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The Death Penalty: Right or Wrong?

March 10, 2011

Recently, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signed the bill to ban the death penalty in his state.  Illinois is now the 16th state to abolish the widely controversial use of capital punishment in America.  The 15 inmates in Illinois prisons that were on death row will no longer be executed because of the signing.  Instead, they will face life in prison without parole.  The topic of the death penalty has been debated for decades because of the value placed on every one of our lives and also because of the possibility of an innocent man being killed.  After hearing about it being banned in Illinois, I wondered how Locke would feel about the use of capital punishment in our court systems.

At first thought I was fully convinced that Locke would be strongly opposed to the death penalty, for he valued life and self-preservation over everything else.  One of his laws of nature was to not do harm to others. In chapter 2, section 6 of Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, Locke stated that “no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.”  This would mean that the death penalty would be unacceptable in all cases, because we have our God given right to life and no one can take that from us.   Also, in chapter 3, section 16 of the Second Treatise, he claimed “when all cannot be preserved, the safety of the innocent is to be preferred.”  We can not always be 100% sure that the person being convicted for a crime is actually guilty of it.  There have been some people taken off death row after later being proved innocent, and others who have possibly had their lives taken for a crime they didn’t commit.  Preference to the innocent and the right to life would be reasons to oppose the death penalty for Locke.

When it seemed as if all evidence pointed towards opposing capital punishment, I realized that Locke said these things in regards to the state of nature, which we are far from in this point in society.  To Locke, the government’s primary goal is to protect our property, which includes our bodies.  Life, health, liberty, and possessions are still civil rights in Locke’s commonwealth, but in a large society do we look past the rights of individuals for the good of all?  If self-preservation for the entire society is to be valued, then maybe it is right to take the life of a murderer to benefit others.  However, in present times, unlike that of the 17th century, prisons are secure enough to keep any serial killers behind bars for life.  There is also the “golden rule” that Locke believed in: do unto others as you would have done to you.  Because of this, one would think that Locke would support the death penalty: a killer should be killed.

Locke’s belief that a well ordered commonwealth considers the good of the whole may lead us to believe he would support capital punishment as a consequence for heinous crimes, such as murder.  Not only did he believe that it would benefit society to not have these members around, but he also thought that such a severe punishment would deter others from committing such a crime.  In effect, murder rates would be reduced because people value their lives and would be scared to face such a dire consequence.  However, in modern society, there is inconclusive evidence to show that the death penalty reduces the murder rate.  In theory, though, the threat of being killed should prevent people from killing others.

So the question remains definitively unanswered, but I am still leaning towards Locke opposing the death penalty because of his strong belief in the preservation of life and the inability of anyone to take that from us.

  1. Adam Evanski permalink
    March 10, 2011 8:59 AM

    I’m probably going to be the minority opinion here but I fully support the death penalty. As for Locke I would say the he would oppose it based off his fundamental belief of “life, liberty, and property.” At all cost he favored protecting these ideals and obviously death is not protecting/valuing life.

  2. apnash permalink
    March 10, 2011 9:55 AM

    I believe that Locke would not support the death penalty for the reason cited in your article: It is far from certain that the death penalty deters crime. As you also noted, prisons are all but inescapable now so the threat to society from the offender is non-existent. So if there is no longer a threat to anyone’s person or property from the offender, I don’t believe that Locke would be in favor of the death penalty.

  3. vvanhull permalink
    March 10, 2011 2:01 PM

    I think it is important to take into consideration what time period we are considering. Locke wanted offenders to be punished and removed from society. @apnash presents an important point that modern prisons are generally inescapable.

    An idea we need to think about is whether or not Locke would consider the modern justice system an adequate tool of punishing and repressing offenders. I think during his life time, Locke would have endorsed the death penalty. During the late 1600s, there were very few jails and prisons, and they were mainly organized on the local level. Due to the limited means of punishment which mostly included physical repercussions, Locke would endorse the capital punishment of criminals in order to protect the property of others in society.

    In modern times, I don’t think Locke would support the death penalty. While there are flaws in the prison system, I think he would believe that modern prisons adequately remove and punish criminals, protecting both the property of the offender and the rest of society. Although we can debate the effectiveness of prison and rehabilitation, I think Locke’s general goals of preventing the property of man and punishment are accomplished without the death penalty.

  4. March 12, 2011 12:52 AM

    This is a very interesting post. However, I feel it is necessary to point out that although Locke believes in the sanctity of property and freedom, he asserts that an individual, in the state of nature, has the power to protect their property and freedom. If a person murders somebody, he has broken his contract with others and thus puts himself in a state of war in relation to society. Someone in a state of war, because he commits a heinous crime, is no longer protected. Thus, I believe Locke would only favor the death penalty if society reasonably feels that it is just to punish the offender in such a fashion.

  5. jasonkraman permalink
    March 12, 2011 12:20 PM

    Locke states that the only purpose for government is to ensure the peace and safety of the people that join in the union. As one becomes part of the governed society he must relinquish some of his rights and control over his actions. Therefore, I think Locke would actually support the death penalty because the central role of government is to protect its people at all costs( a serial killer roaming through society would not be in the best interest for the common people). Although I concede that Locke may have some issues with how the current judicial system operates, I think on sole theory he would support the death penalty.

  6. Chelsea Hoedl permalink
    March 13, 2011 6:51 PM

    I do not think that Locke would support the death penalty. His golden rule supports this, if I interpreted it correctly. “do unto others as you would have done to you”. By this I think he means do to others what you wish the would do to you. I do not think he means treat others as they treat you necessarily, so I don’t think he would argue that murdering a murder is correct. You make good points regarding his emphasis on the value of life.

  7. March 14, 2011 6:03 PM

    I found this as a very interesting question to bring up. I believe that Locke would indeed support the death penalty. Locke believed that the main reason the government existed, was to ensure the peace and protection of the people that join the union. If someone was out around society, creating a dangerous and uneasy feel in this area, then this person would need to be taken care of. If Locke cared so much about taking care of the people, then a person who is a threat must be taken care of. Although others have argued that he was a strong believer of “do unto others as you would have done to you”, I think that he would be in favor of it to ensure a better society for the majority of people.

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