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Ethics and HumanityThemes from the Philosophy of Jonathan Glover$
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N. Ann Davis, Richard Keshen, and Jeff McMahan

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9780195325195

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2010

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195325195.001.0001

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What Should We Do about Torture?

What Should We Do about Torture?

Chapter:
(p.3) 1 What Should We Do about Torture?
Source:
Ethics and Humanity
Author(s):

James Griffin (Contributor Webpage)

Publisher:
Oxford University Press
DOI:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195325195.003.0001

This chapter attempts to clarify the claim that there should be an absolute prohibition against torture. To clarify the claim, it is important to have a clear understanding of what we mean by torture. Treatment that destroys rational agency, and thereby undermines human dignity, defines the heart of human torture. George W. Bush's administration, in defining torture as prolonged physical or mental damage, offered a misleading and dangerous definition of torture. Given our acceptance of killing in self‐defense and of so‐called ticking‐bomb scenarios, we cannot in theory accept an absolute prohibition of torture. However, we still might believe it right to ban torture in practice. The limits of our motivation and of our understanding — our near‐invincible ignorance — might lead us to think it best to block, if we could, any policy that would allow torture. In this regard, it is important to see the weaknesses of Alan Dershowitz's and of Richard Posner's proposals for allowing a limited use of torture. Still, we cannot rule out that there could be exceptions that would allow for torture. But to act on these exceptions, we would need to know how to weigh the considerations for and against torture in particular exceptional situations. It is far from clear, however, that we know how to weigh the relevant considerations or even how to identify the exceptional situations. Given these limitations, it is perhaps best to enforce an absolute prohibition against torture, while hoping that anyone who, contrary to the ban, resorts to torture has correctly identified an exception. Much of moral importance is at stake; but we find ourselves in murky waters.

Keywords:   torture, rational agency, human dignity, water boarding, absolute prohibition, loopholes, torture warrants, Alan Dershowitz, Richard Posner, Jeremy Waldron, consequentialist reasoning, near‐invincible ignorance

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