Objective Prescriptions, and Other Essays

By R. M. Hare | Go to book overview
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17.1. PROFESSOR Downie's attempt, in his admirably clear and concise paper ( 1993), to define 'torture' is the best that I have seen so far. He defines it as follows.

Torture is the deliberate infliction of pain or other severe distress by one sentient being on another who is in captivity, and involves using that being as a means to an end to which the being has not consented.

But it is necessary to ask what purpose such definitions serve. Some may feel that verbal questions of this kind ought not to occupy our time. But whatever conclusions we reach will have to be expressed in words, and if the words have not been made clear, the conclusions will not be. For example, if we say that torture, or torture in certain specified circumstances, ought to be ruled out, it has to be clear precisely what we are saying should be ruled out. Downie says (p. 135), 'From a practical point of view it does not really matter very much whether a practice is strictly torture or some other form of inhuman treatment; the point would be to get it stopped'. But we do need to be clear about what we want to get stopped.

However, it is probably fruitless, and may be positively confusing, to look for a single definition of 'torture'. There is a great variety of treatments which have been described as torture, ranging from the infliction of the most extreme physical pain for the most wicked purposes to the causing of quite mild mental suffering in pursuit of aims that are in themselves laudable. We may wish to condemn some of these practices and not others, and if we call them all by the same name we may get confused. At least we should try not to beg any substantial moral questions about the rightness or wrongness of certain practices by the way we decide to use words.

17.2. It is worth looking at what has in most jurisdictions been done with the words 'murder' and 'homicide'. There are a great many

"'The Ethics of Medical Involvement in Torture.'" From Journal of Medical Ethics 19 ( 1993).


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Objective Prescriptions, and Other Essays


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