Punishment and Death Penalty in the Western World


Nowadays, the discussions on punishment and the death penalty frequently occur due to the inability to create one general opinion on the importance of these two concepts and gain control over crimes that happen in the Western world. In this paper, the attention to the positions of such philosophers as Rachels, Doris, Wright and his team, Hursthouse, Pojman, and Reiman will be discussed to comprehend the essence of punishment, the importance of the death penalty, and the role of ethics in society. The opinions of these writers may vary considerably and promote the creation of different conclusions. However, the peculiar feature is not to try to comprehend the worth of each of them separately but to combine their thoughts and create one powerful explanation of the necessity of punishment and the death penalty in a modern world. Moral debates on punishment and the death penalty may cause different opinions and attitudes to the problem of justice in modern Western society, but, anyway, they help to understand why people should get what they deserve in regards to the mind and environmental circumstances and clarify if it is appropriate to consider the death penalty as an effective and justified method of punishment.

General Principles and Thoughts on Punishment and the Death Penalty

As a rule, philosophers define punishment as an essential component of social order and the possibility to deal with violence in society. However, in many states, not all criminals are punished in the way it is expected. The severity of crimes, the age of criminals, and many other issues have to be taken into consideration to clarify the appropriateness of the death penalty as an effective way of punishment. Taking into consideration the fact that people have to deal with numerous factors and different circumstances, it is hard to create one certain attitude to the idea of capital punishment and the death penalty and support it in all situations regardless of the details. There are many people, who support the idea of punishment and the necessity of the death penalty as the means to control citizens and define their social responsibilities.

At the same time, there are the positions under which people argue the worth of the death penalty as a form of punishment for people: Pojman (2014) underlines the inevitability of the death penalty for certain murders to prevent future murders and terrible crimes, and Reiman (2014) claims that the death penalty cannot be justified because killing one person as a means to protect others does not promote the idea of using people as welfare means. The evaluation of different thoughts on crime and punishment is similar to the process of kicking the ball where each person has the right to choose a direction and the method to make the ball continue moving. Regarding such introduction of the topic, there are six main players (the investigations of Rachels, Doris, Wright et al., Hursthouse, Pojman, and Reiman), who have to kick the ball (the concepts of punishment and the death penalty) on the same field (moral debates and ethics) and prove the correctness of the decisions made.

Rachels and His Idea of Punishment and Desert

The idea of retributivism made Rachels one of the most popular and effective thinkers in the 21st century. It is not enough to prove that punishment makes sense and has to be supported by the representatives of all social groups. It is necessary to investigate how punishment could “exclude some greater evil” as the main “means of preventing crime” (Rachels, 2014, p. 470). According to Rachels, people deserve the right to be treated the same way they treat others. Therefore, it is correct to sentence a murderer to death and to punish people in case they behave badly or cause some harm because of the crimes they commit. At the same time, Rachels’ position is hard to use when the time to clarify who should decide on punishment comes. There are the judges and other court representatives, who participate in such decisions. Still, not ordinary people decide who could take such positions. Therefore, the question of social justice should be raised to clarify the appropriateness of the idea of punishment and desert.

Doris and the Importance of Character

Considering possible doubts and misunderstandings, the approach developed by Doris (2014) introduces several rational explanations to the idea of punishment in society. The author suggests paying attention to character and a psychological evaluation of criminals. In other words, punishment and the death penalty may be supported as the best rationale for the promotion of justice. Still, it is not necessary to make fast decisions and neglect such details as personal character, individual challenges, and needs. Unfortunately, the main problem of current courts and the system of justice is the inability to assess “excuses with confident distinctions of character” (Doris, 2014, p. 481). As a result, the system remains to be working but rough and the only one that is available to people at the moment.

Wright, Cullen, and Beaver on Punishment Work

The investigations by Wright, Cullen, and Beaver (2014) show that the crime rate has been considerably improved in the USA during the last several years. Statistics and facts could be used to prove that punishment helps to control people and avoid crimes and murders. Punishment may have different forms, and people are usually free to decide how to punish the criminals and what lessons should be taken from particular cases. Still, in case the death penalty is supported as the possible way to punish people, the authors suggest to search for some alternatives to avoid the idea of killing people but providing them with a chance to change something or, at least, to try. Therefore, rehabilitation is the possibility to use “knowledge about how best to change criminal offenders to continue to develop and to build, with more effective interventions” (Wright et al., 2014). Though rehabilitation is not perfect, the authors explain that perfection should not be the standard, and rehabilitation may be defined as a good means to clarify what can and cannot work at the moment.

