Is the death penalty OK?

If you murder someone, don’t you lose the right to stay alive yourself? Plus, if people know they might be executed for committing a crime aren’t they less likely to do it? But if it’s a crime to kill someone, why is the government allowed to do it? Hmm...

Do we have a right to live?

If you’re reading this, then you must be alive. And we guess you’d like to stay that way - so you’d probably be a bit miffed if someone tried to kill you. Fair enough. But do you have a right to stay alive? Or is it just something you’d like to be able to do?


A right isn't just something you want or think you should have, it's something you’re legally entitled to - something that the law says no one should be able to stop you from having.

So what rights do we have?

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

After the horrors of World War II, many countries wanted to do something to make sure that it could never happen again whereby a government could decide that some people mattered and some people didn’t. So together they drew up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document that sets out some key things that all human beings should be allowed. Things like the freedom to believe in whatever religion you want (or none at all), the right to get married and have children, the right not to be tortured and the right not to be held as a slave. All pretty good stuff really.

Not every country in the world has signed up to the declaration, but lots have. The UK even passed a Human Rights Act in 1998 which made 16 of those rights part of our national law, so it would be illegal for anyone to take those rights away from us no matter how old we are, what colour our skin is, or what gender or sexuality we have. And Section 2 of that Human Rights Act says "Every human being has the inherent right to life”. That means a natural, built-in right to be alive and to stay that way.

So how can the death penalty be legal?

If you keep reading Section 2, however, you’ll spot some interesting things. Take a look:

"Every human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life. Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice."

Aha - so we have the right to life, but with a few limitations… 

"No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life"

If something is arbitrary, it means that it's based on random choice or personal whim, rather than any reason or system. So it’s illegal for someone to kill you just because you’ve irritated them, or because it’s Tuesday, or because they don’t like the shoes you’re wearing. But what this leaves room for is the idea that if the reasons are not arbitrary - if they’re clear, fair and rational - then our right to life isn't guaranteed anymore. And when you add that together with the next sentence...

"...the right not to be deprived [of life] except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice"

This is saying a similar thing - it’s showing that our right to life is limited, we don’t have it in every circumstance. The justice systems of some countries say that when you commit a terrible crime you should lose your life to pay for what you’ve done. And the law of Human Rights says that if it’s a principle of fundamental justice, then you’ve reached the limits of your right to life - and the law stops protecting you. 

This is true with other areas of the law and Human Rights. We all have a right to freedom - but if someone’s imprisoned, their right to freedom has been taken away. They lose that right when they break the law. In a similar way, in countries that have the death penalty, the law gives everyone the right to life - but if an individual commits a certain crime deemed as punishable by the death, then they lose its protection.

Has the Human Rights Act got it right?

But the big question is - do you agree with the wording of the Universal Human Rights Declaration? Do you think there should be limits on our right to life? Are there things we can do that mean we lose our rights? Or is there a natural moral value to human life that shouldn’t have any limits - no matter the situation? That’s for you to figure out.

Around the world in executions

The death penalty: good idea or bad idea?

The death penalty, also called capital punishment, is when a government or state puts a person to death because they’ve committed a serious crime. Here are some of the most common arguments for and against this controversial practice... 


Why you might think it’s a good idea

It makes it impossible for criminals to do bad things over and over again

Executing someone permanently stops the worst criminals and means we can all feel safer, as they can’t commit any more crimes. If they were in prison they might escape, or be let out for good behaviour. Executing them means they’re definitely gone for good.

It’s cheaper than prison

It costs the government quite a lot of money to keep someone in prison for the whole of their life, so executing them can save money. It’s slightly different in every country (in America the death penalty is pretty expensive) but on the whole, it’s a cheaper option.

It’s proportional to the crime

If someone has killed another person, you might think it’s fair that they suffer the same punishment - death. After all, we shouldn’t forget the old fashioned (but still relevant) principle lex talionis, a Latin phrase which loosely translated means ‘an eye for an eye’.

It scares other people who might be thinking about committing a crime

 If you knew you would be put to death if you killed someone, you’d probably be less inclined to do it. It’s the ultimate warning and hopes to put other offenders off (we call this a deterrence).

It helps the victim’s family get closure

If someone in your family had been murdered, you might well feel that it’s only right that they die too (this is known as retribution). It might help you grieve and move on from their death if you felt the person who had killed them was gone too.

