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Capital Punishment and Ethics

Updated on September 26, 2016

Introduction

Capital punishment is an ethical issue in all corners of the world, with every society, race and religion having unique beliefs in regards to the taking of a life as punishment. Capital punishment is defined as ‘the lawful infliction of death as punishment’ (The Free Dictionary, 2016), it is more commonly known as ‘the death penalty’. It is seen as an ethical issue because it challenges the morality of a country’s society and allows their legal system to take a life by law. This is where the moral issue is introduced; with the taking of a life. Despite the controversy surrounding capital punishment, in America the majority (70 percent) supports capital punishment and the intended justice that it serves to criminals (Legal Dictionary, 2015). Looking through the beliefs of Hinduism and Islam, two opposing views surface in regards to capital punishment. These views will be compared, contrasted and analysed within the ethical framework of both religions to determine a policy beneficial to the majority resulting in the morals of capital punishment being tested and it being deemed unethical except in extraordinary circumstances.

Islam Ethics

Under many circumstances in Islamic countries capital punishment is inflicted because Islam, as a general religion, supports it (About.Com, 2015). Capital Punishment is enforced within Islam for the following people; an apostate, a married adulterer, a murderer, a bandit and a spy (al-Munajjid. S, 2016). These offences are sentenced with capital punishment as it says, when taken literally, in the religious texts and beliefs that these crimes are to have death as punishment. “Whoever changes his religion, execute him” was narrated by al-Bukhaari, 6524 and has been the sole justification for capital punishment on an apostate in Islam (al-Munajjid. S, 2016). It carries this punishment as it is seen as treachery towards Allah. It resembles ‘changing teams’, if a Rugby League player swaps teams they are then the opposition, the same logic applies to an apostate. A married adulterer is served this punishment as the Prophet said; “If a married person commits adultery with a married person, (the punishment is) one hundred lashes and stoning” (Narrated by Muslim, 1690) (al-Munajjid. S, 2016). This, among other statements and happenings, has been the cause of the infliction of capital punishment on married adulterers for centuries (al-Munajjid. S, 2016). “A soul for a soul”, this phrase, narrated by al- Bukhaari, 6484; Muslim, 1676, is the most influential argument for the death of a murderer to be considered ‘justice’. It means that if a soul/life is taken, the taker of that soul/life must also have their soul/life taken. However, the trouble with this method of thinking is; when does it stop? If this is seen as justification enough to end a life, then it has the ability to create an endless cycle of justifiable death. Bandits are categorised by the death penalty as in al-Maa’idah 5:33 it states; “The recompense of those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger and do mischief in the land is only that they shall be killed or crucified” (al-Munajjid. S, 2013). Meaning that anyone or group that challenges Islam will be put to death. This extract is possibly one of the many justifications that ISIS uses to claim they are doing the ‘moral’ thing by beheading people. Spies are dealt with using the death penalty, however, only when it is seen to be in the best interest of the Islamic people, if it is seen in the best interest to let the spy live, then he will be left to live his life (About.Com, 2015). This classification is hypocritical as spies working with Islam would be allowed to live whereas spies working against Islam would be sentenced to death, but essentially they are both doing the same job, just working for opposing sides. Islam supports the death penalty, not only because they see it as justice, but also because Allah tells them it is the sentence that must be inflicted for a series of crimes.

Introduction to Islam

Hindu Ethics

Ethics in Hinduism are derived from specific spiritual concepts. Hinduism’s ethics propose disciplinary aspects for a spiritual life (Hinduism, 2014). Ethics in Hinduism are generally personal or based on a subject. The purpose is to eradicate impurities mentally such as; egoism and greed. Its purpose is this as it aims to attain the highest good (Hinduism, 2014). The concept of Dharma consists of virtue, right conduct, ethics and morality. Dharma involves all that is seen as essential for people, nature and the world to coexist and harmoniously prosper together (Hinduism, 2014). Karma is the consequence of each action in life. In an individual acts positively towards others and the world, then that individual will accrue positive karma. Consequently, if an individual acts out negatively, then they will accumulate negative karma. Hinduism also emphasises the concept of ahimsa. Ahimsa is the notion of nonviolence, as it is believed that any kind of violence will cause a disruption to the moral order.

