With regard to the debate on capital punishment, two misconceptions need to be dispelled. One, it cannot be linked to a particular creed, political system or the level of economic or technological advancement. This is corroborated by the fact that capital punishment is in vogue in Muslim and non-Muslim societies, democratic and authoritarian systems and advanced and underdeveloped economies.
So we see that while the countries of western Europe and Canada have abolished capital punishment, the US and Japan retain it. Similarly countries like China and Singapore, which by no definition are religious or retrogressive societies, practise death penalty.
Two, there is no causal link between the abolition or retention of capital punishment and crime. The fact that in several countries where capital punishment has been scrapped, the crime rate has decreased does not mean that the abolition of the death penalty is the cause of the improved situation. All that is established is a correlation between the two variables and correlation is not causation.
The principal argument in favour of abolition of capital punishment is that it deprives the convict of the opportunity to reform himself. And since the only justification for punishment is reformation or redemption of the convict, capital punishment cannot be justified. But is reformation of the convict the only justification for punishment?
Let us first look at two other views of punishment – deterrence and retribution. The proponents of the deterrence theory maintain that the purpose of punishment is to deter others from doing wrong. This view of punishment leads to two conclusions, both of which are difficult to accept. One, if the only purpose of punishment is deterrence, it does not really matter whether the person is guilty or innocent and thus there is no need for a fair trial. Two, since the degree of deterrence depends on the severity of punishment, it does not matter whether punishment is too severe.
The retribution view maintains that the purpose of punishment is to make the offender suffer what his victim has suffered – an ‘eye for an eye’. Thus the only befitting punishment for killing someone is death. This view leads to certain conclusions that are hard to accept. Example: A has killed B’s son. According to retribution view, the befitting punishment is for B to kill A’s son. But in that event, an innocent person will be punished. Retribution is essentially a primitive view of justice and can hardly be accepted in the present times.
Coming back to the view that reformation is the only justification for punishment, there are two objections to it. One, we can never be certain whether punishment will reform a person – it may or may not. A murderer having gone through life imprisonment may become a better person; alternatively he may commit another murder. Two, if the purpose of punishment is only to give the offender an opportunity to reform himself, the same purpose may be realised by means other than punishment, such as education and forgiveness. Why keep a convict behind the bars? Just allow him to go back to society, where opportunities for character-building are far better.
Punishment is a necessary implication for living in society. In an ideal society, everyone will be responsible and law-abiding and there will be no need for punishment. However, in reality, no society is completely law-abiding. There are people who kill and rob and show little regard for the rights of others. Punishment of such persons is necessary to ensure sanctity of law and respect for the rights of others and preserving the social order.
The opponents of capital punishment advance two other arguments. One is that the judicial system may be flawed, as it actually is in most of the cases, and hence the innocent may be forced to go to the gallows. The other argument is that capital punishment dehumanises and brutalises the society and therefore needs to be done away with in the interest of a healthy and humane society. The first argument is really an argument for improving the judicial system rather than for abolishing capital punishment.
That any punishment should be awarded only after guilt has been proved beyond a shadow of doubt following a fair trial is indisputable. But if these conditions are fulfilled, then according to this view, capital punishment may be justified.
The second argument assumes a causal link between dehumanisation of society and capital punishment, a link that does not exist. At best there can only be a correlation between them. The fact that in some societies, such as those of western Europe, the abolition of capital punishment has been accompanied by increased respect for human rights and falling rates of violence, does not establish a causal connection between the two variables. In fact, in case of western Europe, economic prosperity, democracy, education and strengthening of institutions have contributed to this healthy development.
The need to ensure rule of law and enforce rights being the only legitimate basis of punishment, the question of retention or abolition of capital punishment needs to be settled in the light of its potential social effects. And this necessitates a dispassionate debate on the issue – which does not equate capital punishment with retrogression in a priori fashion.