Is there a rational resolution to the capital punishment debate? Arguments on both sides create a hierarchy of various goals and principals in an effort to offer resolution.
The principle of “common human dignity” appears to play a central role in determining the appropriateness of the death penalty as punishment. But because “common human dignity” cannot be precisely defined, other considerations - such as whether capital punishment is acceptable to society, whether the death penalty is administered in an even-handed way, and whether the purported goals can be met - are used as gauges.
In Furman v. Georgia (1972), for example, the Supreme Court used the “common human dignity” principle as the basis for a test of a Georgia statute regarding capital punishment. In this case, the Supreme Court not only determined that the statute unfairly administered the death penalty, it also deemed capital punishment impermissible.
The Supreme Court roughly measured “common human dignity” in terms of the pain that a punishment would exact, and a vague maxim that “humans not be treated as non-humans,” adding three additional principles to ascertain whether capital punishment passed the “human dignity” test. In the Furman case, capital punishment failed all tests.
First, the Furman court indicated that the Georgia statute violated a principle that even-handedness is a necessary component for punishment. The Supreme Court demonstrated that capital punishment was inflicted primarily on racial minorities, and therefore was selective and irregular. The small number of criminals that were sentenced to death, approximately 50 per year, indicated that the punishment was not regularly or fairly applied, especially becaus...
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...apital punishment may still be administered in an arbitrary way.
In making his case, Bedau points out what neither the Gregg decision nor Van Den Haag fully address - the risk that the death penalty will incorrectly execute an innocent person. Unlike its less severe counterparts, capital punishment is irrevocable and permanent, as pointed out in the Furman decision.
Bedau correctly articulates what the Gregg decision, the Furman decision, and Van Den Haag exemplify - that while we can assess goals and principles to come up with a decision regarding capital punishment, the outcome of these foundations depends ultimately upon the weight we give each element. Unfortunately, the several goals and principles that are identified in the debate have no obvious rank order or “proper” weighting. Without this, there is no rational resolution of the controversy possible.
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