Thursday, February 9, 2012

Torture again

I haven't read the whole thing, but this looks like a very thoughtful review of F. M. Kamm's book Ethics for Enemies. (There's an interesting response by Eric Schliesser here.)

One issue that the review focuses on is how to define torture. I have wondered about this myself, specifically with regard to punching or slapping people. Hitting people inflicts pain, of course, and so can count as torture. But it seems to me that there is a significant difference, one that might have moral significance, between hitting someone, perhaps out of frustration with their refusal to reveal potentially life-saving information, and coldly doing something designed specifically to inflict pain, such as sticking needles under a person's fingernails. Hitting someone, however wrong it might be, does not (usually) seem as inhuman as less expressive forms of torture. There are potential dangers in any suggestion that hitting prisoners is OK, of course, but I do think that there is some kind of difference that might be worth exploring between acts that inflict pain while still, in some sense,  recognizing the humanity of one's victim and, on the other hand, ways of inflicting pain that treat the body as something like a means to extract something (information, surrender, whatever) from the mind within. (The mind-body problem seems relevant here, and the special badness of the second kind of torture seems related to the error of Cartesianism.)    

Anscombe's writing on capital punishment might be helpful in understanding this issue. In her essay "The Dignity of the Human Being" she writes:
When capital punishment takes grisly forms [...] then it takes on a character which means that the victim's human dignity is being violated. The ancient Hebrew Law, the Torah, shews us why in an expression restricting punishments: a man was not to be given more than forty stripes 'lest thy brother become vile in thy sight'. [Deuteronomy 25:3]
She goes on to suggest that methods of execution that lead people to place a hood over the victim's head violate this commandment. The hood is there precisely because the executed person would otherwise be vile in our sight. The hood does not change what is happening or its wrongness, and removing it would only reveal the wrongness, not remove it. I wonder whether we really have any methods of execution that would pass Anscombe's test (although she mentions the Athenian hemlock cup as one method that seems OK in this regard, so I suppose we could go back to that). I'm not saying that capital punishment is OK--I don't think it is--but I'm interested in the question whether the question of vileness (regardless of other considerations) rules out all contemporary execution methods. Jeffrie Murphy has some similar thoughts in his essay on "Cruel and Unusual Punishments." See also the first 30 minutes or so of Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., in which Mr. Leuchter misses the point memorably by trying to make execution dignified by hanging paintings on the wall of the execution chamber.  

The central issue here appears to be respect for human dignity, for the dignity inherent in human being and human beings. Not only (at least some) capital punishment seems to be an assault on this dignity, but all "Cartesian" torture, and, indeed, Cartesianism itself too.


  1. I was reminded of this by our discussion on the relevance of the empirical. I had read it already many weeks ago, and I had been intending to comment, but I didn't get around to it until now.

    1) If Anscombe had put her claim to actual executioners, they would have denied that the role of the hood was what she claimed it was, or that the body of an executed person is vile at all in their sight. For instance, I have read the memoirs of Albert Pierrepoint, the penultimate chief executioner of Britain, and he actually describes his handling of the dead body after a hanging in terms whose overtones of reverence and sanctity are disturbingly reminiscent of Anscombe herself:

    "I stared at the flesh I had stilled. I had further duties to perform, but no longer as executioner. I had been nearest to this man in death, and I prepared him for burial. As he hung, I stripped him. Piece by piece I removed his clothes. It was not callous, but the best rough dignity I could give him, as he swung to the touch, still hooded in the noose. He yielded his garments without the resistance of limbs. If it had been in a prison outside London, I should have left him his shirt for a shroud, and put him in his coffin. In London there was always a post-mortem, and he had to be stripped entirely and placed on a mortuary stretcher. But in common courtesy I tied his empty shirt around his hips. Wade had fixed the tackle above. I passed a rope under the armpits of my charge, and took his head between my hands, inclining it from side to side to assure myself that the break has been clean. Then I went below, and Wade lowered the rope. A dead man, being taken down from execution, is a uniquely broken body whether he is a criminal or Christ, and I received this flesh, leaning helplessly into my arms, with the linen round his loins, gently with the reverence I thought due to the shell of any man who has sinned and suffered."

    Note that the hood was removed before burial, by the same person who had placed it, thus seemingly making it impossible for concealment of vileness to be its justification.

    2) I wonder why placing a hood on the head is "vile in our sight" while severing the head is apparently not. I haven't done any research on this, but I'd think that many would consider the latter far more horrific than the former. Not that an executioner would care; I have also read a book of interviews with the last two executioners in France, and they also talk about handling the body quite reverentially, including washing a head and wrapping it in clean linen before it was taken to be dissected. (France was the last country in Western Europe to abolish capital punishment, in 1981, and used the guillotine until the end.) But if contemporary Westerners were asked to place methods of execution in order of vileness, I think that decapitation - where some several pints of blood are literally shed, and where the head, far from being concealed, has pride of place - would come far above hanging, shooting or electrocution with a hood. In Britain in the 1950s, the Royal Commission on Capital Punishment was tasked with considering methods of execution other than hanging, which they did in painstaking detail, but only after first dismissing decapitation summarily as "shocking to public opinion in this country".

    3) A more promising argument, it seems to me, would point to the abolition of public executions (which has historically tended to precede the abolition of capital punishment itself, in many countries by as much as 50 or 100 years) as a sign that the standards of vileness become more stringent as civilisation progresses. As standards of decency evolve, the executed body becomes vile regardless of the method used, and the concealment is by means of prison walls and the admittance of as few witnesses as possible.

  2. This is all interesting, thanks. I'll have to think about it for some time, but here's a quick response. I think your point #3 is quite close to what Anscombe is getting at, or trying to get at. We conceal what seems indecent. In "Strange Fruit," Billie Holiday sings about the bulging eyes and the twisted mouth of victims of lynching. I assume it is these that the hood is meant to cover up in a hanging. With electrocution all kinds of things can go wrong, so it probably isn't the predictable effects so much as the unknown effects that are to be hidden. Beheading is different, because you can't cover it up in the same kind of way. But it is interesting that what the French found acceptable was considered beyond the pale elsewhere. I don't know what to make of that.

    Covering the face during a hanging might be quite consistent with being respectful (or sentimental) about the victim afterwards. In fact it might help--that's Anscombe's point about avoiding people becoming vile in your eyes. Your point, though, I take it, is that this vileness is likely to be an issue as soon as you take the hood off. That does seem right, but perhaps it isn't as much of an issue. You don't have to look for long and can, perhaps, close the eyes. As long as the hood was in place you would have no memory of the events of bulging and twisting taking place. You would at most see the face after these things had happened, and might be able to smooth them over. I don't know.