalty is also evident in his criticism of both Kant and Hegel who had argued for free will and self-determination of people (Bohm, p. 286). Kant believed that people make each other and do not make themselves. This explains his emphasis on the fact that violent crime was greatly influenced by “relative poverty”. He noted that crime greatly came from people’s jealousy where there were greater inequalities between poverty and wealth. As such, Karl Marx was evidently against the death penalty. He emphasized the need to address the system that brings about the crimes (Bohm, p. 286). This explains his criticism of capitalism, arguing that it works to deprive the poor. Based on this, it could be said that Karl Marx thought of the death penalty as a tool used by the wealthy in capitalist countries to protect themselves from the poor and weak.

My Stand

My position on the death penalty is based on Kant’s argument. A key strength of Kant’s argument is that he bases it on objective moral law. He argues that people have the capacity to reason, to think critically. This ability should be the basis for doing the right thing. As every person has the capacity to reason, morals should, therefore, be universal (Anderson). This should apply to murder. A key argument here is that murder cannot be universalized. This is based on the understanding that if every other person killed for not liking someone then there would be no people left. Due to the possession of critical thinking, a person should also understand that he/she is also committing a crime based on existing laws, which criminalize murder. At the same time, Kant emphasizes the importance of human dignity. It is every person’s duty to treat others with dignity. Murder violates this. However, violation of this should not end at that as there should be justice (Anderson). Kant strongly argues that one should not do to someone that he/she would not want to be done to him/her. Based on this, I believe a serious crime such as murder should only warrant for the criminal to be treated in the same way. Kant’s ethics is also objective, which provides it with a strong basis.

Even though Hobbes is in support of the death penalty just like Kant, his argument contains some weaknesses. I find the main weaknesses being the fact that Hobbes does not describe what happens where the state the sovereign fails to protect the people. Unlike Kant who notes that a dissolving society will first kill the last remaining murderer in the prison, Hobbes only focuses on what happens under a well-functioning society. Under an effective sovereign, the death penalty is okay based on the social contract. However, under a crisis such as civil war, it is not evident what could happen under Hobbes argument. I also find Marx’s argument also flawed. This has even been noted in philosophical literature. For instance, his arguments are noted to be only theoretical. His arguments would work in a world where there are no oppressors and the oppressed, the wealth and the rich (Bohm, 267). However, history shows that at any point in life there have always been these categories of people. As such, it would be wrong to blame the rich for the crimes of the poor, considering every person has the potential to work and get rich from their efforts.


In conclusion, the death penalty has been a major issue of discussion in relation to morals and ethics. From the above analysis, it is evident that different philosophers take different approaches to explaining the rightness or wrongness of the issue. Kant bases his argument on retributive justice, where equality and justice are promoted. In the case of murder, Kant argues that proportionate punishment should be used, which explains his support for the death penalty. According to Hobbes, the death penalty is justified by the fact that people fear death. However, a key issue with the argument is that it does not show a stand in case of a crisis whereby there is not government or state to protect the people. In relation to Marx, his argument criticizes the death penalty as a tool used by the wealthy in capitalistic states to protect themselves. A key issue with the argument is that it is more theoretical as it ignores the fact that people have the capacity to work and get rich from their own efforts. 

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