The Value of Life:
An Argument Against the Death Penalty

Dawn Krider
Indiana University South Bend

An eyewitness to the execution of John Evans in Alabama describes this scene from the final moments of a death penalty sentence being carried out:

"The first jolt of 1900 volts of electricity passed through Mr. Evans' body. It lasted thirty seconds. Sparks and flame erupted from the electrode tied to his leg. His body slammed against the straps holding him in the electric chair and his fist clenched permanently. A large puff of grayish smoke and sparks poured out from under the hood that covered his face. An overpowering stench of burnt flesh and clothing began pervading the witness room. Two doctors examined Mr. Evans and declared that he was not dead." It took three jolts of electricity and 14 minutes before John Evans was declared dead (Radelet, "Facing the Death Penalty").

Throughout history, various forms of executions such as this one have taken place as a punishment for crime. In 1976, the United States reinstated the death penalty after having revoked it in 1972 on the grounds that it "violated the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment" (MacKinnon, "Ethics" 289). Since its reinstatement, the morality of such punishment has been extensively debated. I argue that the death penalty cannot be morally justified on the basic grounds that killing a human being as a form of punishment is wrong.

A major argument supporting capital punishment is that it serves as a deterrent to crimes - specifically, murder. However, this argument requires that the would be killer would take at least a moment to consider what the consequences of murder within our legal system are. This assumes that the killer is capable of such reasoning, and that the crime would be considered before it occurred. In fact, "those who commit violent crimes often do so in moments of passion, rage and fear - times when irrationality reigns" (Information, "Capital Punishment" 107). Whether or not a murder or crime is premeditated, there are statistics existing that cause us to question how supportive an argument of deterrence can be. In 1989, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee said that if we look at other Western democracies, "Not one of those countries has capital punishment for peacetime crimes, and yet every one of them has a murder rate less than half that of the United States" (Information, "Capital Punishment" 110). The Information Series on capital punishment also says that states that FBI statistics from 1976-1987 show that "In the twelve states where executions take place, the murder rate is...exactly twice the murder rate of the thirteen states without the death penalty" (111). The deterrent value of capital punishment is certainly in question.

Killing a human being as a deterrent to crime is, in essence, using a human being as a means rather than an ends. Kantian ethics state that we are to treat people as having intrinsic value and not simply instrumental value. "People are valuable in themselves regardless of whether they are useful or loved or valued by others" (MacKinnon, "Ethics" 56). Also, as MacKinnon states, "using the concern for life that usually promotes it to make a case for ending life is inherently contradictory and a violation of the categorical imperative" (133). If we hold that killing is wrong (except in self-defense) and therefore a killer needs to be punished, to follow with the conclusion that the killer's punishment is to be killed is completely contradictory. Some would argue that the execution of a murderer is in the "self-defense" of society itself. This is a distortion of the definition of self-defense. Self-defense is when your life is in immediate danger and a reaction is necessary in order to prevent your injury or death. I believe that self-defense could also apply to situations where the lives of children or others who could not defend themselves were in immediate danger and someone else had to react in order to protect them. The key phrase in each of these definitions is "immediate danger" and, in the trial of a murderer, there is no indication or guarantee that the person is going to kill again, and there is no immediate danger or threat that requires reaction. This is not self-defense and does not justify killing. Simply because a guilty verdict requires that the murderer be punished, it does not follow that the punishment should be death on the grounds of self-defense.

The determination of guilt within our legal system is also in question. Legally, criminals are to be "innocent until proven guilty", but in reality they are often "guilty until proven innocent". Unfortunately, our legal system is not always just or accurate. Innocent people are convicted. This can happen due to inconclusive evidence, the socioeconomic status of the accused, or jury/judge bias and prejudice, among other factors. A criminal who is convicted and sentenced to imprisonment and then later proven to be innocent can be released. Such is not the case once the irrevocable death penalty has been carried out. The Information Series on capital punishment cites the work of Michael Radelet of the University of Florida who counted since the turn of the century "343 cases in which a defendant facing a possible death penalty was wrongfully convicted. Of these, 137 were sentenced to death, and 25 were actually executed. Sixty-one served more than 10 years in jail and seven died while in prison" (77). If even one innocent person is wrongfully killed, how can we claim that this is justice? Racial and socioeconomic factors also come into play in the trial and conviction of the accused. The Information Series states that "since the death penalty was reinstated, six White defendants have been executed for murdering a Black person, while 112 Black people have been executed for the murder of a White person" (105). Samuel Jordan of Amnesty International also points out that in 1998, "although African-Americans count for 50 percent of homicide victims in the nation, 82 percent of death row offenders have been convicted for the murder of Whites" (Information, "Capital Punishment" 104). In the 1970's the Baldus Study found that "defendants charged with killing White persons received the death penalty in 11 percent of cases, but defendants charged with killing Blacks received the death penalty in only 1 percent of the cases" (Information, 46). The Baldus Study also found that prosecutors sought the death penalty more in cases where a Black defendant was charged with killing a White. Samuel Jordan pointed out that "poverty as well as race often determines the allocation of the death sentence. Inadequate, inexperienced representation for indigent defendants characterizes most legal litigation" (Information, 104). While the unfairness and inequality of our legal system does not show that the death penalty itself is wrong, I would argue that because of the judicial disparities shown in the statistics above, we know can never be 100 percent certain of the guilt of an individual. Due to this measure of uncertainty, it is morally wrong to determine a punishment that is as irreversible as death. We cannot put ourselves into a position of God.

