The Death Penalty: Right or Wrong?
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.