April 5-7, 2001

One of the most hotly debated issues in America today concerns the legal and ethical status of capital punishment. The question of whether it is just to execute a human being for crimes committed has long been considered a dividing-point between political parties. In recent years, however, the debate over capital punishment has grown even more urgent, marked by well-publicized appeals processes, claims that innocent people have been wrongly put to death, and increased political pressure by constituents, lobbyists, and the national media. It is clear that the issue of capital punishment can no longer be ignored.

Opinions on whether or not capital punishment is justifiable tend to be firmly held and strongly expressed. Scratch the surface of this debate, however, and it quickly becomes clear how many thorny ethical, moral, and legal issues are involved in the decision of whether it is just to execute criminals. For many, of course, the idea that the justice system could be responsible for the taking of life is both barbarous and thoroughly amoral. Yet, say supporters of capital punishment, in granting clemency to a violent criminal one sends an ambivalent message to the most violent offenders. Indeed, some in favor of capital punishment go further to insist that it is impossible to grant clemency to a criminal without committing a grave injustice against the victim or his or her family. Clearly, both sides of the capital punishment debate are fraught with enormous complications that extend to the very heart of ethics itself. Indeed, it seems nearly impossible to support either side of the capital punishment issue without meeting an impasse in questions of equity, mercy, and justice and questions that force one to confront the limits of ethical thinking.

In the midst of such complicated debate, scholars from diverse fields have brought new data and philosophical approaches to bear on this timely and controversial issue. A number of scholars have turned their attention to the legal, philosophical, and political questions surrounding the issue of capital punishment. What are the uses and limits of theories of retributive punishment? What factors should take priority in the decision whether or not to execute a criminal? To what extent should mitigating factors such as poverty or a history of abuse be admissible in courts of law? And how valid are claims of the deterrence-value of capital punishment? Such questions, while far from resolving these complicated issues, are shedding new and important light on the debate.

Our seminar will call upon voices from law, philosophy, psychology, and history to explore the contested terrain of capital punishment and the implications of this debate for ethical thinking. Topics to be addressed will include the theoretical and practical procedures for sorting those deserving of mercy from those who should die; the debates over capital punishment for minors; the architecture of Death Row and its relation to the psychology of punishment; and the conflict between equity and mercy in theories of justice.

Speakers will include Locke Bowman (Law), Bernadine Dohrn (Law, Northwestern), Lawrence Marshall (Law, Northwestern), Martha Nussbaum (Law & Philosophy), Bernard Rubin (Psychiatry), and Robert Kirschner (Pathology, Pediatrics, and Human Rights Program).