Why you might think it’s a bad idea

Sometimes people are innocent

Sometimes the courts and the judges get it wrong and condemn an innocent person to death. A recent US study showed that at least 4.1% of all people sentenced to death in the US in the modern era are innocent - that’s one person in every 25 people!

It’s cruel

Every form of execution causes the prisoner suffering - whether it’s the electric chair, or hanging, or chopping their heads off. And it causes huge mental and emotional suffering too - imagine knowing that you were going to die tomorrow morning at 8 am? Pretty horrible. And no matter what someone has done they shouldn’t be forced to suffer something so inhumane.

It’s not fair to the criminal’s family

Imagine how you’d feel if someone in your family committed murder and was sentenced to death. You’d be incredibly sad and upset and why should you be punished? You didn’t do anything wrong. At least if they were just in prison you could still visit them. But that’s a little harder if they’re dead.

It doesn’t give people a chance to change

We all make mistakes in life - sometimes little ones like forgetting homework, sometimes huge ones like murdering someone. If we put murderers to death, they never get the chance to learn from their mistakes or make a positive contribution to the world. Imagine if we put to death someone that might have worked out the cure for cancer?

It’s hypocritical

If it’s illegal to murder, why is it OK for the state to do it? Doesn’t that send the wrong message? Killing someone is either wrong or right, and our society has said it’s wrong and made it against the law - so why does the government get to break that law?

How much does it cost to execute someone?

Governments have lots of different things to think about when they're deciding whether or not to sentence a person to death - or whether to even have the death penalty in their country at all. And one of those things is money. So how much does the death penalty cost compared to other forms of punishment, like prison?

Do executions put people off murder?

This article explores the challenges of working with statistics especially when investigating something as complex as capital punishment and murder rates. Plus, it asks, what is the difference between causation and correlation? 


What would you do if your parents grounded you, but there was a really great gig that your friends were planning to go to? You know that if your parents caught you sneaking out they’d ground you for even longer - and maybe cut your pocket money as well. Would it be worth the risk? Maybe, maybe not. 

But what if you knew that the punishment for sneaking out would be to have one of your legs cut off? Well, that's a whole different ball game.

Although the chances of you getting caught might be pretty slim, the extreme punishment makes it a much bigger risk. In the end, you’d probably decide to stay at home.

All actions have consequences. And if we know in advance that the consequences could be really serious, that might well make us change our minds about doing it. But the question is - is this true when it comes to violent crime? Does knowing that the death penalty is a possible punishment stop people from committing murder?

That’s a really hard question to answer - how do you possibly test it? Not many people are willing to come forward and say “Oh sure, I was planning on killing my next door neighbour, but then I remembered about the death penalty and decided not to.”

So one of the main ways researchers try and figure out if it might be a deterrent (something that 'deters' or stops people) is by looking at the murder rates in countries that have the death penalty compared with those that don’t (since murder is the main crime that will result in a death sentence). In theory, if the threat of execution works to scare people off the idea of committing a murder, then countries that still have the death penalty should have lower murder rates than countries that don’t. 

Murder rates

Death penalty map

Well, that’s all pretty looking pretty negative for the ‘yes it works as a warning’ crowd. It doesn’t seem like there’s much evidence that having the death penalty stops people from committing murder.

Behind the numbers

But it’s not quite that simple. For starters, we don’t have any way of knowing what would have happened if those countries had chosen to do something differently with the death penalty. The countries that abolished it, and saw a drop in the murder rate, might have seen the same drop even if they’d kept the death penalty – something else may have caused the decline in murders.

Same for the countries that kept it and saw the murder rate go up - that might have happened even if they’d got rid of the death penalty. We have no way of seeing those alternative realities, so we can’t prove that those numbers mean what we think they mean. 

And we can’t forget that a whole load of different factors need to be taken into consideration when looking at murder rates. Crime can be affected by a country’s economic and political situation or its levels of unemployment.

It’s complicated and means we can’t simply settle our question of whether the death penalty is an effective murder deterrent just by looking at how the murder rates are correlated with the introduction of the death penalty.

Two things happening at the same time (correlation) doesn’t mean that one caused the other (causation). Here are some other (crazier) correlations which remind us that correlation and causation are not the same things:


Spurious correlations 1


Spurious correlations 2

So where does that leave us?

a) Does the death penalty work?

