Voices: Philip Hansten

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“I am confident there will come a day when we will have abolished the death penalty, and we will wonder how we could possibly have let such an ineffective, irrational, immoral, and costly institution endure for so long,” says Dr. Philip Hansten, Professor Emeritus, School of Pharmacy, at the University of Washington.

Hansten worked with an organization affiliated with Amnesty International to convince the American Pharmacists Association to include a statement in its code of ethics formally opposing pharmacists’ involvement in executions.

“The states are using these drugs for a completely different purpose than they were designed for, which was to help people, not kill them. Another problem is that with lethal injection we’re basically experimenting on people. We’re experimenting every time we use these drugs, even more so with the cocktails that have never been studied. And even if we were to come up with the perfect injection we’d still have the problem that the person administering the drug isn’t trained, which is why executions can and often do, go wrong. Our position is there’s no way to do lethal injection that isn’t brutal. Lethal injection is an abomination.

“We joined several other medical organizations — like the psychology association, the AMA, anesthesiologists — in codifying our position,” Hansten says.

“When they included that in their code of ethics what they were saying is that it’s unethical for a pharmacist to specially prepare drugs for execution. It was important, especially because one of the organizers was a pharmacy practitioner who had an employee with a son on death row. And you can’t believe how much she suffers having a son on death row. So between me, the pharmacy practitioner, a professor from UC San Francisco, and a former dean from Washington State, we got it pushed through.”

The work kindled Hansten’s interest in the death penalty and its history. “I started doing background work. Started diving into the whole thing, but from a philosophical viewpoint.” He read Reflections on Hanging, and Dialogue with Death, both written by Arthur Koestler, who had been on death row during the Spanish Civil War in Spain; and the writings of Cesare Beccaria, whose 1767 book, An Essay on Crimes and Punishments, “has inspired anti-death penalty advocacy for more than 250 years,” according to University of Baltimore law professor John Bessler.

Hansten “got hooked” on the subject. “I went from being against it to being overwhelmed by it over the years, consumed by it. The more you read, the more information you have about it, the more of an abomination it is,” he says.

So he wrote a book. Outmatched. The Death Penalty Meets the Wisdom of Montaigne took him three years to write and attempts to answer several questions about the morality, practicality, brutality, and history of capital punishment through the lens of 16th-century French philosopher and essayist Michel de Montaigne. “I know of no thinker who more eloquently and convincingly called us to reexamine our habitual unthinking beliefs. He promoted what might be called enlightened intellectual humility, which—when considering the death penalty—should lead us to question our arrogant claim that we know with certainty who should die for their crimes.”

Hansten decided to offer the book for free on Apple Books or in PDF form online for several reasons, chief among them his belief that the more the issue is discussed, argued, analyzed, and debated, the greater the likelihood it will be abolished.

“The death penalty is outmatched by Montaigne’s reasoning,” [with its] “one recurrent theme: the inherent fallibility of human beings. He leads us away from dogmatism and ignorant certainty, two prominent features of the death penalty debate,” Hansten says.

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