IMAM: The jury is still out on the death penalty

There are hard moral choices that would accompany abandoning capital punishment

A few weeks ago, Viewpoint writer Lucy Siegel wrote a piece against the death penalty. More specifically, she described how the use of the death penalty after a murder perpetuates the cycle of violence for the victim’s family, as “it does not seem logical that families and friends can receive total closure by witnessing the execution of another human being.” Siegel later contended that, as a result, the death penalty should not be imposed in order to bring “justice and peace” to those left to grieve their loved one. On the first point, I am certainly unable to disagree, especially given that, on average, death penalty cases take 25 years or so to reach ultimate resolution. If two wrongs don’t make a right, then ending someone’s life as a punishment for ending another’s hardly registers as logical. However, I also think there is another important party to consider on this issue: that of potential future victims and their families.

Some may claim they are opposed to the death penalty because it is morally wrong to take someone’s life. While the debate as to whether the death penalty is a deterrent is not new, it is undoubtedly not a settled one. Within this New York Times piece alone, there are multiple cited studies claiming the death penalty deters future crimes (although more so in states that do use the penalty on a more regular basis, such as Texas). In the same piece are statements from academics such as Justin Wolfers calling the evidence “fragile,” while others speak to its validity. Gary Becker, winner of the Nobel Prize in economics in 1992 noted that, while the empirical evidence is currently “not decisive,” at the same time, “the evidence of a variety of types — not simply the quantitative evidence — has been enough to convince [him] that capital punishment does deter and is worth using for the worst sorts of offenses.” Despite so many findings in favor of both sides, this idea of deterrence and providing justice and peace to society as a whole should be given just as much, if not more, weight than that of ensuring justice and peace for the victim’s families, as one group is clearly larger than the other.

Either way, the possibility that it could deter crimes is something with which those inclined to oppose the death penalty must grapple. As Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule, law professors at the University of Chicago and Harvard, respectively, stated in their Stanford Law Review article, “those who object to capital punishment, and do so in the name of protecting life, must come to terms with the possibility that the failure to inflict capital punishment will fail to protect life.”

It may seem pointless to assert that deterrence be heavily considered when looking at the death penalty only to state that none has been shown and (depending on your view) potentially put a pause on capital punishment’s use. However, it is important to highlight that the manner in which we judge the death penalty in terms of morality should extend from beyond the feelings of the victim’s family, and to the greater good. Determining the morality of the death penalty involves considering many factors; making an argument for or against it by only asking whether or not we have the right to end someone’s life, or whether doing so truly results in justice and peace for the victims’ families, is an oversimplification. Considering the bigger picture is necessary to achieve and ensure the “justice and peace” described by Siegel for the community at large.

In order to give something as definite as the death penalty the consideration it deserves, every possible benefit, con and the extent to which they exist must be examined. However improbable it may seem to some, if the death penalty is ever plausibly shown to have a significant deterrent effect, I believe that its use will be justified, as this benefit would create more good than harm.

Alyssa Imam is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at

related stories