In Hinduism there is no official statement as to whether or not Hindu’s support or oppose capital punishment (BBC, 2014). However, it can be assumed that Hinduism opposes capital punishment as their beliefs oppose violence, killing and revenge (Hindu, 2013). Capital punishment entails all three of these aspects hence, it can safely be said that Hindu’s, as a whole, do not support capital punishment. Hindu’s believe that a being lives many lives and passes through one body to another, building up their knowledge, experiences and uniqueness before it is connected once again with the ‘flame’ (Hindu, 2013). This belief may influence Hinduism’s position on capital punishment because when a life is taken purposefully it could have a compromising effect on the beings of both the punisher and the criminal in future reincarnations. For example, if a hanging was to take place, the person pulling the lever to drop the floor would essentially be committing murder and, consequently, would suffer a negative effect on their future reincarnations. In this case, the person doing the hanging would believe they are doing the right thing but, to all intents and purposes, they are committing an unethical act; murder. In Hinduism the Bhagavad Gita states; “Just as a man discards worn out clothes and puts on new clothes, the soul discards worn out bodies and wears new ones” (2:22) (Hindu, 2013). This quote defines the concept of reincarnation, but what happens if the body is not worn out? Does the soul leave and wait for its next body, does it become trapped inside that body, or, does it become trapped in the middle? Murder and capital punishment interfere with the natural order of life and death which, in turn, interferes with the parts in between and where the soul goes. Hindu’s also believe in the concept of Karma; everything you do comes back to you (Gandhi International Institute for Peace, 2016). The Karma from murdering a man would be to serve a jail sentence, but, by killing the murderer before his Karma reaches him, the soul would carry the negative Karma to the next life.

Introduction to Hinduism

Capital Punishment Case Study

The case of Gary Graham is one of the most influential capital punishment cases ever recorded. Throughout the proceeding of the case a sufficient lack of evidence was presented, however, Gary Graham was sentenced to death by lethal injection (Capital Punishment in Context, 2012). After approximately 19 years he was injected and pronounced dead (Capital Punishment in Context, 2012). In the period of these 19 years many appeals were put forward to the court, all of which were denied. This resulted in the case retaining the original sentence. 30 days before the injection took place, the victim’s wife wrote a letter to the Governor expressing her doubt that Gary committed the crime and that she believed he was possibly innocent (Capital Punishment in Context, 2012). She also stated that she did not want his execution to be on her conscience and that she does not believe in capital punishment (Capital Punishment in Context, 2012). The fact that the victim’s wife opposed the killing of possibly the man who shot dead her husband shows compassion and a sense of reconciliation. This resembles Hindu values and gives reasoning as to why Hindu’s could oppose capital punishment. Punishment follows five main purposes, these are; incapacitation, deterrence, restitution, retribution and rehabilitation (Cassidy. G, 2015). A punishment must satisfy one or more of these criteria for it to be justified. In the case of Gary Graham, the criteria satisfied is primarily retribution. Retribution is when; “the felon harmed society; therefore, society (or the direct victims) is entitled to inflict harm in return” (Cassidy. G, 2015). The harm that Gary allegedly caused society is the murder of Bobby Lambert and the harm society inflicted on Gary is death by Lethal Injection. Retribution resembles the phrase narrated by al-Bukhaari, 6484; Muslim 1676; “A soul for a soul” (al-Munajjid. S, 2016). Therefore, justifying capital punishment with retribution has the ability to lead to revenge killing. Assuming Hinduism does not support capital punishment, it would be this very reason causing their opposition; revenge killing.

