Introduction to Ethics Phil 140 @ Binghamton University, Sp '11


Ieva: The Death Penalty: Utilitarian and Deontological Perspectives

Cheryl Dunlap, a 64-year-old Sunday school teacher and Florida State University nurse, was found dead and dismembered in the Apalachicola National Forest in Florida on December 15, 2007 (Black). The bones of her head and hands were found in a campfire pit five miles from the location of her body and the Florida jury of twelve has now unanimously recommended the suspect, Gary Michael Hilton, for the death sentence.

Hilton, now called a serial killer in many news headlines, had already avoided execution in Georgia in 2008. He was instead sentenced to prison for life after killing 24-year-old Meredith Emerson whom he had abducted from a hiking trail in the north Georgia mountains (Montaldo). In this previous case, Hilton had accepted a plea offer that exempt him from the death penalty by agreeing to lead the investigators to the decapitated body of Emerson. Hilton is also the main suspect in another murder case where a couple were killed in North Carolina in another forest but was never charged in that case.

The jury made their final decision on February 21st and Judge James C. Hankinson said that he would officially sentence Hilton in about two weeks. Cheryl Dunlap’s family members have expressed approval of the jury’s decision. Dunlap’s close friend, Gloria Tucker, however, said that even though she was also satisfied with the decision, she did not believe that it would bring justice for the loss of her friend. With more than two-thirds of countries (Amnesty International) having abolished the death penalty, it is clear that this is quite a controversial form of punishment. In this paper, the contrasting theories of Utilitarianism and Deontology will be used to discuss whether the death sentence is a morally admissible penalty.

Utilitarianism states that the morality of an action is determined by its adherence to the Greatest Happiness Principle, which guides us to cause the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people (Utilitarianism: What Utilitarianism Is, #2). To make a moral decision, the outcome of certain actions must be considered first. Because the emphasis is placed on the consequences of your actions, the theory of Utilitarianism is a form of Consequentialism. Therefore, the best type of government is one that has the best consequences. In general, Utilitarians support democracy based on the belief that each individual is the best judge of his welfare. The government is supposed to provide the greatest amount of possible liberty and equality and to guide the progress of society through peaceful political practices (Encyclopedia Britannica).

Utilitarianism disapproves of punishment that is administered as a way to make the criminal “pay” for his crime. Instead, the role of punishment is to prevent any future crime by inflicting fear of punishment and by either reforming the criminal or protecting him from society. In a nutshell, every law and decision that is made should produce the best results for the greatest number of people.

According to the Utilitarian theory, the death penalty is not meant to provide justice by taking “an eye for an eye”. Although this form of punishment is not supposed to be retributive by nature, it is, however, meant to deter many criminals from committing murder. The severity of a punishment is intended to cause fear and, therefore, prevent crime. Capital punishment is also preferable to imprisonment for this worst kind of crime because it prevents the criminal from being released from prison and committing murder again (IEP). From this perspective, the taking of one life is justified if it prevents the taking of other, innocent lives. If judged that the consequence of permitting the criminal to live may result in more murder, then the death penalty would be considered an appropriate punishment in that particular case.

Another argument, although of a lower quality, is that the government saves money by executing murderers instead of supporting them in prison at the expense of the community. So while the criminal is surely not happy being imprisoned for life, the happiness of the community is also diminished because funds that could otherwise be allocated to education or the arts is used for housing the criminal. In conclusion, the utilitarian would only advocate for the death penalty if the sacrifice of one criminal would generate greater happiness to the community. Each scenario needs to be considered separately and the appropriate punishment in any case is based upon the judgment of which consequences would result in the greatest good.

In contrast to Utilitarianism and consequential theory in general, Deontological ethics places moral emphasis on the intentions of your actions, not the actual consequences. Deontology is described as the study of the nature of duty and obligation. The morality of an action is based upon good intention, which is defined by its adherence to a rule or set of rules. Such a rule is called a maxim and if a person wills a maxim to become a universal law such that everyone in any situation should abide by this maxim, it is judged to be morally right.

