Friday, July 15, 2016

Virtue Ethics and Capital Punishment

From guest blogger, William.

How would a virtue ethicist approach capital punishment? It is a question that is more complicated than it seems. The two other philosophical views that were discussed in class hold clear views on capital punishment. Strict deontologists would support capital punishment. The readings for this class show this. Shafer-Landau spends a lot of time discussing how Kant determined how punishment should be morally speaking. Kant and other deontologists believe that criminals should be treated the same way they treated their victims. Capital punishment to them is morally okay. Consequentialism as well believes that capital punishment is morally okay. Consequentialists would mainly look at the positive consequences of capital punishment, such as criminal deterrence and prevention of further crimes committed by the criminal upon their release from prison. To a consequentialist the death of one person is fine, because it generates greater overall happiness in the community.

Thought experiments help show how much virtue ethics struggles with morality and capital punishment. A man on death row for murder. The man in question lived a virtuous life before committing his crime. Is he still a virtuous man even though he committed a heinous crime? Virtue ethics struggles to come to a concrete decision in this case. This is because virtue ethics does not look at just at a person’s action, but the person’s life as well. Taking the man’s life into consideration, a virtue ethicist must consider the death penalty as punishment for this man’s crime to be unjust and immoral. This example also shows another issue with virtue ethics. It does not explicitly state what makes a virtue a virtue. Is capital punishment in this case justice or revenge? Virtue ethics does not answer this question, because virtue ethics only states being morally right comes from being virtuous. It does not answer conflicts about what actions are virtuous.

There is a group of people that I have neglected in this post so far: the executioners. That is because virtue ethics does not cover the moral dilemma faced by executioners. If executioners killed those who were actively hurting innocent people, there would be no moral quandary. But, executioners kill powerless people. A prisoner on death row is completely helpless. This creates two questions. Are the actions of an executioner virtuous? Does executing prisoners make an executioner a virtuous person? To a virtue ethicist the answer to both of these questions is no. The job of an executioner is to murder a helpless individual. A virtuous person would not kill a handcuffed person, regardless of who they are. This allows us to answer the second question. The actions of an executioner cannot make the executioner a more virtuous person, because the actions undertaken by the executioner are not virtuous.

I personally believe that virtue ethics is quite weak when it comes to these situations. The criticisms of virtue ethics can be seen quite clearly when applying it to something like the death penalty and capital punishment. While consequentialism and deontology have quick answers to this moral question, virtue ethics flounders. This is because virtue ethics mainly describes and does not prescribe. In the end a proper virtue ethicist would be against capital punishment, but their argument would be quite weak.


Michael Eppink said...

Virtue ethics places a great deal of value on being just. So the virtue ethicist would not shy away from capitol punishment purely because it's a violation of some moral dignity of the offender. If justice demands one receive capitol punishment, then the virtue ethicist would have no qualms delivering it.

This leaves open the question: when does justice demand capitol punishment, if ever? I think this is a complex question that is worthy of deeper analysis, and shouldn't necessarily have an obvious answer like the ones provided by deontology or consequentialism. Virtue ethics cannot provide a clear cut answer to whether capitol punishment is right or wrong, but it does demand that the virtue ethicist learn as much as possible about the nature of justice before deciding whether capitol punishment is appropriate in a certain case.

Amara Saffold said...

This topic is a pretty hard to tackle from a Virtue ethicist's point of view. As you stated in the last paragraph, their argument is weak against capital punishment because there is no real correct answer from them on whether or not it morally permissible to have a death penalty.

As for the executioners, some questions arise from your statements. Does a virtue ethicist believe in justice? And what is that justice comprised of?
If the executioner is just following the law that has been mandated by whoever leads their society and sets standards for justice, is he not virtuous for following the law?

Also, Virtue ethicists believe that morality is complex and sometimes you have to allow exceptions to the general principles and that strict obedience is bound to lead us to error. So a general principle is to not kill one another. So say we have someone who decides to go on a killing spree, and eventually gets caught. First off, did he lose his right to freedom and power because he used it to do things that were not virtuous? Also, as an executioner, would he be an exception to the principle to not kill anyone if he is serving justice?

I am not sure if these questions can be answered or not myself, these are just the questions that I thought about while reading your piece!

Charles Spalding said...

I gather that the point of the original post is that the executioner must kill helpless individuals. Is the executioner behaving in a virtuous manner? The individual being executed has been convicted, however he is not currently threatening any individual. Furthermore there is no guarantee such individual will continue to harm others in the future. Does the virtuous man have to abide by Hammurabi?