Moral Debate Over Capital Punishment Essay, Research Paper
The idea of capital punishment has been debated as long as it has been around. Forms of capital punishment have been enforced since ancient times in most societies. Death has been used as punishment for crimes ranging in gravity from petty theft to murder. Modern opposition to capital punishment arose in France in the eighteenth century and spread through out Western Europe, where most nations abolished such laws in the twentieth century. In the United States the death penalty was applied with decreasing frequency after World War II, and in 1972 the U.S. Supreme Court voided all federal and state laws calling for the death penalty on the grounds that condemned persons were being subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. Cruel and unusual punishment is in violation of the 8th amendment to the Constitution. The court left open, however, the possibility of new, constitutional laws, and since then the U.S. and most states have enacted measures imposing the penalty in specified kinds of murder cases. As of today all but eleven states enforce some kind of death penalty.
The question of whether or not the death penalty should be legal is large dividing line between conservatives and liberals. The conservatives tend to support the idea and most people against the penalty hold liberal views of politics. In his book Moral Politics, George Lakoff discusses how his two moral models, Strict Father morality and Nurturant Parent morality, handle the issue of capital punishment.
Lakoff starts by stating “Nurturant Parent morality militates against the death penalty” (Lakoff 1996, p.208). He explains this claim by telling how the death penalty is not equal due to the fact that the courts can not guarantee that the penalty is applied fairly. The idea of inequality is a direct violation of the empathy expressed by the nurturant parent. Lakoff brings up two ways the penalty could be unfairly enforced. First he notes that if a person is found guilty and put to death, “there is no recourse if he is later discovered to have been innocent” (Lakoff 1996, p.208). His second point is that “most people on death row are black and poor are unable to afford adequate legal representation, which, it is argued, makes it likely that they will get the death penalty” (Lakoff 1996, p. 208). This argument would show some evidence of unfairness in the process, however, statistics show, since 1977, 313 of the 500 people executed were white (Bureau of Justice Statistics). This hurts the impression that the penalty is applied in a racist nature.
These reasons for Nurturant Parent morality disagreeing with capital punishment seem to be debatable, but as Lakoff goes on to state “liberals feelings about the death penalty run much deeper” (Lakoff 1996, p.208). The whole idea of nurturance and empathy are against killing in any form. The nurturant parent would then be against death, and if the government is to be considered a nurturant parent, then the government will also be against any form of death, even as punishment for a murder. The nurturant parent government would try to reform the murder or at least imprison him and put him to work to help himself and society in some way.
In most cases it seems that Strict Father morality goes along with the opposite of whatever Nurturant Parent morality thinks. In the case of the death penalty some people might see that the death penalty fits into the strict father s idea of punishment for behavior. The only problem is the question Lakoff offers: “Are there any limits on the harshness of punishment?” (Lakoff 1996, p. 209). Lakoff goes on to compare the nation s use of the death penalty to an abusive parent who goes too far and kills his child. This concept takes the metaphor of the nation as a family too literal. Sure the government can be compared to a parent, but not in a literal sense. The idea later brought up by Lakoff is a better way to look at the conservative view of moral punishments: ” in a moral society the way to deal with crime is punishment, an eye for an eye period” (Lakoff 1996, p. 209). This view is good for a society in which the idea of rewards and punishments is the most important in dealing with the moral books.
After analyzing the way Lakoff’s moral models handle the death penalty, it is apparent that the models are lacking value when it comes to studying moral politics. In the case of capital punishment both models seem to be against the idea. The only way to truly look at the issue is to pull away from the Nation as a Family metaphor and look at the ideals that are at the heart of conservatism and liberalism. These values are simply that conservatives are more focused on giving out strict justice for the crimes of people, and liberals want to help reform people. In the mind of the conservative who supports the death penalty, the murder did a grave injustice to society and must pay. Also hopefully others will see the consequences that could occur and curve their evil ways. The liberal who fights the death penalty sees a person who has done wrong do to the circumstances he has lived in and with the right environment can either be transformed into a decent person or at least be kept alive in prison. Lakoff s models are a good starting point for looking at moral politics, but there must be more examining of the conservative and liberal position for each individual moral issue.
Another problem with Lakoff s study of moral politics is that politics today are more of a compromise and less of an absolute moral struggle. Politicians give up some beliefs to either promote other ideals, they hold stronger, or to just get reelected. The later of the two is the true problem with politics today. Politicians are too worried about getting reelected to really get anything done. To study politics from a moral perspective is irrelevant in today s society.