Capital Punishment and the Owl of Minerva

In Larry Alexander & Kimberly Kessler Ferzan (eds.), The Palgrave Handbook of Applied Ethics and the Criminal Law. Springer Verlag. pp. 241-261 (2019)
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Abstract

Although capital punishment has been gradually disappearing from liberal democracies, philosophers remain divided as to its permissibility. The first part of this chapter considers arguments in favor of retention and abolition, with particular attention to recent contractualist arguments. I then consider the United States Supreme Court’s incrementalist approach, under the rubric of “evolving standards of decency.” On this view, the Constitution is limited to sweeping up stragglers; like Minerva’s owl, the Constitution announces a philosophy of punishment only in hindsight. The final section draws on Feinberg’s suggestion that punishment reflects a society’s particular “symbols of infamy.” A society may come to rethink its symbols of infamy, such as capital punishment, but that is unlikely to be because philosophical argument has silenced all reasonable doubt.

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