Is the death penalty justified?

The death penalty has many opponents today. But when the electric chair was introduced 125 years ago, it was the more "humane" option compared to previous methods.

On August 6, 125 years ago, a person died for the first time in the electric chair. According to Amnesty International, the death penalty is practiced in 58 countries worldwide. Other procedures, some of which seem archaic, are also used. But regardless of the question of how - can the death penalty be legitimized at all?

Act of humanity

When the guillotine was introduced about 225 years ago, it was, among other things, an act of humanity. Not only should equality find its way into criminal practice. Compared to earlier methods such as quartering, wheeling, hanging or heads with the sword, the semi-automatic, mechanical separation of head and torso also meant a bit of "brotherhood". The introduction of the electric chair, which will mark the 125th anniversary of August 6th, also seemed appropriate to make the execution of the death penalty more bearable for all concerned.

If you look beyond the borders of Western culture and hear of executions, stoning and bestial beheadings, you can still ask yourself today whether the electric chair and lethal injection - the controversial so-called lethal injection - are in fact human means are to bring death to a delinquent. In addition, however, another fundamental question arises: Is the death penalty even necessary and can it be legitimized?

Death penalty in philosophy

This question has also moved people for centuries. If one wants to bring supporters and opponents of the death penalty into conversation with one another, it is advisable to take a look at the history of philosophy. For us Central Europeans astonishing: the best-known representatives of philosophy were in favor of the death penalty. Plato considered the death penalty appropriate in all cases of premeditated murder. Anyone who kills next of kin should be stoned, then taken across the border and left unburied.

Thomas Aquinas viewed the criminal as a lazy link in the body of the state that had to be removed. According to John Locke, a killer has declared war on all humanity and placed himself on a par with wild predators. The demand comes from Kant: "If he [...] has murdered, he must die." Hegel also considered the death penalty for murder to be indispensable. And Arthur Schopenhauer declared: "First get rid of murder: then the death penalty should follow."

Pros and cons

The current arguments against the death penalty encounter strong objections in the history of philosophy. Kirchner's dictionary of basic philosophical terms sums up the pros and cons: The death penalty is not a deterrent? No punishment always has this success. Is the possibility of recovery deprived of the person to be executed? But recovery is not the main purpose of punishment. Nobody is allowed to deprive another of life? But the murderer has no right to do so either; the state has the right to kill a murderer in self-defense.

Philosophy offers, it seems, fundamental reasons for the death penalty: self-defense, retaliation (the ius talionis) and the idea of ​​law. If you follow Kant and Hegel, human dignity also speaks for it. Every criminal should receive the punishment that his act deserves (in the case of murder, the death penalty). And to use one's own act as a standard means taking the criminal seriously as a free personality.

Only Fichte goes beyond the question of law and appeals to morality. The proponents of the death penalty can be said in Fichte: "Yes, a violent criminal has forfeited the right to protection. But society is morally obliged not to give him up, but also to respect his moral self-determination." This already indicates what is shaping thinking about guilt and punishment today, after the experience of two world wars and immense crimes committed by the state.

life after death

This way of thinking has changed significantly in two respects in particular. On the one hand, the belief in an afterlife has lost its meaning for many, and with it the belief that earthly jurisdiction will not be the last. We condemn people to death because our ancestors believed in eternal life, we assume the judgment seat of God, writes Albert Camus in 1957. On the other hand, evolutionary and neurobiology, psychology and sociology have shown us our own conditionality. We know that our life is at best a struggle for freedom, but not an act of absolute freedom.

Anyone who believes he can judge the nature of a person also assumes the role of a divine judge. Ultimate information cannot be obtained either about a person's attitudes or the circumstances and course of an act. A miscarriage of justice is always possible, but the death penalty is irreversible. Everyone must have a chance to repent and make amends, says Camus. That is only possible if you renounce the death penalty. The victims, the relatives of a murder victim, are required to overcome themselves in an unreasonable manner. Nothing can make amends for a murder. They have to live with that. Perhaps this can be done better if one does not add more suffering to the suffering that has already happened.