76 Pro Death Penalty Quotes by Philosophers

All grandeur, all power, and all subordination to authority rests on the executioner: he is the horror and the bond of human association. Remove this incomprehensible agent from the world and at that very moment order gives way to chaos, thrones topple and society disappears.” [The Works of Joseph de Maistre, ed. Jack Lively (1965). The Count, in Les Soirées de Saint-Pétersbourg, "First Dialogue," (1821).]

All pain is a punishment, and every punishment is inflicted for love as much as for justice.

Joseph-Marie, comte de Maistre (1 April 1753 – 26 February 1821) was a French-speaking Savoyard lawyer, diplomat, writer, and philosopher. He was one of the most influential spokesmen for hierarchical authoritarianism in the period immediately following the French Revolution of 1789.
In J.J. Rousseau's The Social Contract written in 1762, he says the following: “Again, every rogue who criminously attacks social rights becomes, by his wrong, a rebel and a traitor to his fatherland. By contravening its laws, he ceases to be one of its citizens: he even wages war against it. In such circumstances, the State and he cannot both be saved: one or the other must perish. In killing the criminal, we destroy not so much a citizen as an enemy. The trial and judgements are proofs that he has broken the Social Contract, and so is no longer a member of the State.”
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Geneva, 28 June 1712 – Ermenonville, 2 July 1778) was a major Genevois philosopher, writer, and composer of the 18th-century Enlightenment. His political philosophy influenced the French Revolution and the development of modern political and educational thought.
“If an offender has committed murder, he must die. In this case, no possible substitute can satisfy justice. For there is no parallel between death and even the most miserable life, so that there is no equality of crime and retribution unless the perpetrator is judicially put to death.”

Even if a civil society were to be dissolved by the consent of all its members (e.g., if a people inhabiting an island decided to separate and disperse throughout the world), the last murderer remaining in prison would first have to be executed, so that each has done to him what his deeds deserve and blood guilt does not cling to the people for not having insisted upon this punishment; for otherwise the people can be regarded as collaborators in his public violation of justice. (Kt6:333)

A society that is not willing to demand a life of somebody who has taken somebody else's life is simply immoral.

“Even in a civilized society, the state has the right to punish the individual.”

“If the punishment of an innocent person is a mistake of justice administration, failure to punish a criminal indicates that the absence of justice, which is a worse mistake.”

Immanuel Kant (22 April 1724 – 12 February 1804) was an 18th-century German philosopher from the Prussian city of Königsberg. Kant was the last influential philosopher of modern Europe in the classic sequence of the theory of knowledge during the Enlightenment beginning with thinkers John Locke, George Berkeley, and David Hume. He was a German philosopher from Königsberg (today Kaliningrad of Russia), researching, lecturing and writing on philosophy and anthropology at the end of the 18th Century Enlightenment. At the time, there were major successes and advances in the sciences (for example, Isaac Newton, Carl Friedrich Gauss, and Robert Boyle) using reason and logic. But this stood in sharp contrast to the skepticism and lack of agreement or progress in empiricist philosophy. Kant’s magnum opus, the Critique of Pure Reason, aimed to unite reason with experience to move beyond what he took to be failures of traditional philosophy and metaphysics. He hoped to end an age of speculation where objects outside experience were used to support what he saw as futile theories, while opposing the skepticism and idealism of thinkers such as Descartes, Berkeley and Hume. He said that ‘it always remains a scandal of philosophy and universal human reason that the existence of things outside us ... should have to be assumed merely on faith, and that if it occurs to anyone to doubt it, we should be unable to answer him with a satisfactory proof’. Kant proposed a ‘Copernican Revolution’, saying that 'Up to now it has been assumed that all our cognition must conform to the objects; but ...let us once try whether we do not get farther with the problems of metaphysics by assuming that the objects must conform to our cognition'. Kant published other important works on religion, law, aesthetics, astronomy and history. These included the Critique of Practical Reason (Kritik der praktischen Vernunft, 1788), which deals with ethics, and the Critique of Judgment (Kritik der Urteilskraft, 1790), which looks at aesthetics and teleology. He aimed to resolve disputes between empirical and rationalist approaches. The former asserted that all knowledge comes through experience; the latter maintained that reason and innate ideas were prior. Kant argued that experience is purely subjective without first being processed by pure reason. He also said that using reason without applying it to experience will only lead to theoretical illusions. The free and proper exercise of reason by the individual was both a theme of the Enlightenment, and of Kant's approaches to the various problems of philosophy. His ideas influenced many thinkers in Germany during his lifetime. He settled, and moved philosophy beyond, the debate between the rationalists and empiricists. The philosophers Fichte, Schelling, Hegel and Schopenhauer amended and developed the Kantian system, thus bringing about various forms of German idealism. He is seen as a major figure in the history and development of philosophy. German and European thinking progressed after his time, and his influence still inspires philosophical work today.