Virtual Theory Developed by Hursthouse

Virtue ethics developed by Hursthouse (2014) state that people could be defined as stable characters reacting to the same things in different ways. The position of this philosopher helps to connect the modern philosophical aspects of crime and punishment with the ideas developed by Aristotle. Human virtues benefit possessors in different ways (Hursthouse, 2014). That is why people must act regarding the reasons they could give and the outcomes they expect to get.

Pojman as the Main Opponent of the Death Penalty

In comparison to the above-mentioned theories and opinions, the positions of the last two philosophers have one thought in common: both of them believe in the importance of punishment as the way to deter criminals and potential criminals from any future crimes (Pojman, 2014). The only difference is the necessity to choose the method of punishment: Pojman (2014) believes that the death penalty is an appropriate solution for the murders because their actions cannot be accepted and understood by any possible means. Still, it is necessary to remember that the death penalty may weaken the existing system of justice because it may gain a form of revenge and a method that judges innocent people or discriminate against minorities without any reason. Though it is hard to develop one particular attitude to punishment and the death penalty, Pojman tries to explain that it is wrong to abolish them till society cannot control the activities of all people and the level of harm that could be made by certain personalities.

Reiman and His Attempts to Reject the Idea of the Death Penalty

Reiman is introduced as the main opponent to Pojman due to his intentions to introduce the death penalty as one of the “arbitrary and discriminatory ways” that “contributes to reducing our tolerance for cruelty and thereby fosters the advance of human civilization as we understand it” (Reiman, 2014, p. 503). In principle, the death penalty may be introduced as an effective way to execute heinous murders. Still, it remains to be inappropriate to sentence one murderer to the death penalty and offer another punishment to other potential murderers. The death penalty is the act of murdering a person. In other words, as soon as a person does a wrong thing (kill someone), the same attitude is expected to be developed to this person. Such a position has been already developed by Rachels (2014). At the same time, one wrong action causes the development of another wrong action. Are there any guarantees that no additional wrong action could be promoted after the death penalty is used as the way of punishing the criminal? Therefore, Reiman does not avoid the fact that the death penalty may be a method to punish people. Still, this method is not the best alternative, and people have all chances to remove it and find another option that helps to avoid new deaths.

The Positions the Make Sense

All positions discussed above have a certain connection with the Kantian thought of the rightness and appropriateness of human actions. Nowadays, people like to focus on their rights and the possibilities to protect their positions in different ways. At the same time, the modern court system is not perfect because there are still cases when innocent people are defined as criminals and punished by society. It is wrong to offer guarantees that all facts and discussions could be used as strong evidence to explain someone’s crime. The death penalty is a serious decision that society has to make each time when the life of a person should be ended. Such responsibility is huge indeed, and such aspects as circumstances, characters, and consequences cannot be ignored.


In general, the contrast between the importance of punishment and the death penalty and the necessity to avoid such means of punishment cannot be ignored. There are many people, who believe that the death penalty is the only way to protect society and make people follow the order defined. Still, there are also many people, who cannot understand why the death penalty should be supported as a way to punish criminals and learn potential criminals. This question remains to be open for centuries. Each person is free to develop their attitude to this question and rely on personal experiences and opinions.


Doris, J.M. (2014). Out of character: On the psychology of excuses in the criminal law. In H. LaFollette (Ed.), Ethics in practice (4th ed.) (pp. 474-483). Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Hursthouse, R. (2014). Virtue theory. In H. LaFollette (Ed.), Ethics in practice (4th ed.) (pp.60-70). Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Pojman, L.P. (2014). In defense of the death penalty. In H. LaFollette (Ed.), Ethics in practice (4th ed.) (pp. 494-502). Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Rachels, J. (2014). Punishment and desert. In H. LaFollette (Ed.), Ethics in practice (4th ed.) (pp. 466-473). Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Reiman, J. (2014). Against the death penalty. In H. LaFollette (Ed.), Ethics in practice (4th ed.) (pp. 503-509). Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Wright, J.P., Cullen, F.T., & Beaver, K.M. (2014). Does punishment work? In H. LaFollette (Ed.), Ethics in practice (4th ed.) (pp.484-493). Malden, MA: Blackwell.