Limiting the Death Penalty
Keywords:death penalty, punishment, deterrence, social contract
The aim is to elucidate and appraise some of the various types of consideration Beccaria adduces in the chapter of Of Crimes and Punishments dedicated to the question of the death penalty. In light of the exceptions Beccaria makes to his rejection of the death penalty, we see some of the consequentialist principles he employs in thinking about punishment in general. Yet the first four arguments in the chapter depend principally on a social-contract account of the formation of society, but are not formulated in such a way as to exclude only the death penalty without also excluding other forms of punishment. The most famous argument in the chapter, aimed at showing that the death penalty is an “absurdity”, is premised on a flawed principle of harm, and likewise proves either too much or too little. The final section briskly reviews some of Beccaria’s more specific observations about how judicial killing was carried out in his day; some of these can carry over to current practices and help us see the moral costs of acceptance of the death penalty.
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