Discussion Questions on Ernest van den Haag, "The Ultimate Punishment: A Defense"


1.  Why, according to van den Haag, is "maldistribution" of capital punishment irrelevant to the question of whether capital punishment is just or unjust?   What is "the only relevant question"?  Why would van den Haag say is capital punishment in the U.S. were administered only to African Americans?   Would he see no injustice?

2.  How does van den Haag respond to the argument that capital punishment risks executing innocent people?

3.  van den Haag writes (p. 2) "Murder rates are determined by many factors; neither the severity nor the probability of the threatened sanction is always decisive. However, for the long run, I share the view of Sir James Fitzjames Stephen: "Some men, probably, abstain from murder because they fear that if they committed murder they would be hanged. Hundreds of thousands abstain from it because they regard it with horror. One great reason why the regard it with horror is that murderers are hanged (16)" Penal sanctions are useful in the long run for the formation of the internal restraints so necessary to control crime."   What does he mean?   Could the considerations that van den Haag introduces here be turned around to construct an argument howing that capital punishment might be a less effective deterrent than life in prison?

4.  Van den Haag writes, "Punishment -- regardless of the motivation -- is not intended to revenge, offset, or compensate for the victim's suffering, or to be measured by it.  Punishment is to vindicate the law and the social order undermined by the crime."  Is this a critique of a retributive theory of punishment or is it a reformulation of a retributive theory of punishment?   Does this view of punishment support capital punishment?

5.  How does van den Haag reply to the argument that capital punishment legitimizes killing?

6.  Van den Haag writes, "An infliction of a legal punishment on a guilty person cannot be unjust."  Does this hold, regardless of what the legal punishment is?  Why does van den Haag believe this?  What do you think?

7.  What is van den Haag's main reason for supporting capital punishment?