Is there a rational resolution to the capital punishment debate? Arguments on both sides create a hierarchy of various goals and principals in an effort to offer resolution.
The principle of “common human dignity” appears to play a central role in determining the appropriateness of the death penalty as punishment. But because “common human dignity” cannot be precisely defined, other considerations - such as whether capital punishment is acceptable to society, whether the death penalty is administered in an even-handed way, and whether the purported goals can be met - are used as gauges.
In Furman v. Georgia (1972), for example, the Supreme Court used the “common human dignity” principle as the basis for a test of a Georgia statute regarding capital punishment. In this case, the Supreme Court not only determined that the statute unfairly administered the death penalty, it also deemed capital punishment impermissible.
The Supreme Court roughly measured “common human dignity” in terms of the pain that a punishment would exact, and a vague maxim that “humans not be treated as non-humans,” adding three additional principles to ascertain whether capital punishment passed the “human dignity” test. In the Furman case, capital punishment failed all tests.
First, the Furman court indicated that the Georgia statute violated a principle that even-handedness is a necessary component for punishment. The Supreme Court demonstrated that capital punishment was inflicted primarily on racial minorities, and therefore was selective and irregular. The small number of criminals that were sentenced to death, approximately 50 per year, indicated that the punishment was not regularly or fairly applied, especially because the “caliber” of those particular murders were no worse than cases not resulting in the death penalty. Judged by the irregular and “unusual” administration, the statute did not “comport with the dignity of man,” and was invalidated.
Second, as to whether capital punishment itself could be considered “cruel and unusual,” the Supreme Court assessed the acceptance level of society, and also examined whether a less severe alternative to the death penalty could accomplish the same goals as those purportedly achieved by the death penalty. The Supreme Court reasoned that if society did not accept capital punishment, then capital punishment did not pass the dignity standard. This supplies a “sliding scale” standard as regards dignity, as dignity could encompass more or less barbarous acts depending on the century.
There was also a scale as to what could be used to gauge what constituted societal acceptance. According to the Supreme Court in Furman, legislative authorization did not reflect societal acceptance of capital punishment. In the court’s reasoning, legislatures had to be closely scrutinized to avoid terrible excesses that had occurred in England and early American history. So even though there was a statute on...