In the United States, decisions concerning capital punishment or the death penalty are ultimately determined on a state by state basis. Thus, when examining the question of whether the death penalty should be enforced in Georgia, the issue clearly focuses on the specifics of the penalty in relation to the particular state, which in this case is sovereign to make the decision as to whether to enforce the penalty. However, the greater issue of the death penalty is ultimately not a local issue, but rather one that relies upon a bigger context and involves fundamental concepts about human rights and the relation between forms of institutional power and the individual human being. In this paper, I will defend the position that the death penalty in Georgia should not be enforced on the basis of a concept of individual rights over the rights of institutions such as governments.
When we allow the death penalty, essentially we are stating that the government has the authority to determine whether an individual citizen, who falls under the jurisdiction of this government, can have his or her like taken by the government. Presented in this way, the government therefore has an enormous amount of power conferred to it, since it can essentially decide who can live or who can die. A clear reason to oppose the death penalty is because of this inequality of power: the government, who is in a position of power to judge, exercises its power to take the life of the citizen for violation of laws. From this perspective, enforcing the government’s right to the death penalty is essentially advocating that institutions have the decision to take the life of individual human beings. Not only is this is a clear sign of an inequality of power (the individual is not stronger than the state by definition), but also it can be viewed as an unethical and immoral position, since an institution takes priority over an individual human life.
From this perspective, an interesting counter-argument is as follows: in a state such as Georgia, the institutions are democratically elected. Therefore, instead of a nameless institution, what we have is rather a representative democracy. The institutions that will decide on the death penalty in Georgia represent the people. From this point of view, it is inadequate to portray the enforcement of the death penalty as the promotion of governmental and institutional power over the rights of the individual, since the government of Georgia essentially represents other individuals. However, the counter-argument here is that even though the government of Georgia is democratically elected, this does not mean that governments are authentic voices of individual concerns. A representative democracy is still formed by vote, and therefore, by majority opinion. Even if we accept the premise that the government elected by the people represents accurately the opinions of the people, in a representative democracy this will only represent the majority of the people. Namely, the individual opinion plays second fiddle to the consensus or majority opinion. But the entire issue of the death penalty revolves around the institution or in this case consensus or majority deciding on the life of a single individual. There is a fundamental imbalance of power and opportunity, where the value of an individual life is sacrificed to either an institution or to a majority opinion. Especially for minority groups, which can never reach a majority, this is an especially dangerous decision and can therefore be viewed as a form of systematic discrimination.
If we thus consider the government of Georgia as an institution or as an institution that is formed by the majority of consensus opinions, we unfairly give these institutions a right to decide over individual life and death. This is not to say that there should be no laws. It is instead to argue that capital punishment, as the most severe form of punishment, the taking of an individual life, should be a power that is not granted to anonymous institutions or even representative institutions because a human life or death should not be decided in this institutional manner.