The categorical imperative, which is introduced in Immanuel Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, is the central concept of Kant’s deontological philosophy (Groundwork: Moving from popular moral philosophy to the metaphysics of morals, Part II). The categorical imperative includes three formulations that are used to judge the moral relevance of any intention or duty. The first of these formulations is to act so that your maxim (a rule of conduct) can be made into a universal law. The second formulation is to treat others as ends, not as mere means. And the third is to always live in the realm of ends, where you imagine yourself to be the legislator and the source of moral law.

Kant believes in the retributive theory of punishment, which is the familiar idea of “an eye for an eye”. He says that the punishment must be in response to guilt and that the guilty must be punished so that justice and equality, the proper foundations of law, can exist. Equality in the realm of crime and punishment is meant to inflict the same amount of pain on the criminal as the criminal had inflicted on the victim (Stairs). Though this may sound too harsh and brutal, we must remember the connection that punishment has to the idea of maxims and universal laws. For example, if a criminal steals, he is making property insecure. His actions are based on the motive that, if universalized, would make everyone’s, including his own, property insecure. So the connection to the retributive theory is based on the belief that if you steal from another person, you also steal from yourself. No one forces a person to commit a crime but if that person does commit a certain crime, he should be willing to accept the same kind of treatment.

The deontological perspective recognizes that in the case of Gary Hilton, the death penalty is a morally appropriate punishment. The retributive theory used in support of this claim does not, however, go as far as claiming that his body should also be dismembered in a similar way as were the bodies of his victims. “Retribution” is not a form of revenge and it would be a mistake to confuse it as such. Kant recognizes that administering the death penalty with any further punishment such as torture would simply be inhumane and immoral (Stairs).

Both the theory of Utilitarianism and that of Deontology permit the death penalty to be a morally permissible punishment. They do this, however, according to very different reasoning. The philosophy of Deontology presents the best evidence for the morality of capital punishment. This is because the retributive theory still respects the humanity of the criminal. By punishing the criminal, we are going against the criminal’s wishes at that moment, but in general we are respecting their freedom in the choices that they made. The government acknowledges both the free will that accompanied certain actions and the responsibility of that person for those actions. We treat the criminal as an end in himself, which is a powerful form of respect even though that respect may not lie specifically in his lifestyle or his choices. Utilitarianism, however, dismisses any kind of respect for the one person in hopes of achieving greater happiness for the community. The person is not treated as an end but as a mean for achieving a better end. Deontological ethics allows us to perceive this person as an end in himself and to recognize that his actions reflect the kind of world in which he chooses to live and if his world includes death, then that is what he has chosen to receive himself as well.




Amnesty International. The Death Penalty in 2009. Accessed March 6, 2011.

Black, Caroline. Feb. 22, 2011. Gary Michael Hilton, suspected serial killer, gets death penalty in Fla. for 2007 beheading murder. Accessed Feb. 23, 2011.

IEP: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Punishment. Accessed March 4, 2011.

Montaldo, Charles. Feb. 22, 2011. Road Ends in Florida for Gary Michael Hilton. Accessed March 2, 2011.

Stairs, Allen. Kant on Capital Punishment. Accessed March 6, 2011.


