Corporate Participation in the Death Penalty

grim reaperDrug companies are often accused of engaging in, or of complicity in, all manner of wrongdoing.

It’s less often (though certainly not unheard of) that they’re accused of participation in actual killings, or offered the opportunity to save a life. This is one of those cases.

The story begins here, with a heinous crime not committed by any corporation: Jury Finds Steven Hayes Guilty In Connecticut Triple Murder

Steven Hayes was found guilty today in the deadly home invasion that left a woman and her two daughters brutalized and murdered, making him eligible for the death penalty….

Hayes may well be executed, but only if a subsequent legal proceeding results in that decision, and only if the state of Connecticut has the help of a particular corporation, namely the one that supplies the drug necessary for lethal injection. And that help can’t be assumed. To begin, there are reports that one of the suppliers is having trouble supplying a key drug used in lethal injection.

Not everyone thinks that shortage is a bad thing. See this piece, by Jim Edwards, writing for Bnet: Why Hospira Should Stop Supplying Prisons With Lethal Injection Drugs

Hospira (HSP), the company that makes the lethal injection Pentothal used in death row executions, says the restricted supply of the drug that has halted executions across the country is caused by supplier issues and has nothing to do with the company’s distaste for the death penalty. But why shouldn’t Hospira cut off prisons from their supply of Pentothal?

Now, I don’t know whether Hospira is the company that Connecticut relies on to facilitate its executions (Ewards’ article lists only Oklahoma, Kentucky, Virginia, Arizona and California). But the drugs they use come from somewhere, either Hospira or another drug company.

So, I’m going to ask you to engage in an exercise in imagination. Forget, for a moment, what your own view on the death penalty really is. Ask yourself these two questions:

  • IF the death penalty is morally justified, is Hospira (or another company) required to sell the requisite drug to the state in question? May they opt out? Must they remain in some sense “neutral” on this hot-button issue?
  • IF the death penalty is morally unjustified, is Hospira (or another company) required not to participate? Or is the company blameless for its participation? If the company is blameworthy for participating, are we likewise to blame the company that makes the gurney that Hayes will lie in as the drug is injected? The company that makes the needle? Why or why not?

Again, even if you have strong views on the death penalty itself, please do your best to set that aside and consider more specifically the ethics of business participation in the practice.

6 comments so far

  1. Chris on

    I believe that ethical corporate behaviour is rooted in law; to both the letter and spirit of the law in the jurisdictions they reside in. This can be and should be trumped when *compulsion* enters the fray. The ethical burden is therefore on the state to not require companies to act or disallow inaction. That being said, governments act unethically all the time.

    If point #1 is true I think tougher questions are: should a company spend time and money fighting an order to participate and risk destroying their relationship with a regulator/ability to make future profits? What if the drug was manufactured or company was based in a jurisdiction, like Canada, that does not allow the death penalty?

    If point #2 is true, I would say if the drug’s only use was for lethal injections that it would therefore be unethical to produce it. Essentially all lethal injections are simple overdoses, and there are many good drugs can create lethal overdoses in a non-painful way so there are plenty of substitutes. In reality, companies of uncontrolled substances (gurneys, etc) don’t have much ability to control the supply of their products in the secondary market.

  2. John Pollabauer on

    It would interest me greatly to read Professor MacDonald’s short and succinct responses to the questions which he has raised in his blog posted October 5, 2010. Speaking for myself, I find the way the questions have been phrased, namely, in Q#1, IF the death penalty is morally justified…, and in Q#2, IF the death penalty is morally unjustified…, to overlook and stray away from the real question at the heart of the matter and that is, in my opinion, whether it is or is it not immoral for the State to carry out the death sentence against an individual duly and lawfully convicted of murdering another human being. Once that question is answered, it becomes much more, but not entirely, a no-brainer as to whether a person’s and/or corporation’s specific actions in assisting the carrying out of the death sentence against the person is or is not morally justified.

    Lately, there have been news reports from around the globe where certain country’s judicial systems have inflicted rather harsh and severe physical punishment and lengthy sentences against some of its citizens for relatively minor criminal offences which if committed in Canada would result in nothing more than the Courts issuing what seems as nothing more than a slap on the wrist of the convicted criminal, i.e, house arrest, probation plus community services, suspended sentences etc. In my way of thinking, it is both highly immoral and down right unjust for such foreign country’s government to make laws which give its judiciary the judicial powers to impose overly harsh and severe sentences against people committing relatively minor offences within that country’s borders.

    How would you, Professor MacDonald, respond to the very questions which you posted?

  3. Chris MacDonald on


    Unfortunately, I don’t have succinct answers of my own. If I did, I probably would have posted them instead of posing questions.

    My questions, stated as hypotheticals (and which I now think I could have worded better) were an attempt to get people to focus on the business ethics issues, here, rather than simply on the morality of capital punishment. It’s an inflammatory issue, and people reading this blog entry are going to disagree deeply about it. There are lots (and lots and lots) of places online to consider that issue. What I hoped to achieve here was to get people to bracket that issue. So, for example, whatever your own beliefs about capital punishment, assume you believe the opposite, and ask yourself what you would think about the ethics of corporate involvement.


  4. Veronique on

    All I can say, because I do not know the full argument, and because I have not come to a conclusion yet myself, is that this reminds me of Applbaum (the very short bit I’ve read so far), Ethics for Adversaries.

  5. John Pollabauer on

    Thank you for your clarification Professor MacDonald

    I now see where you were going with the questions you had posted – my difficulties came about as a result of mistakingly and incorrectly having interposed the concepts of business ethics and morality, and that is not always appropriate or possible. Thanks again for taking the time to elaborate. If I were the CEO, I would not knowingly sell drugs for the specific purposes of assisting the state in carrying out a death sentence although I am still struggling and agonizing over whether I would or would not veto the sale of things such as gurneys.

  6. […] (I touched on this topic a couple of years ago, in discussing the right of a bakery not to decorate a cake with the name “Adolf Hitler” on it. And more recently I blogged about corporate participation in the death penalty.) […]

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