Argumentative Essay on Cultural Relativism and the Death Penalty

Published: 2021-08-11
1781 words
7 pages
15 min to read
George Washington University
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Argumentative essay
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The use of the death penalty in the US has always been a controversial topic. In fact, it is thought that opposition to the death penalty has always existed, ever since the very first execution in the 1700s (Banner, 2002). Most of the world, however, still used recognized and used the death penalty at this time. This situation has since changed, though, with a movement towards the abolition of the death penalty gaining ground. The United States and most of its citizens, though, still uphold the death penalty and defend its continued use. This is even though in recent years there have been states in the US that have introduced bills to abolish it (Maher, 2010).

In 1972, with concerns mounting about the application of the death penalty, the US Supreme Court ruled that death penalty procedures violated the US constitution (Furman v. Georgia, 1972). Death sentences were subsequently stopped and the sentences of some 629 prisoners changed to life imprisonment without parole. In an unexpected twist, this decision resulted in a new wave of public support for the death sentence as well as renewed pressure for reform of death penalty procedures that would support the resumption of the practice. Soon, legislators and politicians were drawn into the fray, announcing the intent to have the death penalty return in their jurisdictions (Maher, 2010). Death penalty cases and discussions are usually sensitive political matters which draw a lot of attention. The result of this is almost always pressure on judges, prosecution and politicians (Yang, 2013). With the new system, many of the problems that resulted in the death penalty being abolished were solved, but some serious concerns were still not resolved. Opponents of the death penalty argued that people in the lower socio-economic tiers and minority populations, especially people of color, were being disproportionately sentenced to death. Further attention was given to the dismal quality of legal representation received by poor people when charged with capital crime (Maher, 2010).

Several important events took place in the decades that followed that shaped the direction of the death penalty. First, government funding for legal representation of poor defendants was reduced or eliminated. The Oklahoma bombings resulted laws that effectively increased the number of federal crimes eligible for the death penalty (Maher, 2010). Scientific advancements also showed serious flaws in the death penalty, confirming that individuals previously thought guilty were actually innocent; some defendants actually came within hours of being executed (Edds, 2003).

Every jurisdiction is tasked with the responsibility of protecting its citizens, and this often involves choosing which crimes and which participants will qualify for the death penalty. Technically, there is no automatic death sentence or capital crime. For the death sentence to be issued, the crime has to have been heinous or atrocious in nature, aggravating or cruel (Maher, 2010). Most of the time, the decision of whether to seek the death penalty falls on the prosecutor (Maher, 2010). Generally, trials that involve capital punishment have two phases, the guilt and the sentencing phase. During the guilt phase, the evidence is prevented and decision made whether the accused is to be convicted or acquitted. The second sentence is where evidence is provided as to what kind of sentence should be passed down, after the accused has been convicted in the first stage (Maher, 2010). In the case of Ms. Wu, she strangles her child to death. She is charged with murder and convicted. As a prosecutor, I advocate for the death sentence, which is opposed by the defense attorney. This paper outlines the argument for the death penalty, keeping in mind the principle of cultural relativism.

Cultural relativism

With respect to the death penalty, and especially considering the rights debate, cultural relativism is a consideration of the cultural traditions, social customs and religious beliefs that are viewed as diverse, so much so that the common rights are inconceivable (Karimunda, 2016). In order to understand this relation, perhaps it is important to look into the theory of cultural relativism as a whole.

The idea of cultural relativism is often attributed to Franz Boas. According to some, the work of Boas on cultural relativism was ambiguous, but he laid the groundwork redirecting anthropology efforts away from the older racial and evolutionary theory (Brown, 2008). According to Boas, cultural relativism has several dimensions. The first is that culture is a self-reproducing total social world. This reproduction happens through enculturation, which is the process through which values, embodied behaviors and emotional dispositions are transmitted from one generation to another (Herskovits, 1972). It is these values that are seen by members of the society as satisfying and superior to all others, which then begets the principle of ethnocentrism. The result is that the individual interprets the culture on the basis of this enculturation and the resultant internal web of logic, and not necessarily through the application of a universal yardstick (Brown, 2008).

A second, complementary idea is the fact that societies and cultures cannot be ranked on an evolutionary scale. Every culture has to be seen as offering a satisfying way of life, however outlandish the concept seems, especially to outsiders (Brown, 2008).

