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International Journal of Applied Philosophy

Volume 30, Issue 2, Fall 2016

Brian K. Powell
Pages 337-346

Killing, Letting Die, and the Death Penalty

One popular sort of argument for the death penalty depends on the idea of possibly saving innocent lives through added deterrent value. Defenders of such arguments generally concede that: a) we do not know whether or not the death penalty actually adds marginal deterrent value beyond life in prison, and b) any actual death penalty regime is likely to include the execution of some innocent people. Use of the death penalty might save some innocent people, but it is also likely that it will lead us to kill some innocent people. In the present paper, I attempt to give consideration to both sorts of innocents. I argue that it is morally more serious to intentionally kill people who are innocent than it is to fail to save innocent people whose death is in no way intended. Thus, in the absence of compelling evidence that our use of the death penalty would save significantly more innocent people than it would kill, we should err on the side of not using the death penalty as a means to try to achieve added deterrent value.