Spring 2025

The Death Sentence

Listed in: Law, Jurisprudence, and Social Thought, as LJST-284


Nica M. Siegel (Section 01)


The political, economic, and philosophical figure of the “death sentence,” although it has archaic roots, continues to haunt the twenty-first century. Athens killed the philosopher Socrates because he was dangerous to the polis, and philosophy has enshrined this death sentence as both its mythical origin and its most modern moment. Having cut off the head of the king, French revolutionaries and their critics fiercely debated whether mercy or execution would better distance their new social order from repressive forms of monarchical sovereignty. The murder and vulnerability to premature death of Africans in the Atlantic Slave Trade and Native and indigenous peoples in the Americas underwrote and enabled the idea of the New World and its fraught and partial freedoms. Together we will inquire into the logics these stories, and their accompanying, often paradoxical, discourses (punishment, mercy; sovereignty, technique), have in common. Turning to contemporary theory, we will seek to understand the persistence of death sentences today.  Why does the state kill, and what can the persistence of such violence both as fact and idea tell us about the idea of the state? Why did “barbaric” practices not end with enlightenment, the critique of religion, scientific rationalism, legal modernization, capitalism? What is the relation between capital punishment and other death sentences meted out in and through prisons, policing, or pandemics?  In distinction from a course that debates American capital punishment primarily from a policy perspective, we will inquire into capital punishment as a problem for the history and writing of legal thought, inquiring after its persistence in philosophic terms and reconsidering the possible bases for abolitionist critique.

Limited to 30 students. Offered Spring Semester. Visiting Assistant Professor Siegel.

How to handle overenrollment: Preference will be given to LJST majors

Students who enroll in this course will likely encounter and be expected to engage in the following intellectual skills, modes of learning, and assessment: engaging with, summarizing, and synthesizing theoretical and historical material, writing papers, and participating in discussion through small group work and close reading in class.

Course Materials


Other years: Offered in Fall 2022