The issue of the justification of capital punishment was raised by political scientists, historians, sociologists, writers, and other authors throughout the development of civilization. At the dawn of history, in primitive societies, ancient cultures, and medieval states, the death penalty was commonplace and beyond doubt. During the Renaissance and Enlightenment, artists and philosophers first raised the question of the rationale for the death penalty and the possible primacy of the right to life. By this time, only a few democratic states, including the United States, for instance, have retained this penalty as lawful. This paper argues that the death penalty is incompatible with the essence of democratic principles and also has a detrimental effect on the cultural environment of the society in which it is maintained.
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Right to Life as a Basic Democratic Principle
The right to life is the foundation of all human rights and a primary democratic value. Sarat (2018) states that the United States continues to keep the capital punishment lawful despite the “criticism in the international arena and long after almost all other democratic nations have abandoned it” (p. 13). Obviously, this legal penalty is applied only in particularly serious crimes and in extreme cases.
Nevertheless, according to human rights doctrine, the right to life is a fundamental and inalienable human right. The state may, in some instances, restrict other rights of citizens, such as freedom of movement, freedom to engage in certain activities, freedom of expression. At the same time, a democratic state should respect and protect the right to life by seeking other political and economical solutions to improve the fight against crime and the functioning of the penitentiary system.
There is a particular moral dilemma related to the use of violence, and murder in particular, by the state. According to Sarat (2018), “to be legitimate at all, state killing must appear to be different from the violence to which it is opposed and to which it is seen as a response” (p. 19). However, the absolute form of violence is the killing of an individual, that is, his or her physical liquidation. Thus, the democratic state should view murder as the most undesirable and unacceptable type of violence that it should be combating. In this sense, by applying the death penalty, the state becomes involved in a phenomenon that it is intended to confront in the first place.
It should be noted that the existence of capital punishment in the list of state sanctions of criminal law can be considered not only from ideological positions. Sarat (2018) states that the legalization of murder, even within the judicial system, as well as the corresponding methods of execution, have an irreversible effect on the culture of society (p. 22). In democratic states that have abolished the death penalty, citizens do not have examples of the acceptability of lawful killing. Deprivation of life and all forms of murder are regarded as an extreme deviation of social and cultural life. In states where capital punishment is a routine exercise of justice, there is the opposite effect. Citizens witness the acceptability of inflicting death, and social taboos are blurred in society’s perception. It is, therefore, essential that the state demonstrate such conduct as it expects of the citizen.
The right to life is an inalienable right of the individual and the basis of democratic indoctrination. The application of the death penalty cannot be fully compatible with the actual government implementation of this principle. The state, which legalizes and applies the death penalty, firstly, carries out an extraordinary form of violence which it is supposed to combat and, secondly, demonstrates that murder in emergency cases may be acceptable. This has a certain impact on the citizens of the state and their views on the murder.
Sarat, A. (2018). When the state kills: Capital punishment and the American condition. Princeton, NY: Princeton University Press.
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