“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle. [Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents (1770)]


Bad laws are the worst sort of tyranny. [Speech at Bristol Previous to the Election (1780)]


It is the function of a judge not to make but to declare the law, according to the golden mete-wand of the law and not by the crooked cord of discretion. [Preface to Brissot's Address (1794)]

One that confounds good and evil is an enemy to the good. [15 February 1788 - On the Impeachment of Warren Hastings (1788-1794) Articles of Charge of High Crimes and Misdemeanors, against Warren Hastings]

Justice is itself the great standing policy of civil society; and any eminent departure from it, under any circumstances, lies under the suspicion of being no policy at all. [Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790)]

Whatever is supreme in a state, ought to have, as much as possible, its judicial authority so constituted as not only not to depend upon it, but in some sort to balance it. It ought to give a security to its justice against its power. It ought to make its judicature, as it were, something exterior to the state. [Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790)]

When the leaders choose to make themselves bidders at an auction of popularity, their talents, in the construction of the state, will be of no service. They will become flatterers instead of legislators; the instruments, not the guides, of the people. [Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790)]

Nothing turns out to be so oppressive and unjust as a feeble government.

Edmund Burke (12 January 1729 – 9 July 1797) was an Anglo-Irish statesman, author, orator, political theorist, and philosopher who, after relocating to England, served for many years in the House of Commons of Great Britain as a member of the Whig party.

Let the punishment match the offense. (De Legibus)

Cicero A.K.A Marcus Tullius Cicero (3 January 106 BC – 7 December 43 BC; sometimes anglicized as Tully) was a Roman philosopher, statesman, lawyer, orator, political theorist, consul and constitutionalist. He came from a wealthy municipal family of the equestrian order, and is widely considered one of Rome's greatest orators and prose stylists.

“…the criminal has committed a heinous act of violence with malice aforethought. I would argue that the electric chair, far from being unconscionable, is completely justified.”

"Public executions of the convicted murderer would serve as a reminder that crime does not pay. Public executions of criminals seem an efficient way to communicate the message that if you shed innocent blood, you will pay a high price... I agree... on the matter of accountability but also believe such publicity would serve to deter homicide." ["Why the Death Penalty Is Morally Permissible," from the 2004 book edited by Adam Bedau and titled Debating the Death Penalty: Should America Have Capital Punishment?]

"People often confuse retribution with revenge... Vengeance signifies inflicting harm on the offender out of anger because of what he has done. Retribution is the rationally supported theory that the criminal deserves a punishment fitting the gravity of his crime...

Retributivism is not based on hatred for the criminal (though a feeling of vengeance may accompany the punishment). Retributivism is the theory that the criminal deserves to be punished and deserves to be punished in proportion to the gravity of his or her crime, whether or not the victim or anyone else desires it. We may all deeply regret having to carry out the punishment, but consider it warranted.

When a society fails to punish criminals in a way thought to be proportionate to the gravity of the crime, the danger arises that the public would take the law into its own hands, resulting in vigilante justice, lynch mobs, and private acts of retribution. The outcome is likely to be an anarchistic, insecure state of injustice." ["Why the Death Penalty Is Morally Permissible," from the 2004 book edited by Adam Bedau and titled Debating the Death Penalty: Should America Have Capital Punishment?]

Author and Professor of Philosophy, U.S. Military Academy. Excerpt from "The Death Penalty: For and Against," (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1998) - “[Opponents of the capital punishment often put forth the following argument:] Perhaps the murderer deserves to die, but what authority does the state have to execute him or her? Both the Old and New Testament says, “‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Prov. 25:21 and Romans 12:19). You need special authority to justify taking the life of a human being.


