Kantian Ethics And Utilitarian Ethics Regarding Death Penalty Research Paper

  • Length: 15 pages
  • Sources: 13
  • Subject: Criminal Justice
  • Type: Research Paper
  • Paper: #81397208

Excerpt from Research Paper :

Powell points to the fact that "in Georgia, for example, the time between the date of the murder and the murderer's execution (if it occurs) averages close to I0 years 25 Although the average lapsed time in Georgia may be the highest, the same situation generally prevails in a number of other states. No one would suggest that this is satisfactory." (Powell, 1038)

Indeed, according to Calvert (1993) it demonstrates a process which is crowded with rational causes to delay in the implementation, primarily because the application of the death penalty is so difficult to evaluate ethically. The degree of doubt which has been cast upon the efficiency, fairness or consistency of the death penalty is sufficient to warrant an inquiry on its ethical rationality. In many ways, those perspectives which have supported its unquestioned usage tend to align philosophically with authoritarian state structures, connectivity between the legitimacy of state and the certainty of theologies, and an unwavering confidence in the social contract between citizen and state. Calvert tells that this is reflected in John Locke's view, which was that:

"the political power which gives the state the right to impose the death penalty stems from the natural rights which all people possess in the state of nature. In that state the one who transgresses against the laws of nature departs from the rule of reason and puts himself into a state of war with other members of society. Consequently those other members have a right to protect themselves as well as others against the transgressor, and this right of self-protection includes the right to kill the transgressor." (Calvert, 211-212)

In spite of the wide array of practical and ethical causes to question this logic as discussed in this section, the view stated above seems to persist as the most defining philosophical disposition of the United States government, with the sources consulted suggesting that the United States government perceives itself as being inherently in the position, of the capability and delegated by the people to carry out this intractable penalty. (Powell, 1035)


In our investigation here of the various possible lenses through which to understand ethical morality, consideration of German theologian Immanuel Kant's theories provides what Merle (2009) describes as a rigid, socially constrained and sometimes dangerous absolutism through which to understand the death penalty. (Merle, 310) At the center of Kant's argument is the premise that the same reason which applies to the empirical nature of scientific discourse must rationally apply in the same way to ethical discourse. Accordingly, Murphy (1987) shows how Kant argued in favor of a rational ethicality in such areas as punishment. Murphy indicates that "a theory of punishment must bring a systematic moral theory to bear on the questions of criminalization and punishment in order to show how conduct that is clearly wrong when considered in isolation (e.g., locking someone up in a cage for several years) can be morally justified all things considered. " (Murphy, 510) This means that for Kant, ethics and the understanding of ethics are contextualized by a commitment to society. To Kant, ideals on ethical autonomy are threatening to social order, representing the opportunity for the individual to devise his own ethical parameters to the threat of others. This may help to justify punishment measures which might by themselves be framed as unethical if not in response to an act deserving of said punishment. (Murphy, 510)

Accordingly, Kant lays out a concise framework for justice, which Singer tells "has traditionally been though of as issuing in 'categorical imperatives,' which take no account of individual situations, personal differences or extenuating circumstances. Thus Kant has effectively been stereotyped as an ethical absolutists . . . one who holds that, for example, it is always wrong to lie, no matter what the circumstances or consequences." (Singer, 577)

The 'categorical imperative' to which Kant refers is foundational to the normative theory suggesting that there is some immutable force associated with our conception and actualization of the idea of 'good' or 'evil.' It inclines us to understanding that the means by which we behave are inherently informed by our commitment to a single, shared and unchanging idea about what is right. To commit to this idea is practical reason and to fail to make this commitment is irrational, which allows Kant to propose that such a positive correlation could be observed between rationality and morality. This also allows Kant to attribute an unwavering degree of support to state structures, which he proposes as having an inherent need to impose an order which is best for the common good. Therefore, its duty in Kant's perception would be to enforce without wavering the standards of good and evil which are concordant with the categorical imperative. To this extent, Kant "suggests at one point the law should be designed so that a race of devils could live in peace under it. The rules of punishment are tough and inflexible: all the guilty must be punished, made to suffer the equivalent of the losses they inflicted, and there should be no pardon for public crimes." (Hill, 408)

If Kant's points are to be assimilated when adopting a moral stance on punishment, such absolute terms are inevitably defined by dominant social structures. Merle argues that the inextricable relationship which theology, economy, society and morality have shared throughout history tends to have a tangible impact on the way these hegemonic standards are defined. And Kant, rejects any flexibility outright, which in a sense that critics have seized on, revealed a thinker deeply enamored of his own principles. So notes the article by Merle (2009), which relates that "most of these mixed theories represent an effort by deontological, especially Kantian philosophers to break with the traditional view of the deontological, especially Kantian justification of punishment as a thoroughly retributivist theory. Indeed, it is with good reason that such a theory has been suspected of relying more on private morality than on principles of right. " (Merle, 311) This idea of private morality as being present in a philosophy which otherwise imposes itself upon the collective becomes especially troubling as this part of the discussion is applied to consideration of the death penalty.


Bedau (1983) tells us that Kantian ethics contrast the idea of utilitarianism, which proposes that all situations demand a certain degree of pragmatism with respect to behavior. This throws into chaos the moral presuppositions of Kant, with such thinkers as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill coming to the fore of the discussion. In utilitarian philosophy, it is imperative that morality be channeled through an understanding of context and the nuances of society on human interaction. Bentham rejected the simple notion that there are certain guaranteed natural rights to which all men are entitled and should thus be rewarded with just by the virtue of their existence, instead premising the value of a utilitarian perspective. (Bedau, 1037) He objected to the idea that any individual or group should be given an ethical framework through which he or it could then dictate that which is right and that which is wrong. This, Bentham contended, would be a contradiction to the preservation of individual rights. Far too many intangible factors enter into any given ethical dilemma. So denotes Bedau (1983), who reports that "as commentators on utilitarianism have made clear, any possible utilitarianism is some combination of (i) a doctrine of the end-state to be realized, that is, a condition or state of affairs deemed to have intrinsic value, and (ii) a theory of the consequences of possible actions open to the agent (person, legislature, society), whose value is purely instrumental because choice among these alternative actions is determined by how efficiently each leads (or would lead) to the end-state." (Bedau, 1037)

This means that such absolutism as reflected in the categorical imperative is destined to lead to an oversight of these nuances and variations. The prescription for an ethical outcome will be based on a uniformity with utilitarianism claims to be fundamentally irrational. This helps to underscore a general disagreement between the utilitarian ideology and many theologically-based ethical codes, as shown in the text by Nelson (1991), who indicates that "Christians should find utilitarianism unacceptable because its eschatology conflicts with theirs. No doubt, many Christians have rejected utilitarianism for other reasons, including its reductionistic tendencies and its naturalistic assumptions." (Nelson, 342-343) This helps to distinguish utilitarian ethicality from the religious traditions driving mainstream cultural ethical codes." (Nelson, 342)

Additionally, Harsanyi (1977) introduces the idea here that there is a responsibility on the part of those charged with public leadership of extending the greatest good and preventing the harm where possible. This denotes a social platform for the construction of ethical decisions which proceeds from any number of variables. As Harsanyi indicates, "in any utilitarian theory, maximization of 'social utility' (or of the total amount of 'good' in our social environment) plays a fundamental…

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