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Two distinguished social and political philosophers take opposing positions in this highly engaging work. Louis P. Pojman justifies the practice of execution by appealing to the principle of retribution: we deserve to be rewarded and punished according to the virtue or viciousness of our actions. He asserts that the death penalty does deter some potential murderers and that we risk the lives of innocent people who might otherwise live if we refuse to execute those deserving that punishment. Jeffrey Reiman argues that although the death penalty is a just punishment for murder, we are not morally obliged to execute murderers. Since we lack conclusive evidence that executing murderers is an effective deterrent and because we can foster the advance of civilization by demonstrating our intolerance for cruelty in our unwillingness to kill those who kill others, Reiman concludes that it is good in principle to avoid the death penalty, and bad in practice to impose it.
Louis Pojman initiates the debate by taking a pro-death penalty position. He mixes actual examples of heinous murders with statistics on the frequency of homicide and with philosophical concepts. Pojman observes that "Homo sapiens is the the only species in which it is common for one member to kill another...We are a violent race whose power of destruction has increased in proportion to our technology" (p. 3-4). He divides his support for capital punishment into two sections, punishment generally and capital punishment in particular.
In Part I, Pojman defines and traces three prominent theories of punishment, including (1) retributive theories, which assess the nature of the offense and make punishment dependent on what is deserved; (2) utilitarian theories, focusing on deterrence and prevention; (3) rehabilitative theories, which treat crime as a disease and the offender as a sick person who needs to be cured. Pojman notes that there are pertinent points related to each of the aforementioned theories, though capital punishment is justified employing only the first two above. In Part II, Pojman introduces the best bet argument and golden rule argument to support the death penalty. He concludes the opening section by declaring that "[e]ventually, we may find a better way to deal with criminals than we now have, which will produce a better--more moral--society. But even then, the murderer will deserve the death penalty" (p. 66).
Jeffrey Reiman begins his opening essay against capital punishment by acknowledging "that the death penalty is a just punishment--some murderers' just deserts--and that if the death penalty were needed to deter future murders, it would be unjust to future victims not to impose it" (p. 67). However, he finds "that it is good in principle to avoid the death penalty and bad in practice to impose it" (p. 68).
Because it combines a philosophical framework and a debate-oriented approach, THE DEATH PENALTY: FOR AND AGAINST makes a unique contribution to the literature on capital punishment. However, the book is not without flaws. First, each author's initial presentation suffers from too many headings which needlessly subdivide arguments. Conversely, the responses are much more fluid and clearly written.
A second flaw emanates from Professor Reiman's acceptance of two claims in favor of capital punishment. Even though Reiman attempts to logically unify his points into an anti-death penalty stance, his recognition of Professor Pojman's points weakens his position. Employing the same assumptions to reach different conclusions may work with some topics, but it seems to dilute differences when dealing with a divisive subject like the death penalty. Notwithstanding the authors' rejection of assigning points to the debate, the result is that Louis Pojman's case as argued is more consistent and convincing.
Finally, adopting a philosophical perspective naturally means that some contentions normally associated with capital punishment are excluded or under-emphasized. Neither author of the present text broaches the eugenics argument for the death penalty, and religious precepts are limited to Pojman's golden rule argument in favor of executions. Still, for those wanting theoretical and historical material to better understand capital punishment, Pojman and Reiman do not disappoint.
Chapter 1 For the Death Penalty Chapter 2 Why the Death Penalty Should Be Abolished in America Chapter 3 Reply to Jeffrey Reiman Chapter 4 Reply to Louis P. Pojman Chapter 5 Index