The Structure of Death Penalty Arguments

Res Publica 20 (2):129-143 (2014)
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In death penalty debates, advocates on both sides have advanced a staggering number of arguments to defend their positions. Many of those arguments fail to support retaining or abolishing the death penalty, and often this is due to advocates pursuing a line of reasoning where the conclusion, even if correctly established, will not ultimately prove decisive. Many of these issues are also interconnected and shouldn’t be treated separately. The goal of this paper is to provide some clarity about which specific issues really determine whether the institution of capital punishment is morally permissible. The issues can be broadly grouped into three categories: substantive; procedural (comparative); and procedural (noncomparative). Substantive debates regard the inherent moral status of the death penalty, while procedural debates regard how the death penalty is applied in practice, with two types of injustice that can result. Substantive issues have the potential to be the most decisive, for if the death penalty is inherently immoral there’s no need to even raise procedural questions. However, it appears difficult for either side to make a clearly compelling argument on substantive grounds. In regards to the procedural arguments, the concerns of noncomparative justice lead to stronger arguments than the comparative concerns, for the irrevocable nature of the death penalty can play a role in the former but not the later. Overall, abolitionists have a clear advantage in this debate, as they only have to make their case on one of these fronts, while supporters must defend themselves on all three fronts.

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Matt Stichter
Washington State University

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