Twitter Facebook RSS Feed Email

The 25 anti death penalty arguments

An updated version of this post can be found at this site.

The old post:

If you have to determine if you for or against the death penalty (for example if you have to write an argumentative essay) then it can be useful to identify the possible the arguments first. This is because evaluating the death penalty without identification and analysis of possible arguments is less wise. If you missed an important argument your judgement would not be sufficient (one of the four criteria for a good argument). 

To demonstrate how to identify the relevant death penalty arguments, I will give in this post the twenty-five arguments against capital punishment. The source of these arguments are the argumentative essays of my students over the last years. These arguments do not originate from one specific article (identifying arguments can also have this interpretation).

For clarity reasons: I do not not claim that all arguments are possible good arguments. My only goal is to identify all anti death penalty arguments. Analyzing and evaluating these arguments is the next step (and yes, spoiler-alert: not all arguments are indeed convincing when we look at the argument criteria acceptability).

For convenience, I have categorized the arguments under specific labels (some arguments can be qualified under different labels). This can be seen as the beginning of an analysis.


1. The death penalty does not deter murder.
Offenders do not always act rationally. See also item 17. Criminologists report the same.

2. There are good alternatives for the death penalty.
If you want the death penalty for prevention, you can also opt for life imprisonment.

3. Victims believe the death penalty gives satisfaction but this will not always be the case.
In the long term, many victims feel uncomfortable with the idea that the offender is dead. For example, there is no opportunity left to get an excuse or explanation. Do they really feel satisfied?

4. There are other forms of corporal punishment.
If a victim - despite point three – wants to punish an offender then the death penalty may not be the best solution. To imprison the criminal for always (!) with a minimal of facilities (bread, water, without people to meet, without air) is maybe just as bad? What about other corporal punishment? A finger? Maybe then they are even more satisfied.

5. It will always be unsatisfactory.
Any remedy – in case of murder - will fail. The only thing relatives want (which would give real satisfaction) is to bring back life. The death penalty can and will not repair their harm.

6. The death penalty is more expensive than life imprisonment.
It is an illusion to think that the introduction of the death penalty is cheaper for society. The death penalty is an expensive solution. The procedures are longer, the procedures require more studies, more experts, additional hearings, etc. This involves more judges, more lawyers, registrars, etc. Death penalty procedures can easily last 10 to 20 years. In the US there was even a lack of anaesthetic used in lethal injections.

7. It is better for the image of a country and (therefore) for the economic situation.
Countries with a death penalty often face image-problems. Some people are scared off to visit the country as tourist (“imagine if someone put drugs in my suitcase?”). Especially if the death penalty is introduced with other forms of corporal punishment this can be problematic.

8. A decent country does not punish eye for an eye.
If you act in the same manner as a killer what is the difference then? You want to show that killing is wrong by killing a person? That seems contradictory. People may not understand this.

9. The majority - and we're a democracy – is against the death penalty.
If you want the death penalty this should be a democratic choice. Many studies have shown that the majority of people in most countries do not want the death penalty. See also 24.

10. It is not human.
The execution of the death penalty deprives the offender the opportunity to restore his bad behaviour; to start again. Human dignity is incompatible with the death penalty.

11. Where do we draw the line?
Each line you draw is arbitrary. Do we want the death penalty only in case of a conviction for multiple murder, a political murder, child murder, child abuse, abuse in general, involuntary manslaughter (with or without alcohol), giving drugs to children, etc. Because it is hard to draw any line, do not even start. See also 25.

12. Prosecutors and judges can be wrong.
In the past we have seen several judicial errors. People were accused and punished for the most horrible crimes but turned out to be innocent. An executed death penalty cannot be repaired. See also 18.

13. Our legal system cannot handle the death penalty procedures.
Our legal system is currently under heavy pressure. Procedures are (too) long, suspects must wait long. Death penalty cases are always complex and they demand a careful, considered legal judgement. Our judicial system is not ready for this (and we do not want to spend extra money).

14. Doctors do not want to cooperate.
Executing the death penalty shows all kinds of problems. The injection (for example) is not given correctly or the drug does not work. Doctors must always be involved. Yet, given the nature of the death penalty, however, this may (or should) clash with the oath of Hippocratic or their personal morality. Also pharmaceutical companies do not want to cooperate.

15. Judges and prosecutors are sometimes less objective than we hoped / thought.
Criminal law aims to be objective but in the end human subjectivity is always manifested. All sorts of problems arise. For example, discrimination and overcompensation to avoid discrimination are serious (and demonstrated) issues. Evidence: the list of miscarriage of justice cases.

16. It may turn into a public event. This is not desirable.
In the 18th century - and earlier - people were publicly hanged. In some countries this is still policy. Why? To make a statement. In order to scare people. In practice, this can lead to a public event, a public circus if you will. People come together, create riots, will ask for more, etc. This may result in peer pressure (and nothing is learned). See also next item.

17. Some people do the worst things but they cannot be held (fully) responsible.
Some people are more easily influenced than others. Studies in social psychology - for example, the Milgram experiment and the Stanford prison experiment - have shown that normal, friendly people can be persuaded to deliberately torture other people. It is not fair to punish someone with the death penalty knowing that people are always influenced by others / circumstances.

18. Making a case will only be harder.
A judge (or if relevant a jury-member) will only put someone to death if he or she is 100%  sure. Therefore, judges will be more critical than ever. No one wants to punish an innocent person to death. This will probably result in irrelevant legal discussions. The suspect cannot be accused? Minor procedural issues can have this result. Result: criminals can even escape punishment.

19. Making a case will only be harder (II).
All around the world top lawyers work pro bono to defend people who can get the death penalty. This will also increase the possibility that a criminal will not be punished due to minor procedural and less important shortcomings.

20. Some offenders are mentally ill. Punishing with the death penalty is unjust.
Some offenders have a mental (personality) disorder. It is unjust to punish them with the death penalty. They should get medical treatment.

21. It is unjust for the relatives of the offender.
Family and friends of the criminal go through hell and are indirectly punished for wrong behaviour of their loved one. They need to say goodbye to someone for whom they care. Hell already begins with the long-term procedures (knowing the possibility of the death sentence). This is not fair. They didn’t do anything.

22. It will lead to sympathy for the perpetrator.
This may seem strange but some people sympathize with people facing the death people. This – a kind of hero status – should be avoided at all costs.

23. We should follow international law (and other fundamental laws).
In general, international law forbids the death penalty. Undersigning these fundamental agreements and treaties is also of importance for other legal rights (e.g. economic rights)

24. It goes against many religions / philosophies.
Many ideologies / religions prescribe a duty not to kill. As a result, many people oppose to the death penalty because it clashes with their beliefs or their ideas about what a good life is (for example, from the humanist tradition).

25. It opens the door for more and worse.
The death penalty can lead to other corporal punishment. This should be avoided. You should in no way introduce a punishment harming people. To prevent worse. Besides, maybe our current government can be trusted imposing the death penalty. But will the next government also be trustworthy?  

Do these arguments already convince you? Then maybe it is wise first to identify the arguments for the death penalty.

More information on Wikipedia:
• Capital punishment, Wikipedia
• Eye for an eye, Wikipedia
• Life imprisonment, Wikipedia
• Murder, Wikipedia
• Milgram experiment, Wikipedia
• Stanford prison experiment, Wikipedia