The objector fails to note that the New Testament passage continues with a support of the right of the state to execute criminals in the name of God: ‘Let every person be subjected to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.... If you do wrong, be afraid, for [the authority] does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer’ (Romans 13: 1-4). So, according to the Bible, the authority to punish, which presumably includes the death penalty, comes from God.


But we need not appeal to a religious justification for capital punishment. We can site the state's role in dispensing justice. Just as the state has the authority (and duty) to act justly in allocating scarce resources, in meeting minimal needs of its (deserving) citizens, in defending its citizens from violence and crime, and in not waging unjust wars; so too does it have the authority, flowing from its mission to promote justice and the good of its people, to punish the criminal. If the criminal, as one who has forfeited a right to life, deserves to be executed, especially if it will likely deter would-be murderers, the state has a duty to execute those convicted of first-degree murder.”

Sometimes the objection is framed this way: It is better to let ten criminals go free than to execute one innocent person. If this dictum is a call for safeguards, then it is well taken; but somewhere there seems to be a limit on the tolerance of society toward capital offenses. Would these abolitionist argue that it is better that 50 or 100 or 1,000 murders go free than one innocent person be executed? Society has a right to protect itself from capital offenses even if this means taking a finite chance of executing an innocent person. If the basic activity of process is justified, then it is regrettable, but morally acceptable, that some mistakes are made. Fire trucks occasionally kill innocent pedestrians while racing to fires, but we accept the losses as justified by the greater good of the activity of using fire trucks. We judge the use of automobiles to be acceptable though such use cause an average of 50,000 traffic fatalities each year. We accept the morality of a defensive war even though it will result in our troops accidentally or mistakenly killing innocent people. ["Why the Death Penalty Is Morally Permissible," from the 2004 book edited by Adam Bedau and titled Debating the Death Penalty: Should America Have Capital Punishment?]

Louis Paul Pojman (April 22, 1935-October 15, 2005) was an American philosopher and professor who received a D. Phil from Oxford University and a PhD from Union Seminary. His name is most recognized as the author of clearly written philosophy texts and anthologies used at nearly half the colleges and universities in the US. Dr. Pojman was known for work in applied ethics and philosophy of religion.

Mercy to the guilty is cruelty to the innocent.

Adam Smith (baptized 16 June 1723 – died 17 July 1790 [OS: 5 June 1723 – 17 July 1790]) was a Scottish moral philosopher and a pioneer of political economics. One of the key figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, Smith is the author of The Theory of Moral Sentiments and An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. The latter, usually abbreviated as The Wealth of Nations, is considered his magnum opus and the first modern work of economics. It earned him an enormous reputation and would become one of the most influential works on economics ever published. Smith is widely cited as the father of modern economics and capitalism. Smith studied social philosophy at the University of Glasgow and the University of Oxford. After graduating, he delivered a successful series of public lectures at Edinburgh, leading him to collaborate with David Hume during the Scottish Enlightenment. Smith obtained a professorship at Glasgow teaching moral philosophy, and during this time he wrote and published The Theory of Moral Sentiments. In his later life, he took a tutoring position that allowed him to travel throughout Europe, where he met other intellectual leaders of his day. Smith returned home and spent the next ten years writing The Wealth of Nations, publishing it in 1776. He died in 1790.

“The end of Law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge Freedom.”

Second Treatise of Government, page 234, Of Civil Government

“Wherever Law ends, Tyranny begins.”

Second Treatise of Government, Sec. 202

“To understand political power aright, and derive from it its original, we must consider what estate all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of Nature, without asking leave or depending upon the will of any other man.”

Second Treatise of Government, Ch. II, sec. 4


“A criminal who, having renounced reason ... hath, by the unjust violence and slaughter he hath committed upon one, declared war against all mankind, and therefore may be destroyed as a lion or tyger, one of those wild savage beasts with whom men can have no society nor security.” And upon this is grounded the great law of Nature, "Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed."

Second Treatise of Civil Government

“And because it may be too great a temptation to human frailty, apt to grasp at power, for the same persons, who have the power of making laws, to have also in their hands the power to execute them, whereby they may exempt themselves from obedience to the laws they make, and suit the law, both in its making, and execution, to their own private advantage.”

