Retribution or Rehabilitation: Death Penalty as Final Justice

Exploring moral and historical trajectories of the irreversible atonement

There was a time in history when people were hunted down and burnt to death for being witches, without any evidence. 

Although the lack of evidence in that instance was a secondary issue; persecuting people for being something apart from the accepted ordinary is arguably wrong. If, however, someone is considered “evil” and there exists enough proof of that, then the State can protect society by passing an adequate sentence. Yet, this was not how the people of states like Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, and Odisha felt. They believed that only capital punishment would serve justice. Between the years 2000 and 2016, there were several people, particularly women, who were hunted for supposedly indulging in witchcraft. The above-mentioned states were also forced to pass witch-hunting legislations to ensure that no deaths were justified under the label of witchcraft.

There are two problems in this debate. One is the prevalent phenomenon of witch-hunting and the other is the questionable relationship between justice and capital punishment. I would like to shed some light on what philosophies of justice think about capital punishment. The two lines of thought I highlight are those by Plato and Nozick.  

Plato’s Justice and The City’s Purpose

The understanding of politics and its history of origin is crucial to the origin of justice. The first popular understanding of justice comes from the Greeks, who often argued about it when mentioning the polis or city-state. What was politics good for? Who could be a part of the politics of the polis? And what would make them eligible to participate? These arguments were tools for ideological and material control while also providing a framework of both the logical and architectonic kind. 

These conflicts and arguments were then addressed using the idea of justice. It was conceived by lawgivers, philosophers, and poets as an idea that gives structure to civic bonds that are beneficial to all and does not exploit some for others’ benefit. The earliest form of justice was defined as a basis for equal citizenship, required to be accepted by the higher beings or gods. It provided a vision of an ideal polis where, with justice as a foundation, political life would enable people to flourish and achieve the all-encompassing human end of happiness, through the competitive forums of the city. 

Plato wrote about justice in his book Republic, where he mentioned the analogy presented by Socrates called ‘the City and Soul Analogy’. In the analogy, Socrates proposed a hypothetical polis, the physical incarnation of a human’s needs and desires. A polis exists because humans seek numerous things but are not self-sufficient, therefore each citizen has a duty to play his specific part. Socrates began by populating his city with four citizens, who practiced distinct crafts. 

Following the four craftsmen, Socrates added multiple classes of people into his polis and provided them with responsibilities like administration, production, and craft. To preserve the goodness or justice in the polis he then introduced censorship to be enforced on material related to gods. He argued that if people were not made aware of the consequences of their actions, then they would not know which actions were considered bad. The citizens would work for the welfare of the polis, which would make them live a fulfilled and virtuous life. It can be inferred that Plato and Socrates focus primarily on how justice is dependent on the overall justice of the polis

The analogy aimed to create an ideal world, a utopia to show justice as a concept that can be applied anywhere. Simply put, according to this theory, justice is understood in terms of how the actions of a person affect the working of the polis or society. If it dampens the productivity of any person or possesses an evil to society, it is injustice and the severity of this evil will lead to an accordant punishment.  

India As Plato’s City

The Nirbhaya Case of 2012 was one of the most devastating and shocking incidents that happened in India. Not only did it instil fear in society but it also exposed the flaws in our justice system. The dispute was heightened further when during the legal court proceedings of the case, one of the accused, who was 17 years old was not charged the same as the other accused. He was tried by the juvenile justice board instead. The minor was sentenced to a reformation home and served 3 years of time, while the adults accused were given the death penalty.  The disparity in the conviction caused an uproar. People argued that the minor should be treated and punished in the same manner as the others due to the heinous nature of the crime. As a result, the legislation introduced the Juvenile Justice Act 2015 which included provisions for the protection of convicted children. The reason behind this provision and the overall Act stems from the idea that a child does not have the capacity to form criminal intentions, and their place in society should be decided after proper help is provided. 

The treatment of the convicts in the case is a great example of how Plato’s philosophy is applied.  The “city” acknowledges that there was a crime and thus to return to the normalcy of the polis, the souls are to be reprimanded. If the Souls hinder the overall growth, then they are removed from society. 

In this case, the jury was considering death sentences for all the convicts but one. The 17-year-old was sentenced to serve 3 years in the juvenile prison. Between him and all other convicts, the only differentiating aspect was that of age.  The only argument saving him from a death sentence or life imprisonment was how he had a lot more time to contribute to society. Removing him from the polis would affect its working and thus go against Plato’s analogy for justice. This case puts forward the question: Can a society’s well-being be put at risk in the hope of a convict bettering themselves and contributing to the country’s growth?  

