Social Contracts and Capital Punishment

I find a lot of parallels between the things we discuss in Political Theory and the things we discuss in my Philosophy course. I’ve even written a previous blog post on connections between the two. We cover much of the same material, though we look at it from different points of view. Philosophy gives me concepts that can be applied or explored based on the people and situations we learn about in political theory.

Cesare_Beccaria_1738-1794

Cesare Beccaria, an Italian philosopher

The last book we read and discussed in philosophy was On Crimes and Punishment by Beccaria. He discusses why we punish crime and what various forms of punishment are. One section in particular that got me thinking was the chapter on death as a punishment. It’s really interesting to me how the philosophies that were relevant long ago can continue to be relevant today. Since we recently read excerpts from their social contracts, I started to consider how Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau would feel about death as a punishment. Death as a punishment is carried out today, though not in Michigan. It is very controversial and can, in my opinion, have solid arguments made both for and against it. Beccaria was against the death penalty. He was a deterrence theorist, which means that he believed that the purpose of punishment is to dissuade people from committing crimes in the future. He did not support the death penalty because he did not believe that using death as a punishment was an effective way to stop future crime.

So what would the philosophers we have been learning about think? How can we apply their social contracts to this disputed matter, since the question is so applicable today?

John Locke

John Locke

Locke: Locke’s theory holds that people exist in an unstable state of nature. They have the right to go about their lives as they want, so long as they are not infringing on the rights of others. They consent to a government in order to protect these rights.  The purpose of the government is to uphold the natural rights of people, such as life, liberty and property. I do not believe that Locke would support death as a punishment. Because he does not believe in unlimited sovereignty, the people have the right to overthrow the government if it stops fulfilling its purpose. If a government under Locke’s social contract were to take upon itself enough power to punish its citizens with death, it would be fair for the citizens to cast it out.

Thomas Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes

Hobbes: In contrast, I believe that Hobbes would be a proponent of the death penalty. In Hobbes’ social contract, people give up some liberties in order to work towards self protection and preservation. Power is given to a single authority who has complete rule in enforcing the law. People have no power to resist him, but the sovereign leader is, by Hobbes’ rule, bound by some morality. Hobbes believes that people are by nature self-interested but still reasonable and rational. It is for this reason that I believe Hobbes would support death as a punishment. If a person were to go severely against the rule of the monarch, he must be punished. If it is in the best interest of the people that the monarch is leading, then the criminal should be executed. It is necessary and right to use force in following through on the contracts set up by citizens. People give up some liberties to most effectively protect their rights. This would allow the sacrifice of a life of one to act in protection of the whole.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Rousseau: In Rousseau’s state of nature, people were happiest when they were isolated from each other. A system of governance was established to protect the rights of people, such as freedom, liberty, and equality. Like Locke’s social contract, the government in Rousseau’s theory derives its power from the people. If it fails to carry out its duty, it can be cast from power. Men surrender some individual, natural rights in order to assure that their civil rights will be protected. To do so they must subject to the ‘general rule’, which is essentially the rule of the majority. The majority rule is intended to work for the common good of the people. I believe that Rousseau, too, would support death as a punishment. People surrender individual rights for protection. In order for the system of government to work, they must follow the will of the majority. If they fail to do so they must be punished, for they are not complying with the consent they gave to the system. If it is in the best interest of all to use the death penalty as a punishment, Rousseau’s theory would give a sovereign entity allowance to do so.

This video provides an…interesting take on the death penalty. It’s entertaining and informative (and potentially slightly offensive), if you can stick with a discussion on the death penalty from a comedy show.

Death as a punishment is, for many people, an uncomfortable thing to think about. It is difficult to come up with a straightforward, black and white conclusion. I thought I knew where I stood going into my philosophy discussion but I came out conflicted. That’s why I chose to relate it to these philosophers. Many of their theories and claims can still be seen in government today. We should always take wisdom from the past and use it to learn if it’s applicable. I don’t know if I’m less conflicted now, but I do know that it is okay to not have a solid answer. Philosophies will always differ and in such a controversial, important subject, it might be best not to have a concrete answer.

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