Second Treatise of Civil Government, Ch. XII, sec. 143

From these two distinct rights, the one of punishing the crime for restraint, and preventing the like offence, which right of punishing is in every body; the other of taking reparation, which belongs only to the injured party, comes it to pass that the magistrate, who by being magistrate hath the common right of punishing put into his hands, can often, where the public good demands not the execution of the law, remit the punishment of criminal offences by his own authority, but yet cannot remit the satisfaction due to any private man for the damage he has received. That, he who has suffered the damage has a right to demand in his own name, and he alone can remit: the damnified person has this power of appropriating to himself the goods or service of the offender, by right of self-preservation, as every man has a power to punish the crime, to prevent its being committed again, by the right he has of preserving all mankind, and doing all reasonable things he can in order to that end: and thus it is, that every man, in the state of nature, has a power to kill a murderer, both to deter others from doing the like injury, which no reparation can compensate, by the example of the punishment that attends it from every body, and also to secure men from the attempts of a criminal, who having renounced reason, the common rule and measure God hath given to mankind, hath, by the unjust violence and slaughter he hath committed upon one, declared war against all mankind, and therefore may be destroyed as a lion or a tyger, one of those wild savage beasts, with whom men can have no society nor security: and upon this is grounded that great law of nature, Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed. And Cain was so fully convinced, that everyone had a right to destroy such a criminal, that after the murder of his brother, he cries out, Every one that findeth me, shall slay me; so plain was it writ in the hearts of all mankind. Second Treatise of Government, Ch. II, sec. 11

By the same reason may a man in the state of nature punish the lesser breaches of that law. It will perhaps be demanded, with death? I answer, each transgression may be punished to that degree, and with so much severity, as will suffice to make it an ill bargain to the offender, give him cause to repent, and terrify others from doing the like. Every offence, that can be committed in the state of nature, may in the state of nature be also punished equally, and as far forth as it may, in a commonwealth: for though it would be besides my present purpose, to enter here into the particulars of the law of nature, or its measures of punishment; yet, it is certain there is such a law, and that too, as intelligible and plain to a rational creature, and a studier of that law, as the positive laws of commonwealths; nay, possibly plainer; as much as reason is easier to be understood, than the fancies and intricate contrivances of men, following contrary and hidden interests put into words; for so truly are a great part of the municipal laws of countries, which are only so far right, as they are founded on the law of nature, by which they are to be regulated and interpreted. Second Treatise of Government, Ch. II, sec. 12

John Locke (29 August 1632 – 28 October 1704), widely known as the Father of Liberalism, was an English philosopher and physician regarded as one of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers. Considered one of the first of the British empiricists, following the tradition of Francis Bacon, he is equally important to social contract theory. His work had a great impact upon the development of epistemology and political philosophy. His writings influenced Voltaire and Rousseau, many Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, as well as the American revolutionaries. His contributions to classical republicanism and liberal theory are reflected in the American Declaration of Independence. Locke's theory of mind is often cited as the origin of modern conceptions of identity and the self, figuring prominently in the work of later philosophers such as Hume, Rousseau and Kant. Locke was the first to define the self through a continuity of consciousness. He postulated that the mind was a blank slate or tabula rasa. Contrary to pre-existing Cartesian philosophy, he maintained that we are born without innate ideas, and that knowledge is instead determined only by experience derived from sense perception.

When there has been brought home to any one, by conclusive evidence, the greatest crime known to the law; and when the attendant circumstances suggest no palliation of the guilt, no hope that the culprit may even yet not be unworthy to live among mankind, nothing to make it probable that the crime was an exception to his general character rather than a consequence of it, then I confess it appears to me that to deprive the criminal of the life of which he has proved himself to be unworthy—solemnly to blot him out from the fellowship of mankind and from the catalogue of the living—is the most appropriate as it is certainly the most impressive, mode in which society can attach to so great a crime the penal consequences which for the security of life it is indispensable to annex to it. I defend this penalty, when confined to atrocious cases, on the very ground on which it is commonly attacked—on that of humanity to the criminal; as beyond comparison the least cruel mode in which it is possible adequately to deter from the crime. [Speech In Favor of Capital Punishment 21 April 1868]

