Death Penalties: Ethics, Politics,
and the Unconscious of Sovereignty
Insofar as Western philosophy, like Christianity, begins with a scene of capital punishment—that of Socrates being sentenced and put to death— doesn’t it also have its beginnings in the death penalty? Derrida answers that philosophers from Kant to Levinas justify the death penalty and “just” wars on the basis of lex talionis, which takes us back not only to its theological roots but also to the basis of sovereignty (2004, 146).1 For the sake of protection by the state, citizens subject themselves to state sovereignty and grant to the state, and only to the state, the power to kill. In other words, all justified killing, killing that is not a crime, must be circumscribed by law, as in war or state-sanctioned execution. This is why for Kant it is better that the sovereign head of state be assassinated rather than be executed by law, since execution of the sovereign who makes and enforces the law would undermine the power of law itself (Kant 1996, 132).