Beyond the Death Penalty Debate

China’s decision to execute the head of its drug regulatory agency has rekindled international debate about capital punishment. It is an age-old question, one that harks back to Plato, who in his “Laws” saw the need to punish by death those who commit egregious crimes.

Supporters of capital punishment usually put forward three arguments to justify state-sanctioned killing of those who take the life of another. First, there is the old law of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” In the words of Immanuel Kant, not some Texas governor, no other “penalty is capable of satisfying justice.”

Then there is a utilitarian argument: capital punishment deters many criminals from murder. Furthermore, killing murderers prevents recidivism: if released from prison, they might kill again.

The third argument is also utilitarian, although of a lower quality: the state saves money by killing murderers instead of keeping them in prison for life at the expense of the community.