I'm surprised this never came up.

For me, capital punishment may or may not have its place, but if it does then it acts to absolve the punished individual of their guilt. Sometimes this is preferable to having a person live with such wickedness, other times it may not be.

Of course we aren't just depriving who we kill from guilt - also further happiness, and so on.

But is it not the guilt or a murderer that defines them? I wonder if a life should be taken merely on the grounds of that guilt.

Do any philosophers make a similar claim: that guilt of whatever depth is not sufficient for capital punishment; perhaps because guilt is ineradicable - until death?

  • plato.stanford.edu/entries/blame may interest anyone - blame, as opposed to guilt?
    – user6917
    May 16, 2015 at 2:59
  • 1
    Many people seem to have suggested that we not sentence Dzhokar Tsarnaev to death because that is what he expected. It grants him martyrdom by his own standards and it spared him a very long penance by ours.
    – user9166
    May 16, 2015 at 4:05
  • blame is transitory, guilt is forever... i do blame him for the murders, but it almost feels odd to claim that
    – user6917
    May 16, 2015 at 4:27
  • Punishment in the afterlife for ones indiscretions does not sound to me like absolution.
    – Neil Meyer
    May 16, 2015 at 10:15
  • If capital punishment is about punishment and there is no 'after life' then there is no punishment. If some people believe in an 'eye for an eye' wouldn't they want a convicted person to languish in a prison cell?
    – 201044
    May 17, 2015 at 10:38

3 Answers 3


Capital punishment has seldom been seen as absolution. When the Church burned Witches their choice not to be absolved was seen as part of their punishment. But from a more objective position, as you point out, it is not necessarily punishment at all.

Still, it goes beyond that. People commit suicide, and we try to stop them. So this notion that emotional suffering is bad, and determines the value of life does not really hold water. The notion that being defined by an emotion is part of your penance is both too Catholic and not Catholic enough. It presumes those who commit crimes are more normal morally than we find to be the case, and it assumes our empathy applies or matters to them.

As Roy Royston has pointed out, it can be seen as vengeance. But it is more often simply a matter of avoidance. We want the bad man gone, and sometimes being held in a box is not gone enough.

Manson gets to torture his victims' families one last time by making the news with his marriage. They thought he was gone, but, no, there is more suffering to be had. He doesn't care, he is God, remember? He is just dying as fast as the law will let him so he can be omnipotent again.

It is surely not guilt that would define Tsarnaev, he considered what he did activism, and his willingness to suffer for it makes him a great man in his own mind. If he dwelt on this issue, he might suffer most from failure, not guilt. So if you let him out fifty years from now, he might be just that much more likely to do it again.

This is one of the reasons remorse is usually one of the criteria for judgement. The remorseful man will suffer more by living, and that suffering may make for actual absolution. The remorseless man simply remains a pointless risk, and can feed on his pride indefinitely to defend himself from his guilt.

If you know you have the right guy, and he is clearly not going to care, what is the purpose of just making him uncomfortable indefnitely?

  • Definitely some people just have no remorse. Like what ProfessorFluffy said in another answer, cost of keeping people around can be very high if you're just a small town or small country. I agree, we should just execute people we know is guilty. But that last part is the problem, about 4% of people in capital punishment cases are found innocent. Law isn't omniscient, and isn't perfect. However, I still say it is acceptable to execute the innocent along with the guilty, as long as it is for the greater good; but that is a different discussion entirely.
    – James
    Aug 11, 2015 at 20:24

There are three reasons for the capital punishment: punishment, deterrence, and removal from society.

Punishment is questionable. Is it worse to be in prison for 60 years or to die quickly? Is this a martyr case where the offender will actually see death as a reward? For most people, it is a punishment, but it's case-by-case and definitely not certain.

Deterrence is commonly cited throughout history and even today. The argument is that loss of life is highly motivating. Without experiencing it, many would think that loss of life is worse than life in prison (maybe those that have experience prison would not agree). If you are in prison, there is always a chance you might be let out, so there is hope in that. Even in a life term case, most societies have pathways for release (executive pardon, for example).

Removal from society is really unique for capital punishment. Life in prison requires that the victimized society pay to sustain the murderer, certain people still have to interact with that person, and there is a possibility for release or escape. If he gets out, he may re-offend.

If you look at modern society, the cost of keeping someone in prison for 60 years is small relative to all the other things we spend money on, so it doesn't seem like a big negative. However, this question is not relative to a particular culture, so you could imagine a small village that would be greatly burdened by providing room and board to a non-working person. From the perspective of the other people, they want him permanently removed from them and their options are kill him or keep him around, pay for him, and interact with him. So, there's the ethical complication of the survivor's mental and emotional health (which could go either way).

Note that there are practical issues to consider outside of the question such as wrongful convictions (OP assumed guilt) and lengthy appeals process that may actually cost more than indefinite incarceration (in some times and places).


The right "behind the veil" calculation is to ask yourself whether you'd rather be born into a world with capital punishment or a world without --- accounting for the facts that you might be born a murderer, or someone who is falsely convicted of murder, or a murder victim, or someone who is saved from being a murder victim through the deterrent effect of capital punishment, or any of a thousand other possibilities (all, of course, with probabilities reflecting the frequency of these roles in the population).

The key element in this calculation is probably going to be the size of the deterrent effect of capital punishment. Most studies have found that effect to be quite large (on the order of eight murders prevented per execution). A few have found it to be much smaller, and a few others have found numbers as high as 24.

  • references for the studies on the effects of capital punishment?
    – Dave
    May 17, 2015 at 1:55
  • @Dave: You could start with the various papers by Isaac Ehrlich and the lists of references at the end of those papers. There's also a pretty good list at cjlf.org/deathpenalty/dpdeterrence.htm .
    – WillO
    May 17, 2015 at 2:12
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    "Most studies have found that effect [deterrence to murder due to existence/use of the death penalty] to be quite large (on the order of eight murders prevented per execution)." quite laughable claim. May 18, 2015 at 20:20
  • So why does Capitol punishment still exist? If it is for revenge, like I said before ; a convicted person waiting even for years is not equivalent to the suffering the victims have felt. If there is no after life then the convicted person's ONLY punishment would be 'waiting'.
    – 201044
    May 31, 2015 at 8:16
  • @201044: I'm not aware that there are any serious proponents of capital punishment for "revenge", so I think you're objecting to a straw man.
    – WillO
    May 31, 2015 at 13:48

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