Most readers believe that it is difficult, verging on the impossible, to extract concrete prescriptions from the ethics of Emmanuel Levinas. Although this view is largely correct, Levinas’ philosophy can, with some assistance, generate specific duties on the part of legal actors. In this paper, I argue that the fundamental premises of Levinas’ theory of justice can be used to construct a prohibition against capital punishment. After analyzing Levinas’ concepts of justice, responsibility, and interruption, I turn toward his scattered remarks on legal institutions, arguing that they enable a sense of interruption specific to the legal domain. It is here that we find the conceptual resources most important to my Levinasian abolition. I argue that the interruption of legal justice by responsibility implies what I call the “principle of revisability.” The principle of revisability states a necessary condition of just legal institutions: To be just, legal institutions must ensure the possibility of revising any and all of their rules, principles, and judgments. From this, the argument against capital punishment easily follows. Execution is a legal act, perhaps the only legal act, that cannot be undone. An application of the principle of revisability to this fact leads to the conclusion that legal institutions cannot justly impose capital punishment. After defending these points at length, I conclude with some observations on the consequences of the principle of revisability for law more generally.
Emmanuel LevinasCapital punishmentPhilosophy of lawJusticeResponsibility