Saying No! to Jack Bauer: Mainstreaming Torture


Richard Marshall interviews Rebecca Gordon in 3:AM Magazine:

3:AM: Are you approaching this via virtue ethics, four cardinal virtues and Alisdair MacIntyre and what is the best way to understand what torture is?

RG: I’m going to reverse the order of these questions, because I think that once we understand what institutionalized state torture is, it becomes clearer why I think MacIntyre’s contemporary virtue ethics provide a useful way of understanding torture’s moral implications.

The torture that I am concerned with is institutionalized state torture – the kind of organized, intentional program carried on by governments. It’s not Jack Bauer saving Los Angeles on24. It’s not some brave person preventing a ticking time-bomb from going off by torturing the one person who can stop it. We must stop thinking of torture as a series of isolated actions taken by heroic individuals in moments of extremity, and begin instead to understand it as a socially embedded practice. A study of past and present torture regimes suggests that institutionalized state torture has its own histories, its own traditions, its own rituals of initiation. It encourages, both in its individual practitioners and in the society that harbors it, a particular set of moral habits, call them virtues or vices as you prefer.

Here’s my definition of institutionalize state torture: It is the intentional infliction of severe mental or physical suffering by an official or agent of a political entity, which results in dismantling the victim’s sensory, psychological, and social worlds, with the purpose of establishing or maintaining that entity’s power. This definition can be expanded to reveal its legal, phenomenological, and political dimensions.

The language about “intentional infliction of severe mental or physical suffering by an agent of a political entity” mirrors the definition found in the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhumane, or Degrading Treatment, to which the U.S. is a signatory. A phenomenological definition describes the ways in which torture reduces and distorts its targets’ orientation in time and space, its effects on language, and its destruction persons’ social connections. The “political” portion deals with the purposes of torture, which when it is institutionalized by a state, has much less to do with “intelligence gathering” than it does with political and social control.

So what does this understanding of torture have to do with virtue ethics and Alasdair MacIntyre? I would argue that when we understand torture as an ongoing practice, we can begin to see how it affects moral habits.

More here.