Ethical Perspectives on the Death Penalty

Ethical Perspectives on the Death Penalty

The morality of the death penalty remains one of the most divisive ethical topics in the world today. Those in favor of the death penalty, otherwise termed as capital punishment, consider it as a form of retributive justice. The idea of retribution encourages that punishment be given because it is deserved and should be such that it matches in severity to the crime committed (Lemons,2020). Therefore, in the case of murderers and those who commit other heinous crimes, the death penalty is what they deserve given the nature of their crimes. In addition to the death penalty being a form of retributive justice, proponents of the death penalty also argue that it is a perfect deterrent. Sentencing those who commit heinous crimes to death acts to deter other people who would have committed the same crime. The fear of punishment by death makes people avoid committing the crimes. While proponents of the death penalty consider it justifiable and even moral, some people disagree with the death penalty.

One of the major arguments against the death penalty is that human beings have no right to kill other human beings no matter the reason. Those who hold this view believe that no matter the nature of the crime committed by a person, the death penalty is not justifiable since human beings have no right to kill other people for whatever reason (Bedau,2019). In addition to the argument that human beings have no right to kill other human beings, those against the death penalty also argue that the death penalty has no rehabilitative effect (Ward et al.,2022). The reason for punishment is usually to rehabilitate the person so that they do not engage in the same crime or another related crime. However, in the case of the death penalty, the offender is killed therefore leaving no chance for rehabilitation.

The Ethical Egoists view on the death penalty

The ethical egoist view is that people take actions, including committing crimes so as to serve their own self-interest (Rajaneththi,2019). Even with the knowledge of an impending capital punishment, a person might still commit a heinous crime if it serves their self-interest. Therefore, according to ethical egoists, punishments that benefit a person are considered ethical and justifiable while those that do not are considered unethical. Considering the case of the death penalty, it is therefore considered unethical by ethical egoists because it does not benefit the person’s interest. In the argument put forth by ethical egoists, there is no case of conflict between loyalty to self and the community. The ethical egoists' view focuses solely on the perpetuation of one’s self-interest.

The Social Contract ethicists’ view on the death penalty

The social contract ethicists' view on morality is that one's moral obligations are dependent on their contract with the society in which one lives (Friend, n.d). Therefore, on the morality of the death penalty, it is justified if that is what the society deems to be a befitting punishment for the crime committed. One of the most popular applications of the social contract theory to justify moral punishment is in the case of Socrates and Citro. Socrates himself, one of the originators of the social contract theory, used it to explain to Citro why he ought to remain in prison and accept the death penalty (Friend, n. d). In the case of a social contract theorist, unlike as was the case with the ethical egoist, there seems to be a conflict between the interests of the self and those of the society. In the ethical egoist theory, the major determining factor of what is moral is whether it perpetuates self-interest, the theory is, therefore, more focused on the self rather than the society. However, in the case of the social contract theorist, a person is viewed as a part of society. In this case, the societal obligations can be considered as one's national obligations. A person, therefore, has a contracted moral obligation to the society in which one lives.

Best course of action

The arguments pro and against the death penalty are all sound, however, in looking at the death penalty, one should always consider its effectiveness as both a punishment and a deterrent. The death penalty has failed to be both an effective punishment and has also failed as a deterrent. It fails a punishment since it does not rehabilitate the offender. It fails as a deterrent since data shows that despite the presence of the death penalty as a punishment for some heinous crimes, the rate at which those crimes are committed keeps does not decline. Considering other punishments such as long-term imprisonment, there is a lack of evidence to show that it is a more effective deterrent compared to them (American Civil Liberties Union,2023).

The American Medical Association’s (AMA) View on the death penalty and resulting issues

The AMA considers the members' view on capital punishment to be their moral decision to make. It does not make a blanket decision on the morality or immorality of the death penalty. However, its policy states that physicians have the responsibility of preserving life and ought therefore not to participate in any activities that may result in the taking of a life (Capital Punishment | American Medical Association, n.d). AMA’s code of ethics clearly states that a physician ought not to be involved in any actions even legal that may result in the loss of life. These actions range from directly causing death to taking actions that may result in someone's execution i.e., for the case of a prisoner.

The view taken by the AMA does result in conflict between the society and those in the health care profession. It offers guidance to its members on how to navigate the ethical dilemma and what entails participation in executing the death penalty while not considering the doctor’s personal view on the matter. Those in the medical profession are allowed to hold differing views on the morality of the death penalty, however as physicians, they are reminded of their foremost responsibility which is the preservation of life.


American Civil Liberties Union (2023).The Death Penalty.

Bedau, H. (2019). The Case Against the Death Penalty. American Civil Liberties Union; ACLU.

Capital Punishment | American Medical Association (n.d.).

Friend, C. (n.d.). Social Contract Theory | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Lemons Jr, K. R. (2020). Death Penalty Restorative vs. Retributive Justice.

‌Rajaneththi, S. (2019). Arguments on death penalty: Theoretical base of classical school of criminology.

Ward, T., Arrigo, B., Barnao, M., Beech, A., Brown, D. A., Cording, J., … & Taxman, F. (2022). Urgent issues and prospects in correctional rehabilitation practice and research. Legal and Criminological Psychology, 27(2), 103-128.