Death Penalty Abolition, the Right to Life, and Necessity

Human Rights Review 24 (1):77-95 (2023)
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One prominent argument in international law and religious thought for abolishing capital punishment is that it violates individuals’ right to life. Notably, this _right-to-life argument_ emerged from normative and legal frameworks that recognize deadly force against aggressors as justified when necessary to stop their unjust threat of grave harm. Can capital punishment be necessary in this sense—and thus justified defensive killing? If so, the right-to-life argument would have to admit certain exceptions where executions are justified. Drawing on work by Hugo Bedau, I identify a thought experiment where executions are justified defensive killing but explain why they cannot be in our world. A state’s obligations to its prisoners include the _obligation to use nonlethal incapacitation_ (ONI), which applies as long as prisoners pose no imminent threat. ONI precludes executions for reasons of future dangerousness. By subjecting the right-to-life argument to closer scrutiny, this article ultimately places it on firmer ground.

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Ben Jones
Pennsylvania State University


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