Against Capital Punishment (Oxford University Press, 2019)

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Against Capital Punishment offers an innovative proceduralist argument against the death penalty. Worries about procedural injustice animate many popular and scholarly objections to capital punishment. Philosophers and legal theorists are attracted to procedural abolitionism because it sidesteps controversies over whether murderers deserve death, holding out a promise of gaining rational purchase among death penalty retentionists. Following in this path, the book remains agnostic on the substantive immorality of execution; in fact, it takes pains to reconstruct the best arguments for capital punishment and presumes the appropriateness of execution in limited cases. At the same time, the book contends that the possibility of irrevocable mistakes precludes the just administration of the death penalty. The heart of Against Capital Punishment is a philosophical defense of the well-known irrevocability argument, which analyzes the argument’s premises, establishes their validity, and vindicates them against objections. The central claim is that execution violates the principle of remedy, which requires legal institutions to remedy their mistakes and to compensate those who suffer from wrongful sanctions. The death penalty is repellent to the principle of remedy by dint of its irrevocability. The incompatibility of remedy and execution is the crux of the irrevocability argument: because the wrongly executed cannot enjoy the obligatory remedial measures, execution is impermissible. Against Capital Punishment also reveals itself to be free from two serious defects plaguing other versions of proceduralism: the retributivist challenge and the problem of controversial consequences.


Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews — review here.

Choice: “Yost…has written a brilliant analysis of philosophical arguments for and against the death penalty. Surveying hundreds of scholarly articles and works about capital punishment, the author carefully documents the inadequacies of pro–death penalty reasoning used by philosophers from Immanuel Kant to the present. Yost covers political theories, philosophical arguments, and legal justifications, surveying issues such as deterrence, irrevocability, cost/benefit balance, inadequacy of attorneys, and the inherent fallibility of the American criminal justice system. Most important, he identifies a serious paradigm shift toward abolition of the death penalty based on three notions: the justice system inevitably makes mistakes; William Blackstone’s axiom (discussed in chapter 4) that it is better that ten guilty defendants escape rather than one innocent person suffer; and over-punishing those charged with criminal acts is worse than under-punishing them. The modern movement to abolish capital punishment seems destined to prevail as represented by the 2020 Colorado vote to abolish it, leaving fewer than 30 states still authorizing this rarely used punishment. This is a seminal, comprehensive treatment of the capital punishment.”


“The death penalty is the most severe punishment available for those countries that still retain it. Debates about whether it can be justified have run for as long as there has been capital punishment in any society – where each side largely digs in against the other. Benjamin Yost’s defence of procedural abolitionism opens a new, convincing front as to why all of us, including retributivists, should not support death as a punishment.” Thom Brooks, Dean & Professor of Law and Government, Durham University

“Philosophically, this book is to date the most sophisticated presentation of the proceduralist case for abolishing capital punishment.  Opponents of the death penalty will be able to draw with profit upon Benjamin Yost’s nuanced arguments, and supporters of the death penalty will need to come to grips with those arguments in order to counter them.” Matthew H. Kramer, Professor of Legal & Political Philosophy, Cambridge University Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge Director of Cambridge Forum for Legal & Political Philosophy Fellow of the British Academy

“Appealing to the inherent human fallibility in the administration of the death penalty, Yost’s Against Capital Punishment is a careful (and novel) attempt to show that capital punishment should be abolished. Legitimate legal systems correct and remedy their errors, but this commitment, Yost argues, is incompatible with punishing even the worst criminals with death. By shifting debates about capital punishment away from familiar disputes about desert and deterrence toward neglected questions about its place in fair legal practices, Yost succeeds in altering the parameters of scholarly discussions surrounding capital punishment’s defensibility.” Michael Cholbi, Professor of Philosophy, Cal Poly Pomona, Director – California Center for Ethics and Policy