There is not, I should think, any human infliction which makes an impression on the imagination so entirely out of proportion to its real severity as the punishment of death. The punishment must be mild indeed which does not add more to the sum of human misery than is necessarily or directly added by the execution of a criminal. [Speech In Favor of Capital Punishment 21 April 1868]

I can afford to admit all that is often said about the indifference of professional criminals to the gallows. Though of that indifference one-third is probably bravado and another third confidence that they shall have the luck to escape, it is quite probable that the remaining third is real. But the efficacy of a punishment which acts principally through the imagination, is chiefly to be measured by the impression it makes on those who are still innocent; by the horror with which it surrounds the first promptings of guilt; the restraining influence it exercises over the beginning of the thought which, if indulged, would become a temptation; the check which it exerts over the graded declension towards the state—never suddenly attained—in which crime no longer revolts, and punishment no longer terrifies. [Speech In Favor of Capital Punishment 21 April 1868]

As for what is called the failure of death punishment, who is able to judge of that? We partly know who those are whom it has not deterred; but who is there who knows whom it has deterred, or how many human beings it has saved who would have lived to be murderers if that awful association had not been thrown round the idea of murder from their earliest infancy? [Speech In Favor of Capital Punishment]

Much has been said of the sanctity of human life, and the absurdity of supposing that we can teach respect for life by ourselves destroying it. But I am surprised at the employment of this argument, for it is one which might be brought against any punishment whatever. It is not human life only, not human life as such, that ought to be sacred to us, but human feelings. The human capacity of suffering is what we should cause to be respected, not the mere capacity of existing. And we may imagine somebody asking how we can teach people not to inflict suffering by ourselves inflicting it? But to this I should answer—all of us would answer—that to deter by suffering from inflicting suffering is not only possible, but the very purpose of penal justice. [Speech In Favor of Capital Punishment]

Does fining a criminal show want of respect for property, or imprisoning him, for personal freedom? Just as unreasonable it is to think that to take the life of a man who has taken that of another is to show want of regard for human life. We show, on the contrary...our regard for it, by the adoption of a rule that he who violates that right in another forfeits it for himself and that while no other crime that he can commit deprives him of his right to live, this shall. [Speech In Favor of Capital Punishment]

Judges are most anxious to point out, and juries to allow for, the barest possibility of the prisoner's innocence. No human judgment is infallible; such sad cases as my hon. Friend cited will sometimes occur; but in so grave a case as that of murder, the accused, in our system, has always the benefit of the merest shadow of a doubt. [Speech In Favor of Capital Punishment]

And this suggests another consideration very germane to the question. The very fact that death punishment is more shocking than any other to the imagination, necessarily renders the Courts of Justice more scrupulous in requiring the fullest evidence of guilt. Even that which is the greatest objection to capital punishment, the impossibility of correcting an error once committed, must make, and does make, juries and Judges more careful in forming their opinion, and more jealous in their scrutiny of the evidence. If the substitution of penal servitude for death in cases of murder should cause any declaration in this conscientious scrupulosity, there would be a great evil to set against the real, but I hope rare, advantage of being able to make reparation to a condemned person who was afterwards discovered to be innocent. In order that the possibility of correction may be kept open wherever the chance of this sad contingency is more than infinitesimal, it is quite right that the Judge should recommend to the Crown a commutation of the sentence, not solely when the proof of guilt is open to the smallest suspicion, but whenever there remains anything unexplained and mysterious in the case, raising a desire for more light, or making it likely that further information may at some future time be obtained. [Speech In Favor of Capital Punishment]

John Stuart Mill (20 May 1806 – 8 May 1873), English philosopher, political theorist, political economist, civil servant and Member of Parliament, was an influential British Classical liberal thinker of the 19th century whose works on liberty justified freedom of the individual in opposition to unlimited state control.

The proper end of human punishment is, not the satisfaction of justice, but the prevention of crimes. - The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy

William Paley (July 1743 – 25 May 1805) was a British Christian apologist, philosopher, and utilitarian. He is best known for his exposition of the teleological argument for the existence of God in his work Natural Theology, which made use of the watchmaker analogy (also see natural theology).

The deterioration of a government begins almost always by the decay of its principles.