Since 1976, 1532 people have been executed in the U.S. across 28 states. However, in regards to federal executions, the U.S. has come under scrutiny for continuing to carry out capital punishment, which many argue is a human rights violation since it breaches the most fundamental right: the right to life. Yet, the U.S. continues the practice. In fact, the U.S. is number six on the top ten countries by number of executions. Not to mention, throughout Trump’s presidency, 13 executions were carried out, more than any president to do so in the last 120 years. Although Biden opposes the death penalty, the U.S.’s participation in capital punishment raises the question of whether or not it violates human rights and is unethical. Turning to philosophy can be a useful lens to understand why the death penalty is problematic.
In a moral dilemma, people often argue you should save the most amount of people, even if that means sacrificing a few. John Taurek believed saving one person is equally as important as saving the masses. His main argument is that there is no way to value a group of people’s lives over an individual’s. Ultimately, no one can determine the objective value of a human life. Instead, Taurek argued that a group of individuals deserve to live just as much as a group of one or fewer people because they should have “an equal chance to be spared [their] loss.”
If we take John Taurek’s ideas and apply them to the death penalty, we can dismantle the argument that usually upholds this policy. Often, people argue that capital punishment will deter would-be murderers from committing crimes. However, applying Taurek’s logic refutes this point. The idea is that deterrence would save more people from being murdered. However, the person who is being executed equally deserves the right to live, even if they have committed a crime, because their life is not any less valuable. Aside from deterrence not preventing murders, executing someone does not bring back the person who was killed, which does not lessen the suffering of the victim’s family. It actually results in more people suffering, such as the family members of the person being executed. Therefore, the logic behind the death penalty does not actually result in more lives spared at the cost of some.
Human rights law also supports this perspective. The right to life is one of the core universal rights everyone is entitled to without any disclaimers. Simply because someone commits murder, their human rights are not suspended. For example, if you are a prisoner, you are still entitled to having your basic needs met and to be protected from cruel and unusual punishment and torture, regardless of the crime you committed. John Taurek’s philosophical ideas reinforce that human rights and the value of a human life are not contingent upon numbers, character, or any other factors.