Ultimate Penalties
ULTIMATE PENALTIES: Capital Punishment,
Life Imprisonment, Physical Torture
The Ohio State University Press, 1987
ISBN 0-8142-0436-8 (cloth); 0-8142-0531-3 (paper)
Is capital punishment a legitimate penalty under any circumstances? Proponents have argued that the death penalty has a deterrent effect on criminals and that society has the right to exact “an eye for an eye” from murderers and terrorists. Abolitionists have noted the irreversibility of a mistaken execution and have argued that the death penalty is by its very nature “cruel and unusual” punishment.
But to understand capital punishment, we must turn to much broader issues, argues Leon Sheleff. We must ask ourselves how a society may respond to its most brutal murderers, to terrorists who kill for political aims, to individuals who implement policies of genocide. In extreme circumstances, can “ultimate penalties” be used?
Alternatives to torture
Sheleff sees three such ultimate penalties: capital punishment, life imprisonment and torture. World opinion has long agreed that torture is to be avoided by any civilized society (though its use continues in far too many places). But are capital punishment and life imprisonment themselves forms of torture, depriving their victims of all hope for freedom? Furthermore, is the latter really a “humane” alternative to the former, as death penalty opponents would have us believe?
Sheleff argues that to make such a determination, we must consider our own attitudes toward death, toward suicide, toward euthanasia, toward all forms of violence. We must reconsider what rights even prisoners should retain, including the right to decide for themselves whether they prefer death to life in prison. And we must consider how all these broader issues can be translated into effective procedures that will ensure the fair implementation of whatever we decide.
By placing the death penalty controversy in this broader light, Leon Sheleff makes us all come to grips with some of the most important moral, political and legal questions that all societies—and their citizens—must face.