HomeOpinionGet Philosophized: Can the government take your life?

Get Philosophized: Can the government take your life?

Published Nov. 9, 2022


The shooter who killed 14 students and three faculty members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, was sentenced to life in prison Oct. 13 after pleading guilty to 17 counts of homicide and attempted homicide, sparking controversy throughout the country, with some politicians, such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, condemning the jury’s decision to spare the shooter from the death penalty. 

For decades, capital punishment has been the subject of heated debates, with citizens arguing over the technicalities of the practice–how it should be administered and to whom. Yet the broader question remains: Is the death penalty ethical in the first place?

Immanuel Kant, a prolific German philosopher, was a stalwart retributivist, belonging to a faction of thinkers who believe that punishment should be dictated based on the crime committed. As a result, Kant was a proponent of capital punishment, arguing his position using “jus talionis,” which translates to the Law of Retribution. The principle requires that the punishment for wrongdoing be proportional to the act in question, so the death penalty would only be ethical so long as the crime committed was murder. Essentially, Kant believed in a life for a life.

True to his assertions in other philosophical matters, the German thinker operated based upon a strict moral code, not considering the effects of a decision when evaluating ethics. As such, he did not believe that the death penalty is ethical because it reduces crime nor that it might restore justice to a victim’s family. Instead, Kant viewed capital punishment as a way to reach a moral equilibrium, essentially taking a life to even the playing field.  

English philosopher John Locke argued that all humans are born with intrinsic natural rights to life, liberty and property, but whether they retain those rights is based upon their actions. Locke contended that when an individual takes the life of another, they are violating another person’s natural rights and therefore forfeiting their own because they have lowered themselves to the level of a being without reason. 

However, Locke’s assertion raises a question: If killing someone forfeits a person’s moral rights, to whom are their liberties forfeited? 

Thomas Aquinas, an Italian priest and philosopher, claimed that if a criminal were harming a community, it was society’s right to protect itself from harm, and as a result, society should be able to sentence them to death. But Aquinas believed that the power to execute lay with an individual who had been tasked with protecting the community, such as a priest or king, rather than a jury. 

Other philosophers found capital punishment to be unethical, citing its excessive brutality. Cesae Beccaria believed that the punishment for a crime should be issued with the intent to deter other criminals from committing similar acts and did not find that the death penalty was an effective deterrant. He contended that a punishment did not need to be more severe than what would reasonably discourage criminals from, for example, murder. Beccaria would have agreed with the Florida jury, believing that serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole would be an effective deterrent for other potential criminals and that the death penalty would be needlessly harsh. 

The desire for retribution was understood by all of the philosophers who have contemplated capital punishment. When we are wronged, we seek justice. But Kant’s theories illuminate exactly what is wrong with the death penalty: The right to murder does not belong to anyone, let alone the government. 

Should a criminal like the Parkland shooter pay for his crimes? Absolutely. But should the legal system have the authority to take a life? No. In doing so, it asks that jurors lower themselves to the level of killers.

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