Capital punishment: Why death is the 'ultimate' punishment

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review

Abstract / Description of output

Both proponents and opponents of capital punishment largely agree that death is the most severe punishment that societies should consider imposing on offenders. This chapter considers how (if at all) this ‘Ultimate Thesis’ can be vindicated. Appeals to the irrevocability of death, the badness of being executed, the badness of death, or the harsh condemnation soceities express by sentencing offenders to death do not succeed in vindicating this Thesis, and in particular, fail to show that capital punishment is more severe than the most likely alternative punishment offenders would suffer, namely, lifelong incarceration. The most plausible vindication of the Ultimate Thesis instead resides in how being condemned to death alters a person’s psychological relation to death. Our ordinary tendencies toward “death denial” diminish the terror that our awareness of death can otherwise induce in us, thereby enabling us to pursue worthwhile lives despite knowing of death’s inevitability. But condemned individuals are continually compelled to confront both the reality and specific circumstances of their own deaths and so do not enjoy the protective psychic shield that death denial provides us. This ‘relational’ rationale does not obviously succeed in proving the Ultimate Thesis, but if the Thesis is true, this rationale is essential to its justification.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationOxford Handbook of Punishment Theory and Philosophy
EditorsJesper Ryberg
PublisherOxford University Press
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 1 Jun 2022

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • capital punishment
  • death
  • death denial
  • Ernest Becker
  • terror management theory
  • value of death
  • welfare


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