Applying Utilitarian Theory to the Death Penalty


The death penalty is the harshest and most contentious punishment that can be legally meted out against criminal offenders. Due to its severity and perceived cruel nature, the death penalty is a contentious issue in modern society and people hold polarized positions on the issue. While most countries in the international community have banned this form of punishment, it is still legal in most States in the US.

Proponents of the death penalty declare that it is to enable judges to punish the most vicious criminals. On the other hand, opponents assert that it is a barbaric and inhumane practice that has no place in a civilized society. To help determine which alternative is right, one can apply ethical theories on the issue. Applying an ethical theory will help determine the moral nature of the death penalty. This paper will apply the ethical theory of utilitarianism to the issue of the death penalty and show that this punishment is morally right from a utilitarian view.

Defining Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism is a popular theory that proposes that an action is ethical if it leads to an outcome that people prefer. The ethical goal of utilitarianism is to maximize the well-being of the society. It achieves this by choosing the action from a list of available alternatives, which results in the largest net benefits for all parties involved. The theory considers that actions can have both positive and negative consequences. Utilitarian therefore proposes that the net utility of the action can be determined by weighing up its costs against its benefits. Rosen asserts that according to this theory, the ethical action is the one that “yields the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people” (174).

The theory calls for individual sacrifice when this will lead to the greatest happiness for the society. The actions of an individual should be aimed at increasing the benefits while reducing the costs. It is possible to calculate the ethically right choice when using utilitarianism. This is done by weighing up the costs and benefits of different alternatives and then choosing the action that yields greater benefits and minimizes the cost. It is possible to apply the utilitarian theory on the controversial issue of the death penalty.

Applying Utilitarianism to the Death Penalty Issue

To determine the ethical course of action using utilitarianism, a person should evaluate the net consequences of an action by weighing the benefits against the costs.

Benefits of Death Penalty

Arguably the most significant advantage of the death penalty is that it discourages other members of the society from engaging in the offenses that carry this severe punishment. When the criminal justice system applies this punishment, it sends a clear message to potential offenders that they will suffer from the same harsh punishment if they take part in certain criminal activities. Studies indicate that capital punishment leads to a decrease in homicide rates.

A study by Kirchgassner revealed that there were 71 fewer murders annually in the States that implemented executions in the US between 1970 and 2005 (448). This demonstrates that the death penalty contributes to a decrease in violent crime by forcing potential criminals to reconsider their actions. From a utilitarian view, the deterrence effect of capital punishment is ethical since it contributes to the safety of the society by decreasing crime rate. Many people in the society benefit from this added security brought about by implementing capital punishment.

Another benefit of capital punishment is that it prevents members of the society from engaging in extrajudicial killings. Historically, various communities in the US have been known to engage in public extrajudicial killings. The illegal killings were carried out by people who felt that death was the only just punishment for certain offenses. The death penalty removes the need for such actions by making it possible for the government to legally sanction the execution of an offender. Steiker and Jordan confirm that a major reason for the preservation of the death penalty is to mitigate extrajudicial killings (649).

This punishment therefore contributes to the preserving of public order by ensuring that the society can get adequate retribution for all crimes through legitimate means. The utilitarian view is in support of an action that contributes to the preserving of social order. When the death penalty is available, people do not have to engage in extrajudicial executions since they are able to gain adequate retributions from the court system.

The final benefit of capital punishment is that it leads to the permanent incapacitation of the offender, thus ensuring that he/she will not harm members of the society again. With the exception of the death penalty, all other punishments issued by the courts only restrict some of the freedoms of the offender or cause him some monetary losses. However, the offender is still able to engage in criminal activity either while in prison or after serving his term.

When the death penalty is implemented against an offender, he/she is permanently removed from society. Sunstein and Vermeule (849) note that after an execution, the society is guaranteed that it will never suffer from another crime from that criminal. The society is guaranteed that there will be no recidivism since the criminal is dead. Utilitarianism views this as a significant merit since it benefits many members of the society who are guaranteed safety from the criminal. The death penalty therefore leads to a maximization of the happiness of many people who no longer have to worry about the executed criminal.

Consequences of the Death Penalty

A significant cost of the death penalty is that it might result in the execution of an innocent person. The justice system is flawed and there is the possibility that the court might wrongfully convict a person. When capital punishment is carried out, there is no probability that this person will be exonerated. Hoffman confirms that the risk that an innocent person might be killed is the greatest setback to capital punishment (562). From a utilitarian point of view, a miscarriage of justice is a major cost. It will affect the society by decreasing the sense of confidence in the criminal justice system. The innocent person wrongfully executed will also be deprived of life.

Another consequence of capital punishment is that it imposes a great financial burden on the society. While in the past the death penalty was deemed cheaper than the alternative life imprisonment, this has changed in recent decades. To begin with, the procedures for dealing with a capital case differ from those of non-capital offenses. The prosecutor and defense side have to dedicate significant resources in investigating the case.

Expert witnesses are used when presenting evidence before the judge and if a person is convicted, he/she is entitled to numerous appeals (Steiker and Jordan 650). The government handles the high fiscal cost of handling capital cases. In addition to this, the execution might be delayed for years or even decades. The high financial cost of implementing the death penalty is undesirable from a utilitarian perspective.

The Ethical Choice

The ethical goal of utilitarianism is to select the action that maximizes the well-being of the society. This option is chosen by weighing the net benefits against the net costs of the action. The death penalty provides the significant benefits of deterring people from engaging in future crimes, permanently incapacitating offenders, and preserving social order. The costs of the death penalty include a potential miscarriage of justice and the high monetary burden on taxpayers. From this assessment, it is evident that the benefits outweigh the costs. It can therefore be stated that the death penalty is an ethical action from a utilitarian point of view. This action achieves the ethical goal of bringing about the greatest happiness to the largest number of people.


Ethical theories can play an important role in helping a person make the appropriate decision when faced with contentious ethical issues. This paper has made use of the utilitarian theory to determine if the death penalty is justifiable. It began by noting that the death penalty is an important ethical issue in modern society and people hold polarized positions on the matter. The paper defined the utilitarian theory as an ethical theory that considers the ethicalness of an action by analyzing its benefits and consequences. It highlighted the benefits that the death penalty brings to the society and weighed them against the costs. The benefits are more significant that the costs of implementing capital punishment. As such, the utilitarian view supports the implementation of the death penalty in our society.

Works Cited

Hoffman, Joseph. “Protecting the Innocent: The Massachusetts Governor’s Council Report.” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 95.1 (2005): 561-85. Web.

Kirchgassner, Gebhard. “Econometric Estimates of Deterrence of the Death Penalty: Facts or Ideology?” Kyklos 64.3 (2011): 448-478. Web.

Rosen, Frederick. Classical Utilitarianism from Hume to Mill. NY: Routledge, 2005. Print.

Sunstein, Cass and Adrian Vermeule. “Deterring Murder: A Reply.” Stanford Law Review 58.1 (2005): 847–857. Web.

Steiker, Carol and Morris Jordan. “Capital Punishment: A Century of Discontinuous Debate.” Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology, 100.3 (2010): 643-689. Print.