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The first is empirical: a question about real-world facts.
On the other hand you might oppose the death penalty on the grounds that it is disproportionately light.
Many people who opposed the recent death sentence for the Boston bomber did so on the grounds that life in a maximum-security prison would be a worse punishment – and so more fitting – than death.
Deterrence theorists tend to defend some upper limit on the harshness of punishment – and it may be that death simply goes beyond what the government is ever permitted to threaten.
“Punishment communicates to criminals that what they have done is wrong, and gives them an opportunity to apologise and reform.” There are many different variants of this view: educative, communicative, rehabilitative – and there are important differences between them.
Considering the three main families in the philosophy of punishment can help us organise our conversation.
“Bad guys deserve to suffer.” This is a blunt slogan, but it captures the essence of a deeply familiar notion: people who have committed culpable wrongs deserve their lives to go worse as a result. Perhaps because it’s not fair for the lives of wrongdoers to go well when the lives of the innocent have gone poorly – punishment levels the playing field.
If you are a retributivist, you might support the death penalty because you think that certain or all murderers (and perhaps other criminals) deserve to suffer death for their crimes.
Depending on how you think about death, however, you might oppose the death penalty on the grounds that it is disproportionately harsh – perhaps you think that no matter what someone has done, she does not deserve to die for it.
After all, imagine if we threatened execution for all crimes, including minor traffic violations, theft, and tax fraud.
Doing so would surely slash the crime rate, yet most people would judge it to be wrong.