In today’s society, the concept of the government willingly and directly killing another human is almost alien. Death has become such taboo in this country that even killing those who have been accused of heinous crimes is cause for alarm. Indeed, many, especially the friends and family of the victim, derive a great deal of satisfaction from seeing the killer of their friend or family member pay the ultimate price. In terms of morality, the death penalty is perfectly justified. An eye for an eye is only fair. However, the death penalty has a great number of other benefits in addition to simple justice. Although the cost of the death penalty is much greater than simple incarceration for life, the benefits to society as a whole of the death penalty justify these ends.
For starters, the death penalty has at least some effectiveness as a deterrent to other criminals. While how effective something is as a deterrent can be difficult to quantify, a study by Hashem Dezhbakhsh and Paul Rubin found that although murder rates were initially higher in states with the death penalty, over the course of a few decades (between 1977 and 1996, to be precise), homicide rates in death penalty states decreased to levels equal to non-death penalty states (Dezhbakhsh and Rubin 7). With this in mind, it is reasonable to assume that the death penalty functions as a deterrent on at least a moderate level. As for how exactly it works as a deterrent, the article states that an “increase in perceived probabilities of apprehension, conviction has given apprehension, or execution given conviction will reduce an individual’s incentive to commit murder” (Dezhbakhsh and Rubin 7-8). Essentially, this just means that criminals have to consider death if and when they are caught before they commit a crime. Facing one’s own mortality can be much different than simply spending a lifetime in a jail cell, which many murderers are already accustomed to anyway.
The other main benefit of the death penalty is simple: it kills the criminal. In a way, this is the surest method of deterrence. An article by Hugo Bedau addresses this issue by undermining the most basic human emotion: fear. “Even though statistical demonstrations are not conclusive, and perhaps cannot be, I believe that capital punishment is likely to deter more than other punishments because people fear death more than anything else. They fear most death deliberately inflicted by law and scheduled by the courts. Whatever people fear most is likely to deter most” (Bedau 450). Bedau is maintaining here that while quantifying how effective the death penalty is trivial at best, its effects on the psyche are undeniable. It would seem he has a point, as an article by Richard Worsnop also reduces the argument to mankind's basest instincts, but on the other side. Worsnop, in his essay, states that "The instinct for retribution is part of the nature of man, and channeling that instinct...serves an important purpose in promoting the stability of a society governed by law" (Worsnop 12-13). Wosnop is relating the death penalty of today with any other sort of public execution spectacle, such as the roman gladiator games. Humans thirst for blood. It is an insatiable part of human nature, and the death penalty helps to satiate that hunger in a constructive way by taking it out on criminals who deserve it.
Although the death penalty is controversial and somewhat expensive, it is nonetheless at least somewhat effective at deterring crime. Due to the nature of deterrence, it is impossible to see when the death penalty actually works as a deterrent. It is only possible to see when it does not work, and that, unfortunately, is when another innocent life is taken. However, the continued use of the death penalty can only be beneficial for society in general.
Bedau, Hugo Adam, ed. The death penalty in America: Current controversies. Oxford University Press, 1998. p.450
Dezhbakhsh, Hashem, Paul H. Rubin, and Joanna M. Shepherd. "Does capital punishment have a deterrent effect? New evidence from postmoratorium panel data." American Law and Economics Review 5.2 (2003): p. 344-376.
Worsnop, Richard L. "Death Penalty Debate Centers on Retribution." Congressional Quarterly - Editorial Research Reports 1.26 (1990):. SIRS Researcher. CD-ROM. Boca Raton: SIRS, 1996. 398-410