Guest Post: Death Penalty on Trial

Greetings everyone. Today I am putting up my first guest-post by Marie Owens, a prospective law student at Washington State. Today she deals with the death-penalty, someone called Immanuel Kant (I’ll pretend I don’t have a love-hate relationship with him), and a very interesting case-study on retributivism.

Take it away, Marie.



by Marie Owens

A 22-year-old man was dismembered and partially eaten by his seatmate on a Greyhound bus in July 2008. When 40-year-old Vince Weiguang Li was stabbing his victim Li appeared emotionless and his movements were without hesitation; as if he was in a trance. Thousands of people in Canada, where this horrific act took place, advocated for Li to receive the death penalty. The last execution in Canada was on Dec. 11, 1962 at Toronto’s Don Jail, almost 50 years ago at the time. The crime that Li committed, without remorse, was demonic, but is it ethical for him to receive the same fate in court? Ultimately Li ended up being sentenced to a mental institution because he was suffering from schizophrenia, but his actions made Canada re-evaluate the death penalty, which would not only change the country’s criminal justice system, but also force educational institutions to re-assess their criminal justice degree programs and completely change the acceptance evaluation process of mental institutions and hospitals. Big change for a case that even though heinous, is a common one that occurs on a daily basis all over the world. Murder is always going to occur between people. So: Is capital punishment really the ethical answer to this issue?

Immanuel Kant, a philosopher of ethics, presents a strong case for capital punishment. He believed that a society or a state couldn’t exist without laws. The guilty must be punished or else justice and equality, the only proper foundations for the law, will not have been served and thus, any society or state would crumble. Equality is the principle that must be used in selecting a punishment so Kant uses a metaphor to explain this. He refers to the principle of equality as the one by which the pointer of the scale of justice is made to incline no more to one side than to the other. There are two parts to this metaphor which is “eye for an eye” and jus talinois– the right of retribution.

The “eye for an eye” argument means that whatever evil the wrongdoer inflicted is the measure of punishment that he deserves. According to Kant’s point, capital punishment would have been the ethical punishment for Li. Li murdered a man so Li himself deserves to be killed. According to Kant, it is a mistake for a criminal to have a less severe punishment for his offence. It would make the criminal appear not as guilty as he or she really is. Therefore, the criminal’s acts must amount to his punishment or else the legal system would be unjust.

The second argument that Kant makes is jus talinois meaning the right of retaliation. Basically the state has a right to seek revenge against a criminal in order for justice to be served. According to Kant it would have been ethical to sentence Li to death because he deserves to be punished in the exact same way of his actions.

Was the Canadian court supposed to dismember the body of Li as well and then kill him? That would be the exact punishment that Li would deserve since that’s exactly what he did to his victim, but then he would be subjected to torture which is a whole new debate. Torture is considered inhumane and since Li was mentally ill he wasn’t capable of making decisions like a sane person. Even though it appears, according to Kant, that Li deserves the exact same fate as his victim, it would be unethical to punish him for a crime that he didn’t know he was committing. People suffering from a severe mental illness, such as schizophrenia, tend to rationalize their actions differently than a sane person. Li believed that God told him to kill his victim because the victim was an “incarnation of evil” and thus, had to be dismembered so he (the victim) wouldn’t be reincarnated. To Li, he believed he did a good deed for society.

A slow slicing. Beijing, 1910

The strongest claim against capital punishment is the risk of killing an innocent person. The criminal justicesystem has flaws and innocent people do go to jail. Convicting an innocent person to death would be considered unethical because they do not deserve to be punished by a crime that they didn’t commit. According to Kant, if an innocent person was sentenced to death it wouldn’t be a punishment, but a crime. The state would be committing murder and would deserve the same fate as the innocent person convicted. A court can never be a hundred percent sure of a case so if we allowed capital punishment there is always going to be a possibility that an innocent person will die.

All in all, it’s difficult to discuss the ethics of capital punishment. Even though Kant presents a strong argument there are always going to be unique cases, like Li’s, in which it will be difficult to choose capital punishment as the correct and ethical sentence.


As a prospective law student in Washington state, MARIE OWENS is particularly interested in criminal law and gender issues. She writes to promote criminal justice education, and teaches martial arts in her spare time.


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