The Phenomenon of Torture: Readings and Commentary

By William F. Schulz | Go to book overview

Chapter VI
The Ethics of Torture

At first blush it may be hard to imagine that there could be any serious philosophical debate about torture. Certainly the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is unequivocal: “No one,” says Article 5, “shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” Period. The Convention against Torture is just as absolute in its prohibition. Article 2 proclaims, “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.” And yet, despite such clarity, the issue of whether torture might be justified under at least some very narrow circumstances keeps arising, most recently in the United States in connection with the treatment of prisoners detained in the “war on terror.”

Now of course no reputable thinker would ever try to justify torture that is applied for the sheer sake of inflicting pain or in order to spread fear in a population, frequently though one or both of those happen, as we have seen. But far more than one philosopher, scholar, or lawyer has argued the case for torture in the context of interrogation. The most popular and persistent form of the debate focuses on the so-called “ticking bomb” scenario—some variation of the notion that the authorities have in custody an individual who possesses knowledge that can save hundreds, if not thousands, of lives, but who refuses to disclose that information. In just such a situation, are we not justified, perhaps even morally obligated, to do all we can to extract that information and save those lives, up to and including torture?

The excerpts in this chapter address that hypothetical quandary from a wide variety of perspectives. The first four argue the case, limited though it may be, for torture. The second four take the opposite perspective on both practical and ethical grounds. And the last two constitute a remarkable “dialogue” over the issue that took place in Israel when the Landau Commission issued a report in 1987 defending the use of what it called “moderate physical pressure” on Palestinian detainees and the Israeli Supreme Court decided in 1999 to outlaw such treatment.

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The Phenomenon of Torture: Readings and Commentary
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Foreword xiii
  • Introduction 1
  • Chapter I - Torture in Western History 11
  • Chapter II - Being Tortured 47
  • Chapter III - Who Are the Torturers? 99
  • Chapter IV - The Dynamics of Torture 153
  • Chapter V - The Social Context of Torture 193
  • Chapter VI - The Ethics of Torture 219
  • Chapter VII - Healing the Victims, Stopping the Torture 283
  • Appendix- Excerpts from Documents 357
  • How to Get Involved 365
  • Notes 367
  • Bibliography 377
  • Acknowledgments 381
  • Credits and Permissions 383
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