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. http://www.amnesty.org/en/death-penalty/death-sentences-and-executions-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. http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-504083_162-20034978-504083.html. Accessed Feb. 23, 2011.
IEP: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Punishment. http://www.iep.utm.edu/punishme/#H5. Accessed March 4, 2011.
Montaldo, Charles. Feb. 22, 2011. Road Ends in Florida for Gary Michael Hilton. http://crime.about.com/b/2011/02/22/road-ends-in-florida-for-gary-michael-hilton.htm. Accessed March 2, 2011.
Stairs, Allen. Kant on Capital Punishment. http://stairs.umd.edu/140/kantcap.html. Accessed March 6, 2011.