Nicholas Logan is an undergraduate student of philosophy at Vanderbilt University. Nicholas writes:
Punishments like the death penalty and life-without-parole sentences attribute an essence to the offender: that they are permanently unworthy of being a part of our collective society. In existentialist terms, these forms of punitive justice deny the possibility of an open future to someone who has committed a crime by denying their existential freedom to change. If man is, in Jean-Paul Sartre’s words, “the being who hurls himself toward a future and who is conscious of imagining himself as being in the future,” then forms of punishment like permanent incarceration and state-sanctioned death, which deny such future-oriented freedom, are clearly not adequate responses to crime. Permanent incarceration involves entrusting the state and its representatives with endless dominion over the body and freedom of the prisoner. The death penalty denies a convicted criminal an opportunity to change or to make amends for what they have done.
But the harm of extreme punishment goes beyond the individual prisoner; it also affects the existential freedom of the public. As Lewis Gordon outlines in his work, Bad Faith and Antiblack Racism, if man is constantly “in the making,” we act in bad faith whenever we attribute an essence or nature to someone because it denies one’s existential freedom. When we wordlessly live under a legal system that sanctions the death penalty and life-without-parole prison sentences, we will a world in which it is okay to deny an open future to others and ourselves. Further, we allow ourselves to live under a type of power relationship in which we can deny our responsibility to not only determine what is ethical, but also how to respond to that which is said to be unethical.
To view the full list of signatories to our open letter to stop executions in Tennessee, click here.
If you are a student or educator in Tennessee, and you would like to add your signature to this open letter, click here.
If you are not student or educator in Tennessee, but you would like to support the open letter, please sign this petition.