Ethical questions are at the forefront of the debate about the permissibility of capital punishment as both a way of deterring crime and making criminals “pay" for their violent acts against individuals and society. While this is certainly not a new question, it still has not been resolved and instead, there are some states that exercise their ability to punish the harshest criminals while others, generally for moral reasons, do not. In examining the questions behind capital punishment, it is useful to consider public opinion and rhetoric behind this debate to determine for what reasons it is considered right or wrong to have such a criminal penalty. To best examine the questions behind the arguments surrounding capital punishment, objectivity is important as is a keen mind for the differences between mere rhetoric and solid empirical fact. A great number of argumentative essays have been written both for and against it but oftentimes the evidence is not credible because of overt bias.

Public sentiment about capital punishment varies widely and although there is a great deal of data available about such opinions, the camps remain evenly split on every aspect of the debate, thus leaving some states that allow it and others that do not. Even though there is plenty of information regarding the ethical issues involved, many people are unclear about the specific information regarding the topic. For instance, in one study that measured the “attitudinal and informational bases of people’s (N=500) opinions about the death penalty. Results showed 58.8 percent were proponents of capital punishment, 30.8 percent were opponents, and 10.4 percent were undecided. Respondents were generally ignorant on factual issues. Opponents favored due process guarantees more than did proponents” (Ellsworth) It is interesting that the respondents to this study were named “generally ignorant" and the study goes on to note that this refers to their knowledge of the statistics related to the effectiveness of capital punishment as a crime deterrent. In other words, much of the public response to the issue of capital punishment is based largely on emotion, ethics, and in many cases religion while many of the facts go unnoticed. While this seems acceptable simply because it is commonplace for citizens to take moral or ethical stands on political topics based on personal feeling rather than established data, one must keep in mind that there are legitimate benefits and drawbacks to the practice when it is put into action that go far beyond the moral or philosophical. While this is not meant to be “side-taking" it is worth suggesting that the debate about capital punishment is so divisive because it appeals so directly to emotion and personal feelings. As is the case in other arenas that instigate such strong sentiment (the abortion or stem cell arguments, for example) sometimes the facts are overlooked in favor of these moral internal ethical questions.

Several studies indicate a strong correlation between execution and the determent of crimes, especially murder. Such studies “suggest that capital punishment has a strong deterrent effect, each execution results, on average, in 18 fewer murders—with a margin of error of plus or minus ten. Tests show that results are not driven by tougher sentencing laws." (Dezhbakhsh) While this data is highly subjective and considers the national average (as opposed to a region or city) it does show that violence is reduced. Although tough sentences that are imposed for serious non-capital crimes are generally extremely high, it is interesting that the thought of life in prison is not as much of a determent as the prospect of death. It should be noted as well that many studies reveal that this particularly the case if the execution has been highly publicized. Consider, for example that, “On the average, homicides decrease by 35.7% immediately following a publicized execution. The more publicity devoted to the execution, the more homicides decrease thereafter. This decrease apparently occurs because capital punishment has a short-term deterrent effect on homicides" (Phillips). It is impossible to wonder why this is the case. Generally murders are violent acts, sometimes happening in the “heat of the moment" instead of being planned. It does not seem reasonable that a person capable of murder would stop short because of the threat of death by capital punishment because they had recently seen about it on television. In some senses, the idea that the murder rate would decline shortly after a publicized execution seems slightly absurd and one must wonder whether or not these figures might have been the result of other influences as well. Most people, even if they are not exposed to the media to any great extent, realize that a crime such as murder will carry the death penalty, yet plenty of murders still occur. It simply does not stand reason that the short-term effects of a publicized execution would have a great impact on someone already likely to commit murder.

In a debate with such strong feelings on both sides, data is open to manipulation by parties wishing to influence public sentiment. Data such as that above seems to strongly favor the continuation of capital punishment since it makes an all-or-nothing correlation between the death penalty and deterring crime. Studies from the other side of the debate counter these data stating that publicized executions did not have an effect on the murder rate but that it is naturally prone to statistical variation. In sum, although there are literally thousands of studies championing one side or another, even implicitly, it is difficult to get figures every group agrees upon. This suggests that greater public opinion research is needed as well as a greater and non-biased effort at data collection processes.

You might be interested in other essays and articles in the Arguments Archive including: An Argument in Favor of Capital Punishment and Issues Surrounding the Rights of Prisoners

Sources (APA)

Dezhbakhsh. (2003). Does Capital Punishment Have a Deterrent Effect? New Evidence from Postmoratorium Panel Data. American Law and Economics Association, 5(2), 344.

Ellsworth. (2003). Public opinion and capital punishment: A close examination of the views of abolitionists and retentionists. Crime & Delinquency, 29(1), 116.

Phillips. (2000). The Deterrent Effect of Capital Punishment: New Evidence on an Old Controversy.American Journal of Sociology, 86(1), 139.