Dr. Guillotin's Reform

The guillotine is perhaps one of the most infamous weapons of capital punishment. It was the guillotine, after all, that became the symbol of France's Reign of Terror, from which the term "terrorism" came. As such, it seems hardly imaginable that the guillotine was thought up by a reformer who supposedly wanted to abolish the death penalty.

On October 10, 1789, Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin proposed to France's new Legislative Assembly that "the criminal shall be decapitated; this will be done solely by means of a simple mechanism," which was defined as a "machine that beheads painlessly." Guillotin believed a painless death applied equally to all would be an intermediate step to the abolition of capital punishment, and a major advancement for the cause of human rights. The guillotine was then invented and named for the individual on whose vision of painless death it was modeled.

Of course history shows that Guillotin's reforms did not lead to the abolition of the death penalty in France, but rather provided both legitimacy and a level of mechanical efficiency to the systematic use of the death penalty. Thus the death penalty became the primary weapon in a systematic campaign of terror. As such, Dr. Guillotin's reform is a good case study in, and warning against, the absurdity of reforming that which we seek to abolish.

By collaborating with the system, Guillotin's reforms helped to strengthen and expand that which he sought to abolish. Today, doctors, just like Dr. Guillotin, still assist in the death penalty in the U.S. Likewise, we find psychologist are working with the U.S. government supposedly to make sure torture is done less painfully. Some of these psychologists may even believe they are taking interim step towards completely banning torture, yet torture has been strengthened and expanded significantly thanks in large part to these psychologists.

Today we also find nonhuman animal advocates who seek to make the slaughter and exploitation of other animals less painful. Like Guillotin, many of these advocates believe that a new weapon of slaughter or exploitation is an interim step towards completely banning slaughter and exploitation, as well as an advancement in the cause for the rights of other animals. However, if history teaches us anything, it is that if we are collaborating with the system we seek to abolish, for instance, by supporting alternative weapons for killing or controlling others, we're merely working to legitimize and strengthen that system.