The idea that harsh punishments are appropriately and even necessarily meted out to those found guilty of terrible crimes has a long history in societies throughout the world and is based on a number of ideas, including the concepts of revenge and deterrence.
The idea of deterrence is perhaps currently the more widely held of these beliefs as Gorecki (1979, p. 25) notes: "criminal punishment should be severe enough to arouse effective fear - either exactly severe enough or harsher than that."
However, while it might be obvious that a punishment as harsh as execution should deter criminals from committing acts punishable by death, this has not generally been found to be the case for a variety of possible reasons, as Nathanson (1987, pp. 17-19) argues:
The common sense argument that death is the best deterrent rests on the [false] belief that people fear death more than they fear anything elseà.
If the death penalty were properly administered and potential murders faced the certainty of their own deaths rather than a minimal risk of dying, then they would refrain from killing.
The problem with this objection is that we cannot guarantee that all murderers will be executed.
The second major argument in favor of the death penalty is simply its appropriateness to the crime at hand. That is the argument made in this paper, one summarized eloquently by the philosopher Immanuel Kant (cited in Zimring and Hawkins, 1973, p. 16):
Even if a Civil Society resolved to dissolve itself with the consent of all of its members - as might be supposed in the case of a People inhabiting an island resolving to separate and scatter themselves through the whole world - the last Murderer lying in prison ought to be executed before the resolution was carried out.
Basing the appropriateness of capital punishment may seem to be barbaric, and in some ways it is, for it dates from the prehistory of humans, to the times of those people we now...