Bioethics Blogs

On Killing: Neuroscience and State-Sponsored Executions

A number of botched executions over the past 16 months have reopened national discourse about the relevance of capital punishment in the 21st century, which has been polarized by passage of a Utah bill reinstating use of the firing squad. As of March 2015, the United States is the lone Western power and one of only 36 nations (18%) worldwide that executes its own citizens. Some common points of contention against state-sponsored execution include, but are certainly not limited to: cases of wrongful execution; distributive injustice, whereby racial minorities are disproportionately executed; diminished mental capacity, which may limit the perpetrator’s moral discernment and decision-making abilities; and insufficient evidence of its deterrent effect on other criminals. On the other hand, death penalty supporters often speak from two conventional perspectives about punishment: (1) a consequentialist perspective – that capital punishment will protect society against that particular convict’s future crimes, and/or (2) a retributivist perspective – namely, an intuitive notion of “an eye for an eye,” that people deserve punishment in proportion to the evilness of their past misdeeds. It’s important to note that retributivists also require proof of criminal intent, known as mens rea. While both sides of the conversation about capital punishment raise defensible points that are worthy of debate, and other perhaps more compassionate approaches to punishment exist, I’ll focus here on the two perspectives most supportive of capital punishment, which neuroscience may have the capacity to inform.

The relevance of both perspectives – consequentialist and retributivist – in this debate is demonstrated in the recent high-profile case of Kelly Gissendaner, the State of Georgia’s only female death-row inmate.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.