Case Study: Islam

Islamic views would agree with capital punishment being the outcome in this case as they support it for murder cases. Gary Graham was killed in this case because he allegedly killed Bobby Lambert. This falls into line with the justification Islam uses for murdering a murderer; “a soul for a soul”. In most religions, life is considered sacred. So, how is it that Islam considers life to be sacred yet still supports capital punishment? The Qur’an answers this question by stating; “…take not life, which God has made sacred, except by way of justice and law” (About.Com, 2015). This can justify taking a sacred life, however it depends on how justice is defined. Is it just to take a life when a life has been taken? Or, is it just to let a murderer live, in jail, without the ability to share a meal with his family, or go anywhere that brings them joy? Is it more just to let them lie on the floor of a cell, ridden with guilt for what they have done, wishing to be forgiven? When asked which option truly served justice to the criminal and to the community, Riaz Seedat, member of the Australian National Imams Council, stated; “Justice cannot be served to an individual if they are unable to recognise the justice, just as a man should not be sentenced to capital punishment if it is of greater benefit to him than a life of imprisonment. As a Muslim, I support capital punishment, however, I do not support it as anything except a last resort option. All criminals, no matter how severe their crimes are, should have the opportunity to atone for their crimes. It is often said that Muslims support capital punishment because it says so in the Qur’an. This has some truth to it, however, I believe in capital punishment as it truly does serve justice to an individual if it is not beneficial to him. If sentencing a murderer to capital punishment will mentally harm the direct family more than the criminal, then the option must be reconsidered as Muslims also believe in forgiveness. Being penalised by death is mentioned multiple times in the Qur’an, though forgiveness is mentioned many more. Therefore, I do believe in capital punishment, but I believe that forgiveness to those who repent is a remedy much better suited”. And so, when capital punishment is a common sentence served to those who commit murder in countries such as America, it creates a false sense of justice within their society. Although Islamic views align with the outcome of the case of Gary Graham, Mr. Seedat’s views would not have. He would disagree with the taking of Mr. Graham’s life as a lack of evidence was obvious and family, including his children, would have suffered sufficiently more than Mr. Graham himself.

Case Study: Hinduism

As it is assumed that Hinduism opposes capital punishment, it can also be assumed that Hindu’s would oppose the outcome of this case as it is capital punishment. Mahatma Gandhi, a devout Hindu, is famous for his beliefs and his endeavour to achieve peace. “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind” said Gandhi (Gandhi International Institute for Peace, 2016) regarding the treatment of evil against evil. This can be applied to Gary Graham’s case in that his life was taken as he took the life of another; an eye for an eye. This act not only hurt the alleged murderer, but also mentally harmed the family of Gary and his friends. This is what the court was blind to when sentencing Mr. Graham, that his family would be the ones suffering, not Gary himself. Children know little of the corruption surrounding ethical issues such as capital punishment. When asked for his opinion on the death penalty, 11-year-old Ben Pease stated; “It’s wrong, people shouldn’t be killed when they have done something wrong, because then they don’t have to deal with their consequence. If I killed someone and I got told I was going to be killed for it rather than spending the rest of my life in jail, I would be glad that I got the easy way out.” This opinion comes into line with Karma. Gary Graham committed crime, and so would have negative Karma directed to his soul. However, without having the opportunity to serve his negative Karma in his present life, he would have carried his negative Karma to his next life. This link between a child’s personal ideals and the ideals of a religion, which he does not follow, shows the influence religion has on community ideals, and that the value of Karma has been imprinted into societal values as ‘what goes around comes around’. The death penalty did little to serve justice to Gary Graham in his present life, it was only sentenced to him as it was seen as the utilitarian way to resolve the case.

Policy

If capital punishment was a reality in the Australian legal system, the majority would benefit from it being abolished. The majority of faiths prominent in Australia oppose capital punishment. Therefore, by eliminating it from the hypothetical legal system, the majority would be satisfied. To satisfy an even larger majority, the punishment should not be abolished, but altered. It should not be served as punishment for individual murder crimes, but for crimes against humanity such as; genocide, terrorism and war crimes. The crime should also have to be proven to a Jury of 20 people to further reduce the possibility of the criminal being innocent. Also, the crime must satisfy a list of terms such as; the crime must be intentional, the defendant must be of a sound mental state and if an organisation or group committed the crime, each individual member must be sentenced for their singular crimes and not the crimes of an organisation. This would satisfy the majority of religions in Australia and the majority of people in Australia as the majority are against capital punishment and if the act is altered to suit these conditions, it would only be legal under the most surreal of circumstances. It would also satisfy Muslims who share the same belief as Riaz Seedat as he generally opposes it except under certain circumstances. Therefore, by abolishing the law or altering it to conform to the above conditions, the majority would be satisfied

Conclusion

Although there is no official Hindu statement regarding capital punishment, through their beliefs against violence, killing and revenge, it can be safely assumed that Hinduism opposes capital punishment. Islam on the other hand, supports in for certain crimes, however, Riaz Seedat opposes the idea of capital punishment if it is of greater benefit to the criminal than life imprisonment. Hindu and Muslim beliefs entertain two views in regards to capital punishment which completely oppose each other. Through analysing and comparing these views it can be seen that if capital punishment existed under Australian law, a policy should be developed to abolish the law or alter it to only allow it under the rarest of circumstances when it conforms with a series of conditions, as this would benefit the majority.

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