Many of the arguments in favour of the death penalty and its ability to deter criminals come from the US - yet a recent study at the University of Colorado found that 88% of the nation’s leading criminologists don’t believe the death penalty is an effective deterrent to crime. And they were asked to base their answers on existing research, regardless of their personal views on capital punishment. 

At the end of the day, there’s no ignoring the fact that there just isn’t much evidence that the death penalty acts a deterrent to would-be criminals. 

b) Does it matter whether the death penalty works?

But even we could actually prove that death penalty deters people effectively from committing violent crimes, it might still be morally wrong. There are many situations in life where we have the choice between getting something done as quickly and efficiently as possible, and doing something the “right” way – meaning a fair way, a way that respects everyone involved.

Consider this example: you’re playing a game with your friends, and you’ve played it so many times that you know all the ways in which you could cheat, and win. But if you do that, the game will be over in a minute, and you won’t be able to enjoy spending some quality time with your friends – not to mention that you’ll have lied to them! In that situation, you would probably decide to be honest, because it’s the right thing to do, but also because it benefits you in the long run.

So, fast results and efficiency aren’t the only things (or even the main things) that matter – especially when it comes to decisions involving human lives. 

Over to you think the death penalty works – and do you think that the question of whether it works is the main question we should be asking? Well, that’s for you to decide. 

Nike's slogan "Just do it" was actually inspired by the last words of a man about to be executed!

Nike's slogan "Just do it" was actually inspired by the last words of a man about to be executed!

Women and the death penalty: 4 things you didn’t know

  1. The law prefers men
    1. Of the 58 countries in the world that have the death penalty, only 37 currently have any women on their ‘death row’ awaiting execution - but all of them have men. One important factor to consider is that much fewer women commit violent crimes. A global study from 2013 by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime found that men committed about 96 percent of all homicides worldwide. That said, it’s possible that some countries are willing to give lighter sentences to women for some types of crimes, although this is not the norm: usually, the same crime is punished in the same way, regardless of the criminal’s gender. Some exceptions to this are Belarus, Guatemala, Russia and Tajikistan, all of which have actually made it illegal to sentence a woman to death. Although even when women are given the death penalty, it seems they’re more likely to be let off. Statistics from the UK show that in the 20th century 145 women were sentenced to death, but only 14 of those sentences were actually carried out - that means just over 90% of women were excused instead of executed. The rate of pardons for men is much lower. Of course, there might be other reasons for why judges have been more lenient with women in the past – reasons that have nothing to do with the severity of the crime. For example, countries may be more lenient with female criminals when they have young children. 
  2. Age matters
    1. Not in every country, but in a fair few. For example Iran - their laws allow the death penalty for boys from age 15 and for girls from age 9. More generally, there are a few countries that uphold some or all parts of Sharia Law (the religious law forming part of the Islamic tradition) e.g. Sudan, Afghanistan, Qatar, Egypt, and Libya. Under a strict interpretation of Sharia Law, a boy can’t be sentenced to death until he’s 14 years and 5 months old (it’s very specific), but a girl can be executed as soon as she turns 8 years and 8 months old. But remember, different countries use these laws differently: even if something is allowed by law, that doesn’t mean it’s always actually practised in all of these countries. Also, different countries sign different international conventions and treaties, some of which may be in tension with a strict use of Sharia Law.
  3. Being pregnant saves your bacon
    1. With the exception of one country (the two-island Caribbean nation Saint Kitts and Nevis) it’s actually illegal to execute a pregnant woman, as that would involve killing an innocent human being - the baby. Some countries just delay the execution until after the woman’s given birth, but most of them end up excusing the sentence altogether and just imprisoning them. So you can see why, in some cases, women have actually tried to get pregnant by bribing guards to sleep with them so that they could avoid the death penalty.
  4. Having an affair can be a life or death matter
    1. The law in Iran says that if a woman gets caught having sex or gets pregnant outside marriage, she can be sentenced to death. And in countries governed by Sharia law, like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Somalia, having sex outside of marriage is officially illegal for everyone - both men and women - but in reality, men are rarely punished as severely as women. Like the case in Saudi Arabia in 2015, where a woman caught sleeping with a man she wasn’t married to was sentenced to death, while the man she was caught with was only given a beating.

Crime-stopping medicine: swapping the death penalty for drugs

What if, instead of killing criminals, we could simply make them better people – just by popping a pill? Philosopher, Dr David Birks (University of Oxford) discusses the future of punishment and the possibility of a crime-stopping drug.