Some will say that the killer's actions are irreversible and that such a crime deserves an equal punishment. These same people would cite the biblical passage that exhorts "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth". However, if a crime deserves equal punishment, then why do we not rape the rapist or burn the arsonist? A civilized society must be based on values and principles that are higher than those it condemns. As I stated previously, to punish killing with death is inherently contradictory. Biblically we are called to live by higher values. In the New Testament, Jesus said that we may have heard it said "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" but he instructed us to "turn the other cheek" (Matthew 5:38-41) to love even our enemies (Matthew 5:43-45), to obey the Ten Commandments which tell us not to kill (Exodus 20:13) and not to put ourselves into the position of God by judging whether others live or die (John 8:7). Vengeance and retribution are to be left to God, who is the only one with the perfect capabilities of judgment. If the argument is that serious crimes deserve equal punishments, it is interesting to note, as MacKinnon states in her text, that the death penalty is also assigned as punishment for treason and rape. Capital Punishment is obviously extreme and unequal to such crimes. There are also certain times when the death penalty is not sought for murder cases (297). The inconsistencies in application seem morally problematic in themselves. Burton Wolfe quotes Albert Camus as saying:

What is capital punishment if not the most premeditated of murders, to which no criminal act, no matter how calculated, can be compared? If there were to be real equivalence, the death penalty would have to be pronounced upon a criminal who had forewarned his victim of the very moment he would be put to a horrible death, and who, from that time on, had kept him confined at his own discretion for a period of months. It is not in private life that one meets such monsters. ("Pileup" 419)

Camus goes on to say that "the devastating, degrading fear imposed on the condemned man for months or even years is a punishment more terrible than death itself, and one that has not been imposed on his victim" ("Pileup" 419).

A Utilitarian might argue in support of the death penalty based on the moral premise that the goal is to increase the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest amount of people. Often the victim's family and others in society will claim that the death penalty is "justice" and that therefore they are happier when it is applied. I would argue that this "happiness" is often more of an appeasement - - a very shallow form of "happiness" that is actually wrapped up in anger and revenge, and not what Utilitarians would classify as true happiness. John Stuart Mill would classify this as a lower pleasure or happiness as described in MacKinnon's text (37). I would also argue that such "happiness" would be of short duration. The killing of the murderer does not bring back the life of the victim, and the sorrow from that death is not eliminated by adding the death of another. It would also need to be taken into account that the murderer may also have friends and family who would be caused pain and suffering by the death of the person they care for. It also seems morally dangerous to apply The Greatest Happiness Principle to the determination of whether or not another human being lives or dies. Using this type of reasoning a killer could be able to justify his actions if he were able to prove that greater happiness was produced through the killing of one individual than if they would have lived. The intrinsic value of life itself does not allow for this kind of reasoning for ending it.

Killing a human being hinders them from reaching their goal of mature potential. As MacKinnon states when discussing Natural Law Theory, " the innate drive toward living is a good in itself" (133). Other human beings should not choose the time of another human being's death - this is not natural. To argue that the killer has done this does not make it morally justifiable for us to do the same to the killer. Killing an individual robs them of the opportunity to rehabilitate and to live a good life. Whatever the reasons might be that would determine that a person should be sentenced to death, there can be no argument that we are prematurely ending the life of another with no foreknowledge of what their future may have held. We have no means beyond mere hypothesis to determine what the future actions of an individual will be. This is not to argue that certain actions do not morally require punishment, but simply to argue that the death penalty itself is an inappropriate form of punishment because of the way that it devalues life itself.

As members of a civilized society made up of morally responsible individuals, I feel that we are required to consistently value human life. There can be no "fair" judgment of which lives have more worth than others and we cannot, as a society of moral beings, be saying that it is wrong to take a life and at the same time threaten that if you do, we will take yours. The existence of the threat itself within our legal system contradicts the value we are trying to uphold. Gandhi was a strong proponent for peace and nonviolence within society and throughout the world. Eknath Easwaran quotes Gandhi as saying, "Violence can never bring an end to violence; all it can do is provoke more violence" ("Gandhi" 49). He also said that "Nonviolence is the law of our species as violence is the law of the brute. The spirit lies dormant in the brute and he knows no law but that of physical might. The dignity of man requires obedience to a higher law ..." ("Gandhi" 152). No arguments can outweigh the intrinsic value of other human beings and of life itself. Capital punishment cannot be morally justified.


Easwaran, Eknath. Gandhi: The Man - The Story of His Transformation. Tomales: Nilgiri Press, 1997.

Holy Bible: New International Version. Nashville: Broadman & Hloman Publishers, 1995.

MacKinnon, Barbara. Ethics: theory and Contemporary Issues - Second Edition. New York: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1998.

Radelet, Michael. Facing the Death Penalty: Essays on a Cruel and Unusual Punishment. New York, 1989.

The Information Series on Current topics. Capital Punishment. Cruel & Unusual? Wylie: Information Plus, 1998.

Wolfe, Burton H. Pileup on Death Row. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1973.