Punishment

On the morality of the death penalty: I live in a country (Australia) where the death penalty has long been abolished and is unpopular; particularly mandatory death penalties, say, for example, for people trafficking in illegal drugs over certain quantities. I bring up this example because an Australian citizen was executed in Singapore for exactly that activity. Certainly, I find such laws difficult to justify as consistent, on utilitarian grounds at least. If a person caught in an airport with 0.5 kg of heroin strapped to his body ought to die because that is less-bad than the reasonably presumed consequences to many people would be, were he allowed to live, then surely there is a case for the death penalty for tobacconists or sellers of alcohol. I have no statistics at hand, but I am guessing that the tobacco sold by one tobacconist over several decades would lead to comparable illnesses or numbers of deaths as would the total amount of heroin carried by this particular Australian 'drug mule'. Nonetheless, I cannot escape the thought that there is a reasonable argument for the death penalty (even a mandatory one), only if certain conditions are indisputably met: (1) That a given action X be considered so bad by a society that the society agrees that it simply cannot countenance the occurrence of X. (2) That, it is agreed that unless restrained, a particular agent Y is capable of doing X and that there is a real likelihood that Y will do X. (3) That the only effective way to restrain Y is to kill Y. A rough and ready example of this thinking is that X is torture and murder of an incapacitated victim by pouring strong acid on his face (as also happened in Australia a few years ago, by a paid hit-man: the victim owed someone money); and that Y has previously committed X (which demonstrates capacity), has failed to show any remorse or reformation (is highly likely to commit X in the future) and that the state's legal/prison system cannot guarantee permanent restraint of Y, except through execution. It is pretty clear that such a claim entails various problems: vagueness and appeal to inference to the future, for instance. But as long as we discount simple edicts like 'you shall not kill humans', I cannot see an argument against the principle of this claim. Do you agree?

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