While reformation is certainly something I support, the entire ideology of every person’s worth and in this case, life, depending on how much they can contribute to society seems too nationalistic for my taste. Making the lives of all persons centred around what they can contribute to the state and ensuring that reformation is complete only if the person adds value to the nation is nationalistic. It doesn’t consider a person’s life as their own. It makes people think that their lives are the nations, and their personality and purpose are equal to the identity of the state. In Plato’s understanding of justice, the state is the centre and all the citizens are the tools. Even if the citizen is in the right, they are at the mercy of how the state recognizes their role. 

Justice as Nozick’s Property

In Nozick’s philosophy, he refers to any element of the world as “property.” It can be understood as land, business, intellectual property, someone’s life and anything else that the mind can conjure up. Nozick’s theory of justice had three principles:  

  1. Principle of Justice in Acquisition – about how one  first came upon the property, and what things can be held 
  2. Principle of Justice in Transfer – about how one can acquire property from another  
  3. Principle of Rectification of Injustice – about property that is unjustly acquired or transferred, and compensation to the victim.  

Nozick theorises that if an individual has holdings through the first two principles, then they are entitled to it and these holdings are considered fair. Justice is violated if a person acquires the holding by fraudulent methods like robbery, enslavement, or any manner that does not let the other parties live as they would want to. Nozick’s theory is so much more transactional than that of Plato. It views the concept of justice as reaping what one sows. Property here does not necessarily mean an object. Property is anything that has a utility of sorts. From humans to inanimate objects, anything that has a value. To make the argument simple, let us take it as goods, services and life. Nozick propounds that the severity of the injustice towards a property in terms of transferring and acquisition should be equal to the rectification. Justice is what will make the state of the property go back to its original state before the action took place. A disconnected approach, that seems a lot simpler. It removes the third party and keeps it limited to the action.  

Nozick’s theory lines with what the justice system aspires to be. Only the most heinous actions that alter the entire fabric of the “property” can be rectified with capital punishment. Nozick’s theory does not give much room to the complete removal of any person. Even life imprisonment would be a tough call to make. It would certainly not support the 144 capital punishments that were awarded in India in 2021.  

Considering how difficult it is to award capital punishment in terms of Nozick’s theory, it’s no surprise that even the Nirbhaya case could not warrant a death sentence. Nozick’s theory would subject the convicts to life imprisonment or complete banishment from society. Based on his theory, there would also be no differentiation between the 17-year-old boy and the adult convicts.

One of the key reasons for such a sentence is that “capital punishment” in this instance cannot reverse the chain of events. The Nirbhaya case was more than the death of a woman. It shook the society to its core and affected every citizen deeply. However, according to Nozick, it is not about the effect an event has on people but how an event directly affects everyone. While I do believe that the barbaric nature of the crime affected every citizen, in terms of justice, however, the crime can be seen to affect only Nirbhaya. 

Nozick’s theory would only award capital punishment in cases where the fabric of society was destroyed and the majority of citizens were affected. While a serious punishment would be given as the crime is of a grave nature, there is enough ground to assume that it would not be capital punishment. 

Even though both theories aim to provide justice in society and even establish ways for it to be achieved, the two could not be more different. Diminishing a person’s value to what they can do for society seems unfeeling and detached. It seems like an unfair burden on the youth to always seem worthy, supplemented with a constant worry about not living up to societal expectations. If the ‘City and Soul’ analogy was used to understand capital punishment then as soon as one is not serving their purpose and/or disrupting the work of others, they would be removed from the City. People are simply tools to further the growth of the city. For this reason, Nozick’s idea seems to have the most structured layout for right and wrong. It seems frivolous to think that capital punishment should be given for any wrong, therefore Nozick has provided a clear outline to understand the intensity of a person’s actions. There is a stance he takes on how a person acquires anything in life. If done fraudulently, how it affects the society and persons involved, plays a part in determining the graveness of the injustice caused by them. 

Overall justice has the quality of moulding. One can see that the two theories are very different but we must find a point of reconciliation between the two. The question that neither of the theories truly answers is that of the worth of the person’s actions. Justice was always so tied to the overall benefit of society that the only manner in which we explored it was through society’s eyes. It seems as though the welfare of the person was not of significant importance. Our justice system seems to be headed down the same road. We are all only what we can give back to society. While that is an important aspect, I believe our justice should fulfil the promises they have made to us as individuals. Justice is for everyone and it caters to the betterment of society. It is reductive to make it all about the society; that is the philosophers’ domain.