(Here’s a paper I wrote for my philosophy class discussing the death penalty based off of Lisa Guenther’s talk about Miami University on the subject.)
Lisa Guenther, a philosophy professor at Vanderbilt University, came to Miami to discuss the death penalty and in particular, the “grotesque sovereignty of the U.S. death penalty.” That is to say, the unique position the U.S. holds among Western democracies by continuing to legitimize and carry out state-sanctioned executions.
Guenther’s talk had three intersections with which she examined the issue: the pantomimed medical care these executions manifest (the theatre aspect of it all, as in, there is no actual medical science upholding this “care”), the question of pain and consciousness under these executions (how do we know if someone is feeling pain?) and the guise of “humane executions” and the previously mentioned question of the state’s monopolizing power to kill its citizens. Moreover, underlying these intersections is the tension between what the society expects (punishment and the proverbial eye-for-an-eye) and what the law demands (punishment free of cruel and unusual punishment). And in practice, as in, for instance, the case of Dennis McGuire Guenther pointed out, there’s overlap in this tension. McGuire’s execution lasted 26 minutes, where witnesses noted him gasping for air before dying. But then members of the public, looking at what he was put to death for, think this is a fitting punishment for someone so monstrous.
Much of the discussion started by Guenther pivots on botched executions in particular — although, contrary to what I had thought, this is not a new phenomenon — but to be sure, Guenther opposes the death penalty, even if we were to somehow devise a human method of carrying them out. Likewise, and a point of dissent I had in mind before she answered it, is that Guenther also opposes life without the possibility of parole and seemingly, the prison system in general. After all, abolition of the death penalty without addressing the problem of mass incarceration is incidentally adding to the latter in improving the former. And life in prison without the possibility of parole is itself a sort of state-sanctioned death, just a much slower one.
However, I would likely take it a step further than Guenther asserted or insinuated. Rightly, Guenther acknowledged that there’s something disputable about the legitimacy of the state claiming the ability to monopolize and commit homicide. If one disputes that, then naturally, one has to question the state itself, for the state inherently exists on the grounds of monopolized force and therefore, violence. For Guenther and others, does the delegitimizing of the state’s monopoly on force and violence only stop when it results in death? In fact, by arguing a position that entails not just death penalty abolition, but prison abolition (even though she rightly admitted conjuring alternatives is tricky), Guenther is already delegitimizing the state’s monopoly on force, even when it doesn’t result in death.
Moreover, a member of the audience argued that the death penalty is society’s self-defense from wrongdoers and their future wrongdoing. However, this is flimsy at best. Primarily, this is because self-defense only works in the strictest and most narrow of terms. On an individual level, if someone entered my home and murdered my brother in the adjacent room, then came into my room, I would be justified in using deadly force to stop the attacker. However, if the attacker killed my brother and ran from the house, then I caught up with the attacker two weeks later and killed him, it is no longer self-defense. On a larger level, if Russia flies warplanes over the United States and begins dropping bombs on Chicago and New York, the United States would be justified in going on the defensive against Russia. However, a pre-emptive war, like the one in Iraq in 2003, is not justified as there was no legitimate claim to self-defense and arguing the case for future self-defense puts one in the position of flimsy thought-crime prediction.
So then, the further one gets from self-defense and in the case of executions, the distance from committed a crime worthy of the death penalty to being executed is vast, the less legitimate the claim becomes. However, there’s also the point that in the case of the state, there’s this vast institution which delegates and allocates the punishment and it is the case that this delegation and allocation is not equitable along racial and class lines. And even if it were, the state is ill-equipped to decide who will kill again, as in general, predicting violence is a tricky business and even past incidences of violence are not necessarily a surefire way to detect it.
And one last point worth touching upon is that the medical profession’s complicity in state-sanctioned violence is nothing new, either. In fact, the American Psychological Association is currently being sued for its efforts in “legitimizing” torture.
In any event, I think Guenther’s talk was instructive for anyone, regardless of which side of the death penalty argument they fall upon, because it ought to make them question the legitimacy of the death penalty and the state itself.