Ethics and Eighteenth Century Torture

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Can the Use of Torture be Justified?
This report aims to, in the first instance, define torture. It then examines the history of torture and looks at international law that relates to torture.   The main part of the study analyses ethical theories in relation to torture and uses these ethical viewpoints to examine whether or not torture can be justified in any circumstances.  In addition, the Algerian War and the Iraq War will be used as case studies to further discuss the ethical issues surrounding torture.  Conclusions will be drawn and the author’s answer to the question ‘can the use of torture ever be justified?’ will be given, based on the findings in the rest of the report. Limitations of Study

This study has its limitations.  First of all, only two case studies are used.  There are numerous cases of torture throughout the world and throughout history that could be utilised.  In doing so, perhaps a different conclusion would be made.  As torture is such an emotive subject it is difficult to ensure that the facts are truly represented.  Before the nineteenth century some countries publicly acknowledged torture as an instrument of judicial inquiry, however today the vast majority of countries where torture is practised will blankly deny any knowledge of it.  This, of course, makes a study of torture difficult. In addition, as will be seen, there are numerous, conflicting ethical theories that can be applied to the topic of torture.  A person’s personal beliefs will influence how much credence they give to each viewpoint.  Consequently, the author’s opinions are likely to differ from the reader’s.  Definition of Torture

Torture has a widely understood definition of causing someone severe pain or mental anguish, usually in order to gain some information from the person being tortured, most usually a confession.  Amnesty International state that ‘torture is the systematic and deliberate infliction of acute pain in any form by one person on another, in order to accomplish the purpose of the former against the will of the latter’ (Klayman, 1978, p482).  This definition encompasses both physical and mental pain.   It also notes that torture has a purpose, and does not allow torture for the sake of the torturer’s amusement. 

The Commission for the European Convention on Human Rights defines torture simply as ‘deliberate inhuman treatment causing very serious or cruel suffering’ (Morgan & Evans, 1999, p95).  It offers examples of forcing people to adopt a stress position in rooms where there is a continuous loud hissing noise, hooding, and deprivation of food and water. The Commission for the European Convention on Human Rights’ definition is the author’s preferred definition.  This is because it defines torture, not by the torturer’s intentions, but by the effect the treatment has on the tortured.   A Brief History of Torture

The word torture often conjures up images of medieval torture instruments such a branding irons and head screws.  From the mid fourteenth century to the end of the eighteenth century torture was an accepted practise by armies, judicial systems and even churches (Maran, 1989, p vii).  Public opinion changed in the nineteenth century, but torture continued to be carried out.  Once the torture of Jews by the Nazis in the Second World War became public knowledge, numerous international laws were bought into effect to prevent the use of torture.  However, torture still continues to this day, but as its use is still widely condemned, details of torture are either kept non-public, are down played or justified by manipulation of public opinion.  So called civilised countries are just as likely to be the perpetrators of torture today as countries with a known poor human rights record (Kellaway, 2003, p34).    The International Context of Torture

International law currently absolutely and unequivocally prohibits torture in all circumstances.  There are many international laws and conventions that define...
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