Cultural relativism and human rights

The idea of cultural relativism has always been seen as being in direct opposition to human rights and rights movements. In the past, it has been seen as opposing such rights movements and ideals as Universal Declaration of human rights, which was described as shameful and embarrassing (Goodale, 2006). Whats more, proponents of human rights violations have themselves used the cultural relativism logic while defending their actions and tendencies in various forums. For instance, during deliberations concerning the adoption of the universal declaration of human rights, Saudi Arabia intimated that the freedom to marry and change religion were western ideas that were not suited for universal adoption (Glendon, 2001). Needless to say, this position garnered little support at the time. Even in a world that is increasingly integrated and egalitarian, such issues as womens rights are viewed from a point of view of cultural relativism. Questions like whether women should have the right to education, choose partners or be protected from domestic violence still have an ethnocentric and individualistic edge in debate.

Cultural relativism and the death penalty case

In terms of the death penalty, cultural relativism posits that is the death penalty is rooted in the local cultures and customs, then abolishing the death penalty would essentially mean abolishing an important part of that local culture and custom. State sovereignty holds that the idea of the death penalty must be looked at locally. Universal and intangible human rights debates envisioning the abolition of death penalty outside the national or state legal system should be ignored (Karimunda, 2016). These universal standards often equate the local consideration as amounting to cultural imperialism. This argument will demonstrate the folly in such labelling, especially with respect to the idea of abolition of the death penalty, with this case providing the ideal example. This case is not about the innocence, or lack thereof, of the person accused (Ms. Wu). The arguments of the defense as presented by the Amicus Curiae Gustavo Dominguez opposing the death penalty do not speak to whether the crime was heinous in nature or cruel. Instead, it chooses to oppose the general idea of the death penalty. The argument here will therefore focus on a defense of the death penalty in general and in relation to this case, with the cultural relativism theory used as guidance.

The death penalty, human rights and democracy

According to the UN, everyone has the rights to life. This is often one of the justifications that is used by most of the individuals that support the abolitionist movement. However, in true cultural relativism fashion, the debate on the death penalty in the US intersects with this international trend, effectively challenging international law and trends. The death penalty law is examined locally in every jurisdiction despite the fact that it is generally supported by international law and trends. One of the justifications of this is through the issue of democracy (Neumayer, 2008). Several studies have used the democracy link to relate the international movement and relation to human rights and the local debate for the abolition of the death penalty in various local jurisdictions, specifically the newly democratized states known as the third wave (Neumayer, 2008). However, in reality, this is not the true procedural democracy as the meaning of the word suggests, but the aligning of the whole issue with the respect for human rights that normally highlights transitions to democratic cultures. For instance, according to some scholars, dictators have typically been associated with ruling a country with an iron fist and most of the time there is a link between this and their use of the death penalty. It is the ultimate expression of the power that some of these rulers have over their subjects. This train of thought is supported by the fact that the use of the death penalty is more prevalent in authoritarian states than in democratic states (Badinter, 2004).

A critical review, however, shows that the democratization movement does not, in fact, adequately explain or offer rationale for the abolition of the death penalty. First of all, there have been other democratization waves in the past which happened without necessarily resulting in any abolitionist movements. Some of the oldest democracies in the world took a long time to become abolitionist, and even then, they had different reasons of doing so. Further, many of the strongest democracies in the world still use the death penalty, including countries like Japan and India. if true democracy is to be upheld in the international realm, then every country must be allowed to operate within the realm of its own cultures in choosing whether the death penalty is to persist or not. Democracy cannot simply be utilized as rhetoric which is meant to pressurize countries into a uniform system that does not necessarily work for them, or deprives them of options.

Furthermore, the US has some of the, if not the strongest political and protectionist systems all over the world. It is virtually impossible for rulers in the country to be in a position that they would wield so much power as to use the death penalty to stay in power. To use this rationale of equivalence would perhaps be right for a relatively new democracy, especially one that has had a history of being ruled by hardliners and dictators. The US, on the other hand, has not had any such struggles. Equating the struggles for freedom from the grip of oppression to the general idea of democracy, albeit not so strongly, is to disregard the historical culture and strengths of the country, and more importantly, to deny the country the opportunity to have a punishment option fo...

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