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  1. I agree with the ethical theories presented in this paper and I found strong arguments in the two theories that were presented. The utilitarian theory does not say that if man kills someone, you should kill him. The death penalty under this theory deters other criminals from committing the same crime or another crime of a similar severity. In this case he fact that the death penalty would take someone’s life and prevent him/her from taking any more lives would provide the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people which was a strong argument. The deontological argument that was made was stronger than the utilitarian argument and I agree with the chosen theory. Under the categorical imperative of acting so that your maxims become universal laws, the death penalty seems harsh and brutal as stated, and I agree. Imposing the same pain that was created is part of the deontological state of mind. The statement, “We treat the criminal as an end in himself, which is a powerful form of respect even though that respect may not lie specifically in his lifestyle or his choices,” is slightly confusing to me and I’m not sure if it is correct. The statement before, “The government acknowledges both the free will that accompanied certain actions and the responsibility of that person for those actions,” makes sense to me because the government did not exactly stop the man from killing, so he had freedom, but he had the freedom to commit this act with the idea of knowing that he would be responsible for his actions and that if he got caught, he would get punished. The statement, “His actions are based on the motive that, if universalized, would make everyone’s, including his own, property insecure,” I assume is inferring that if he steals from society, he is stealing from himself under the first categorical imperative and that means that he is in a sense using himself as a means and not an end in itself. Tying that back into the unclear statement, I do not really understand how respect would fit into this. I’m not sure how we treat the criminal as an end in himself, unless it has to do with the concept of having his own freedom, so I might understand that a little bit. How can the government give any respect to a murderer? Because that respect cannot lie in his actions or lifestyles so where else would that respect go to? Maybe a little more clarification on that statement would help.

  2. The death penalty is always a controversial topic of debate and I still find it hard to take a stance on which side I believe to be the right side. I like your opening paragraphs and feel they do a nice job of entering the main idea of the paper.
    I thought when your bring up, “Utilitarianism disapproves of punishment that is administered as a way to make the criminal “pay” for his crime. Instead, the role of punishment is to prevent any future crime by inflicting fear of punishment and by either reforming the criminal or protecting him from society.” it was very interesting. I feel the death penalty is used to scare people away from committing certain crimes, not to make people pay for crimes because life in jail might be a lot worse than ceasing to exist in certain cases. The death penalty increases the quality of life for people in surrounding areas of prisons because it makes it impossible for that person to ever walk the streets again.
    Kant’s theory does a great job in supporting the idea of the Death Penalty. In his retributive theory of punishment, as you stated in your paper, he who kills should be killed.
    I enjoyed your application of theories in order to show the morality of sentencing Gary Michael Hilton to death, in response to his actions of committing violent murders more than once.

  3. Just a quick point in discussion about the part when you spoke about Mill’s ideals on passing judgment and ultimately the punishment associated with that judgment. You say how it shouldn’t be an eye for an eye type of punishment but a punishment that will deter the perpetrator from committing the crime again. I agree that under a normal circumstance you Mill would not recommend a death penalty or even some form of torture but in this case he was already sentenced to jail time and he committed the crime again so Dunlap was not motivated enough by the sentence. If the death penalty isn’t the solution and any kind of medieval punishment is obviously out of the question what type of sentence does Dunlap require to be deterred from ever doing this again. That isn’t my main point but I thought it was interesting. I do like that you went outside of the readings and the class notes to find out more information about the ethical theories we studied and applied it to your paper. It was very interesting to hear new information during the presentations.
    I think the point that you bring up about Utilitarianism and capital punishment was very interesting. Would it be reasonable to say that the death penalty brings more happiness to the community? This is obviously a very tough question and one that you could right many many papers on but it is a very interesting point. You must consider not only the community who isn’t related to the accused but also that person’s family. In most cases it would be reasonable to assume that even if a family member murders someone else you would still not want to see them die for that action. Since Utilitarianism boils down to a figurative equation (Utilitarian Calculus) I believe you could pass reasonable moral judgment citing the Greater Happiness principle for capital punishment. If you used the Greater Happiness Principle in this case I think it would be very hard not to sentence someone to death. The amount of good it would bring the community as you state in your paper, more money in the system for positive investments, security throughout the community. Less money invested in prisons as a whole, maximum security prisons may not be necessary therefore reducing the cost of running a prison. A well publicized problem with the death penalty actually saving money at this point in time is the appeal process and the amount of time and money spent in court with lawyers judges all the other functioning parts of government.
    I personally do not believe there is a place for capital punishment in this nation. I do not think one human can sentence another human to death. However the benefits of the death penalty are very clear and it makes even someone like myself who is opposed at least think twice before declaring my stance.

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