“An eye for an eye,” everyone’s heard the phrase. As common as the phrase is, though, it can really reveal some dark depths hidden within humanity. Human beings tend to be revenge-seeking creatures that relish in justice and seek payback. We like to dish out punishment to those we feel deserve it. Because of this desire and mindset, the death penalty is legal in thirty-seven U.S. states. Not everyone agrees with ending another’s life, however, so the penalty remains a moral issue. Those who feel that the death penalty is never a morally permissible form of punishment call themselves abolitionists, while those who agree that the death penalty is, or could be, morally justified, or perhaps even required, are often referred to as retentionists. Constantly trying to argue their viewpoints, each group uses philosophical approaches to support their opinions.
Immanuel Kant, famous for the Kantian approach of ethics, is one who holds strong opinions dealing with the death penalty. Throughout Punishment and the Principle of Equality, a short excerpt from his 1997 The Metaphysics of Morals, Part 1, The Doctrine of Right, Kant defends the death penalty as a strong retentionist, expressing opposition to consequentalist ideals and by defining an appropriate moral principle for determining specific punishments, which he calls “principle of equality.” All throughout his excerpt, Kant expresses that one should receive the treatment that he bestows upon others and that “the undeserved evil which any one commits on another, is to be regarded as perpetrated on himself.” With this mindset, Kant states that the death penalty is a requirement for any who commit murder because it brings about justice and righteousness. “If you slander another, you slander yourself; if you steal from another, you steal from yourself; if you strike another, you strike yourself; if you kill another, you kill yourself,” he writes, clarifying his viewpoints.
While some may view Kant’s “principle of equality” as harsh and vengeful, others view it as moral and necessary. I find the “eye for an eye” ideology easy to grasp and comprehend and tend to harbor similar thoughts. While the death penalty may be the most extreme punishment, I feel that murder is the most extreme crime. If one decides to steal the life from another, it seems justified to steal his life from him for the wrongdoing he did, trouble he caused, and immoral act he committed. As Kant states, “if justice and righteousness perish, human life would no longer have any value in the world.” If nothing was done to correct the sin committed and others were enabled to commit crimes with lightened punishments, mankind would begin to crumble, fall apart, and ultimate lose everything it’s worked for.
Governed by laws and rules, mankind has created a system to ensure that its members live moral lives and coincide together harmoniously. When immoral acts arise, however, punishment must ensue; else mankind would cease to function. With a thirst for revenge and justice in mind, humanity tends to favor the “eye for an eye” mindset. Immanuel Kant, founder of the Kantian moral theory, especially supports this ideal as he uses the “principle of equality” to determine specific punishments within his short excerpt, Punishment and the Principle of Equality, from his 1997 The Metaphysics of Morals, Part 1, The Doctrine of Right. Stating that people should be treated as they treat others, Kant admits that the death penalty is a required punishment for those who commit acts of murder. Although an extreme punishment, it matches the extremity of the crime and thus delivers justice and regains righteousness. By stealing the life from the thief who stole from another, minds may be put to rest, hearts may be eased, and mankind can continue in vengeful justice.