Volume 14, 1998
Other Applied Ethics
A Non-Pacifist Argument Against Capital Punishment
In this paper I present a moral argument against capital punishment that does not depend upon the claim that all killing is immoral. The argument is directed primarily against non-philosophers in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Oddly, the moral argument against capital punishment has not been effective in the United States despite the biblical injunction against killing. Religious supporters of the death penalty often invoke a presumed distinction between ‘killing’ and ‘murdering’ and avow that God forbade the latter but not the former. Self-defense and just wars are cited as cases of morally justified killing. Accepting these premises, I point out that when cases of justified killing in self-defense are altered to include an element of delay, disarming and premeditation, they too become murder. Since the death penalty clearly involves the elements of delay, disarming and premeditation, I conclude that the death penalty is murder in the biblical sense and ought to be abolished in any God-fearing (or otherwise moral) society.