Kant and Capital Punishment Today

Journal of Value Inquiry 36 (2-3):267-282 (2002)
We will consider alternative ways that Kant’s philosophical views on ethics generally and on punishment more particularly could be brought into harmony with the present near consensus of opposition to the death penalty. We will make use of the notion of the contemporary consensus about certain issues, particularly equality of the sexes and the death penalty, found in widespread agreement, though not unanimity. Of course, it is always possible that some consensuses are wrong, or misguided, or mistaken. We should not put too much philosophical weight on the notion of a consensus here. If there is a consensus for the equality of women as citizens, and against the death penalty, this will simply suggest to us that we will want to reconsider Kant’s views on such topics. In both instances mentioned, his views lie outside the current consensus. We will consider how to revise Kant’s views to bring them into accord with these current consensuses, within a theory that is still, in as significant a sense as possible, Kantian. Since the use of the idea of a consensus is a sort of short-cut, there will not be much direct discussion of arguments for or against the equality of women as citizens, or for or against the advisability of using the death penalty. Yet the discussions of these issues will illuminate certain facts about the structure of Kant’s moral and political theories, and about how the basic principles within those theories relate to particular moral applications or topics. If we can still end up with a thoroughly Kantian view on the death penalty, that also will tell us something about the relation of Kantian ethical and legal principles to the death penalty as that issue is discussed today. Opposition to the death penalty in present day circumstances is not at variance with the basic principles of Kantian ethical, political, and legal theory, including his retributivism in the justification of punishment. Indeed, there is a way of revising Kant’s views to bring them into harmony with abolition.
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