Thousands cheered in solidarity with Jyoti Singh’s parents on 5 May, when the Supreme Court upheld the death penalty awarded to the four convicts who brutally gangraped the 23-year-old student in December 2012.
Nirbhaya’s parents had sought justice for their daughter in the form of death penalty for the convicts. Their demands were echoed by many who opined that the convicts deserved death by hanging. However, there were some who argued in favour of the convicts being granted life imprisonment instead.
French-Algerian philosopher Albert Camus and German utilitarian philosopher Immanuel Kant were on the opposite sides of the debate on death penalty.
In his celebrated essay, Reflections on the Guillotine, published in 1957, Albert Camus offered a reasoned criticism of capital punishment and why it ought to be abolished. On the other hand, 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant would have lauded the Nirbhaya verdict as being in line with his defence of, and rationale for, the death penalty.
Let us examine a few of the arguments surrounding the Nirbhaya verdict through the eyes of Kant and Camus.
Death Penalty: Repulsive Crime or Well-Deserved Punishment?
“Does a murder for a murder make for a more peaceful society?” Camus asks in his essay. Recalling a gory decapitation incident, he wrote:
If death penalties were events to be celebrated as great deliverances of justice, then why were they done in secret instead of full public view, Camus questioned.
How can a furtive assassination committed at night in a prison courtyard be exemplary?
On the other hand, Kant was of the view that the guilty must be punished, in proportion to the gravity of the crime.
Does the State Have the Right to Take a Life?
“There is no one who is just – only people whose hearts more or less lack in justice,” Camus wrote.
Living at least allows us to discover this and to add to the sum of our actions a little of the good that will make up in part for the evil we have added to the world. Such a right to live, which allows a chance to make amends, is the natural right of every man, even the worst man.
Kant saw the state as the authority that had the power to dole out justice, even with a sword, for the sake of an innocent victim.
The criminal in murdering the innocent victim has made himself vulnerable to the state’s authority to use the sword in behalf of justice and self-defence.
He opined that nobody’s right to life is absolute. If it were, he argued, one would not be able to kill another, in order to protect themselves, or their loved ones from danger.
By violating the right of another to life, I thereby foreign my right to life.
An Eye For An Eye?
Camus believed in the Gandhian philosophy: “an eye for an eye would render the world blind”.
We all know that the great argument of those who defend capital punishment is the exemplary value of the punishment. Heads are cut off not only to punish but to intimidate, by a frightening example, anyone who might be tempted to imitate the guilty.
Kant’s view on death penalty was that anything less than that for a murder would “indicate that we regarded murder a less serious offense”.
Killing may be an evil, but, if so, it is a lesser evil when carried out as an act of retributivist justice.
Can Death Penalty Deter Crime?
“Heads are cut off not only to punish but to intimidate, by a frightening example, anyone who might be tempted to imitate the guilty. Society is not taking revenge; it merely wants to forestall,” Camus wrote.
There is no proof that the death penalty ever made a single murderer recoil when he had made up his mind, whereas clearly it had no effect but one of fascination on thousands of criminals.
Kant, a retributionist, saw death penalty as a message that ensured justice for the victim by torturing the perpetrator in kind.
The Question of Dignity
Camus was of the belief that capital punishment worked in intimidating only respectable people and “debases or deranges those who take part in it”.
It is a penalty, to be sure, a frightful torture, both physical and moral, but it provides no sure example except a demoralising one.
While Kant believed that each person has the equal right to life, he believed that if a person took the life of a victim, it would be a grave offence, and akin to taking their own life from a moral stand point.