The U.S has the largest prisoner population in the world. As it stands, over 2.3 million people are locked up in prisons and other correctional facilities (BJS). While a great portion of that population is incarcerated for relatively harmless crimes such as marijuana usage and storage, there are also recidivists who have been convicted of violent numerous violent crimes, such as murder, rape, armed burglary, and others.
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These people typically do not show any signs of remorse, are unlikely to be re-educated, and are likely to commit crimes upon being released back into the society. According to Gluckman (8), the amount of money spent per prisoner in custody ranges from 31,000 to 160,000 dollars a year, depending on where the prison is located. This raises the question of whether or not the society should bear the costs of the existence of these people. In this paper, I will analyze the ethical grounds of utilizing death penalty for recidivist violent criminals based on Bentham’s utilitarianism.
Death Penalty from the Perspective of Utilitarianism
At first glance, it may seem that utilitarianism would oppose the death penalty, as it seeks to bring ultimate suffering to the prisoner. However, in this scenario, the effect would be measured for the society as a whole. According to Vaughn (131), from the scope of utilitarianism, the death of a prisoner who is deemed a threat to the society would bring not only economic benefits but also a relief to the victims and the society as a whole, along with a feeling that justice was served. One of the common tools to analyze the pros and cons of an ethical dilemma is Bentham’s felicific calculus. If we apply it to the issue of death penalty, the results would be as follows (Vaughn 134):
- Intensity: Strong. The criminal’s victims and the society, in general, are likely to experience relief upon revenge being exacted on a criminal who murdered or raped others.
- Duration: Short-Moderate. Pleasure will begin once the deed is done and is likely to linger for several years, so long the memory is kept alive.
- Certainty: Moderate. Although most people are likely to experience satisfaction, some may dislike capital punishment based on their religious or ethical views.
- Propinquity: Immediate. Execution will likely be swift.
- Fecundity: Moderate-high. The society will be pleased every time justice is served, and there are many criminals behind bars that deserve capital punishment.
- Purity: Moderate. There is a possibility of adverse feelings being invoked by the brutality of the procedure. In addition, there is a possibility of an innocent being sentenced to death.
- Extent: The prisoner, the victims, the law enforcement agencies, the society.
Based on the calculus provided above, it can be said that utilitarianism endorses capital punishment as means of exacting justice, saving money on sustaining prisoners and giving emotional comfort to the victims of a violent criminal.
The death penalty will not fix the US’ broken prison policy, nor will it solve the issue of overcrowding. However, it will put an end to individuals considered corrupt and evil by all ethical and moral standards, offer a sense of reconciliation to the victims of rapists and murderers, and remove the burden of sustaining the lives of such people from the society. Nineteen states within the US do not support capital punishment. From the utilitarian point of view, it is a wrong choice to make.
BJS. “Total Correctional Population.” Bureau of Justice Statistics. Web.
Gluckman, Peter. Using Evidence to Build a Better Justice System: The Challenge of Rising Prison Costs. 2018. Web.
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Vaughn, Lewis. Doing Ethics: Moral Reasoning and Contemporary Issues. 4th ed., W.W. Norton & Company, 2015.