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Debating the Death Penalty

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Debating the Death Penalty

Debating the Death Penalty: Should America Have Capital Punishment?

Debates about the death penalty sometimes take a back seat to those over matters such as abortion, but they don't really end and they rarely seem to arrive at any sort of conclusion. This probably shouldn't be a surprise - capital punishment has been in regular use in the West for thousands of years, and no one started to question it in a serious and systematic manner until just a couple of centuries ago.


Title: Debating the Death Penalty: Should America Have Capital Punishment?: The Experts on Both Sides Make Their Best Case
Author: edited by Hugo Adam Bedau and Paul Cassell
Publisher: Oxford University Press
ISBN: 0195169832

•  Allows death penalty advocates and opponents to make their cases in their own words
•  Includes personal as well as academic perspectives from sitting judges

•  Not all the essays are of the same caliber and quality

•  Eight essays debating the death penalty: four in favor and four against
•  Explores a number of issues relating to capital punishment: morality, revenge, deterrence, etc.
•  Provides a good overview of various arguments for an against


Book Review

The debate about capital punishment is still very much alive: is it just? Is it appropriate? Is it moral? Is it even effective? No one has quite managed to offer a perfect, knock-down argument for either side, though it is interesting that the death penalty has been eliminated in just about every industrialized nation except for the United States.

It is in America that the debate over capital punishment is most active, most vociferous, and most emotional. Into this maelstrom step Hugo Adam Bedau and Paul Cassell with their book Debating the Death Penalty: Should America Have Capital Punishment? Bedau, Professor of Philosophy, Emeritus, at Tufts University and Cassell, a U.S. District Court Judge, bring together eight essays (including one from each of them) for and against capital punishment. Contributors include philosophers, lawyers, and sitting judges.

Personally I have been growing inclined against capital punishment over the years. For the average theist, imposing the penalty of death can be made to seem less horrible by the fact that it only terminates the body, not the soul. Damnation, not death, is the ultimate penalty - and that would be imposed by God, not the state. Indeed, having to face the death penalty may be the path which leads the condemned person to salvation.

This perspective is not something which I am simply making up - it has, in fact, constituted an important facet of the defense of capital punishment for a long time. It cannot, however, serve as a defense by secular courts of secular people. Perhaps the most famous explication of this position was made by Albert Camus:

Debating the Death Penalty

Debating the Death Penalty: Should America Have Capital Punishment?

    "When an atheist or skeptical or agnostic judge inflicts the death penalty on an unbelieving criminal, he is pronouncing a definitive judgment that cannot be reconsidered. He takes his place on the throne of God, without having the same powers and even without believing in God. He kills, in short, because his ancestors believed in eternal life."

A religious person who uses capital punishment does not thereby judge that the condemned person is irredeemable. The atheist who uses capital punishment, however, does make such a determination - eliminating someone's presence on Earth is effectively the same as stating that rehabilitation and redemption are impossible or just undesirable. But what atheist is competent enough to make such a judgment?

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