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Kant's Justification of the Death Penalty Reconsidered

  • Benjamin S. Yost (a1)

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It is hard to know what to think about Kant's ‘passionate sermons’ on capital punishment. Kant clearly feels that it is one of the most important punishments in the state's arsenal. But his vehement insistence on the necessity of execution strikes many readers as philosophically suspect. Critics argue that Kant's embrace of the death penalty is incompatible with, or at least not required by, the fundamental tenets of his moral and legal philosophy (Schwarzschild 1985; Merle 2000; Potter 2002; Hill 2003). These arguments typically employ one of two strategies. The first is to deny that execution is required by retribution in even a prima facie sense; arguments along this line typically question the coherence of Kant's doctrine of the ius talionis (Sarver 1997). The second is to show that there are inviolable moral principles that render the death penalty illegitimate; this criticism typically appeals to the value of human dignity or the right to life (Radin 1980; Pugsley 1981; Schwarzschild 1985; Merle 2000; Potter 2002). There is a third strategy that could be used to criticize Kant, although it is not aimed at him specifcally. This strategy invokes legal principles of fairness or due process. It asserts that, regardless of capital punishment's moral appropriateness or legitimacy, capital punishment is unjust due to the fallibility of legal actors and institutions (Nathanson 2001). Someone adopting the third strategy might claim that, while Kant's justifcation may be acceptable in principle, it fails to justify the death penalty in the world we live in.

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References

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Parenthetical citations refer to the pagination (volume: page) of the standard German edition of Kant's work, Kants Gesammelte Schriften, edited by the German Academy of Sciences (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1900–). Unless otherwise noted, English translations come from the Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant. I employ the following abbreviations: Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View (A); Collins's notes on Kant's moral philosophy lectures (Col); Critique of Practical Reason (CPrR); Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (G); Metaphysics of Morals (MM); Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason (Rel); ‘On the Common Saying: That May Be Correct in Theory, but It Is of No Use in Practice’ (TP); Vigilantius' notes on Kant's metaphysics of morals lectures (Vig).

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