Why Ethicists Should Speak Out Against Torture

Sen. Feinstein of the U.S. Senate released a committee report two months ago on the use of torture by CIA interrogators in the 2000s.  While some have expressed outrage, many have been silent on the matter.  I think ethicists are obligated to speak on this issue, and Christian ethicists should be able to articulate the moral high ground regarding the treatment of prisoners or the fighting of wars.

I will mention a few areas that should be of particular concern to ethicists:

A Stance for the Healing Profession of Medicine

With the exponential growth of biotechnology in recent years, the profession of medicine has become too narrowly focused on its technical enterprise at the expense of its broader calling to heal.  At the heart of the Hippocratic tradition is the concept that the work of the physician is done for the sake of healing and is not to be misused in the service of some other agenda.  The ancients were wise in considering the possibility of medicine becoming a powerful tool in the hands of some enterprise unconcerned with its subject (the patient) or healing.

A program of torture developed by psychologists undercuts this endeavor significantly.  Medical practice of rectal rehydration to keep alive those who probably wish they were dead twists healing practice into an instrument of torture.  The overall agenda of a surveillance agency or government department may contradict the healing endeavor.

We might cover Kantian ethics in every university philosophy intro class, but it seems we are apt to use people as a means to an end.  Sometimes our rationale is about money (or “jobs”); sometimes it is about military power (“security”).  However, the philosophy is easy to see: we have no problem doing terrible things in order to accomplish our goals.  Ethicists of all stripes should speak out against this.

The Responsibility to Comment on an Inaccurate View of the Human Being

It is easy to note the use of the term compliance by the supporters of CIA activities. Examples of this can be seen in the Charlie Rose interview with former deputy director Mike Morrell and Judy Woodruff’s interview with former counterterrorism director Robert Grenier (“There were things in their head that we had to have, and these were the techniques that we used to extract them.”).  I had a rather lengthy discussion over a decade ago with a physician who advocated the use of the term adherence, rather than compliance, when discussing the patient’s use of medications prescribed by a physician.  He strongly felt that the term compliance promoted a form of paternalism that could even be extended to a form of manipulation.  Physicians and medical ethicists should take a clear stand for the viewpoint that medicine is a covenant between patient and physician and should not involve coercive philosophies.

As a student of psychology in my bachelor’s program in the 1990s, I saw how philosophical concepts concerning the dignity of the human being were slipping away.  Functional MRI was captivating the attention of researchers, and the computer model of the human being was moving from theoretical concept to dominant construct.  In light of these philosophical developments over 20 years ago, it is not surprising to see a government regard prisoners as neural databanks from which to draw information.  Such a low view of the human being can lead to all sorts of atrocities.

A Stance Against Authoritarian Government

Some may think that compliance is the proper goal of a government, but this is not the American tradition.  Certainly the assembling of a “We the People” government is outside this concept, but even our trial by jury and innocent until proven guilty traditions show that compliance is misguided when dealing with opponents and prisoners.

We, as the United States, are signatories to the Geneva Conventions.  These agreements concerning war and the treatment of prisoners were revised following the atrocities committed during World War II.  However, in recent years we have abandoned our leadership position on these subjects in favor of extending military and commercial power.  We should rediscover the moral position.

I would ask that Trinity and the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity would take a firm position against the use of torture by our intelligence services.   This is the Christian position, and such a statement would be befitting a Christian institution of ethics.


For Further Study

“What I Have Said About Torture Since 2006” by David Gushee, Baptist News Global, January 5, 2015.

“’Do No Harm’: When Doctors Torture” by Julie Beck, The Atlantic, December 12, 2014.

“Detainee’s Diary Describes What It’s Like to Be Interrogated” by Hari Sreenivasan, PBS NewsHour, January 26. 2015.

“And then he’s subjected to this — called special interrogation plan, which is written out ahead of time, step by step, signed off all the way up to Donald Rumsfeld, secretary of the defense. And it’s a year of harrowing abuse that begins with extreme isolation, sleep deprivation, subjecting him to extremes of temperature, strobe lights, loud music, stripping him, subjecting him to sexual abuse and assault.” – Larry Siems

“Obama Won’t Return ‘Torture Report’ Without Court OK” by Josh Gerstein and Burgess Everett, Politico, February 7, 2015.


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Steve Phillips
6 years ago

Cody, your call for consistency is an important one. Many of the positions we take as Christian ethicist are based on our understanding that the God-given value of human beings makes it wrong to do things that violate the value of those people in order to achieve some desired goal. Whether it is related to abortion, euthanasia, or reproductive technology, we must not use a means that is wrong to accomplish a desired end. Torture is a means that is wrong and we should be clear that use of such a means is not justified by even the most compelling ends.