Capital Punishment: Definition, Forms & Moral Arguments

An error occurred trying to load this video.

Try refreshing the page, or contact customer support.

Coming up next: The History of Abortion Law in the United States

You're on a roll. Keep up the good work!

Take Quiz Watch Next Lesson
Your next lesson will play in 10 seconds
  • 0:01 Capital Punishment
  • 0:43 History
  • 2:10 Forms
  • 3:12 Proponents
  • 3:56 Opponents
  • 4:32 Lesson Summary
Save Save Save

Want to watch this again later?

Log in or sign up to add this lesson to a Custom Course.

Log in or Sign up

Speed Speed
Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.

In some societies, the ultimate punishment is to deprive someone of life. The methods used to do this, as well as the arguments for and against such action, are discussed in this lesson.

What Is Capital Punishment?

When you do something wrong, you know that there is going to be a punishment to follow. When you were a child, it may have been getting your hand swatted at if you reached for a treat before dinner, or sitting in timeout if you pushed a classmate. For adults, punishment is determined by a court of law.

In some places, there is the idea that if you do something bad enough, you should pay with your life. This is known as capital punishment. The 'capital' in capital punishment comes from the Latin word that pertains to the head, as you'd often have to pay with your head. Despite being one of the oldest punishments in existence, the severity of capital punishment makes it a very controversial issue.

History of Capital Punishment

Capital punishment goes back thousands of years. It is mentioned in the Code of Hammurabi, the oldest code of laws in existence, and it's described in detail throughout the Bible. However, capital punishment as we know it really started with the Romans. As you'd expect from a group of people who used fear and discipline to keep such an empire in line, they were pretty inventive when it came to their techniques.

By far the most famous form was crucifixion, by which a person was hanged from a cross and left to suffocate after his muscles tired out. In gruesomeness, the Romans were soon eclipsed by the medieval Europeans who followed them. A common practice among these Europeans was to draw and quarter someone, meaning that he would be cut into four parts after he had his head removed.

As the world moved to the Enlightenment, less painful ways of capital punishment were thought up. Before, the embarrassment and spectacle were important parts of the punishment, but afterwards the idea of minimizing suffering for the condemned was emphasized.

Hanging, an ancient form that required a rope to either break the neck of the condemned or strangle him, was reexamined to make the death more instantaneous, as was the idea of a firing squad, which required people to shoot an individual. Later, more sophisticated or technological techniques were used, including the guillotine, the gas chamber, and the electric chair.

Forms of Capital Punishment

The electric chair and the gas chamber are still in use today, actually. The electric chair operates by electrocuting the condemned individual. Originally thought of as painless, mishaps have proven this not to be the case. Similarly, the gas chamber was thought of as a more humane way to carry out a death sentence, but it too has the issue of causing some level of pain to the condemned.

More recently, more American states have moved towards lethal injection, a process by which an individual receives an injection of medications that are designed to end life quickly. However, supply issues and the constitutionality of this punishment are still up for debate.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account