News & Events

Wisnewski Co-Authors Book on “The Ethics of Torture”

July 6, 2009

Hartwick College Assistant Professor of Philosophy Jeremy Wisnewski and co-author R.D. Emerick have addressed one of the most controversial topics of this or any other time in their new book, The Ethics of Torture.

The book, due out in July from Continuum, puts forth the first complete introduction to the philosophical debates surrounding the ethics of torture, asking key questions in light of events such as the detainee abuse at the Abu Ghraib detention facility in Iraq.

"Torture is essentially universally abhorred, so when it came out that there were various so- called 'detainee abuses' at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, and articles came out in which people were supporting torture, I found this utterly confounding," Wisnewski said. "How is it that people have come so very rapidly to regard torture as acceptable? How can we on one hand regard this practice as abhorrent for years upon years, and then suddenly regard it as not only acceptable but also, in some cases, even obligatory? How is it that our perceptions of morality and moral obligations can be washed away by what we regard as expedient?"

Wisnewski, a confessed "obsessive" about these sorts of subjects and difficult questions, went to work studying the history, psychology, politics, and philosophy of torture. In 2008, he edited two volumes of the Review Journal of Political Philosophy, dedicated to exploring the use of torture and terrorism.

"Countries have been doing this for ages, and not just so-called barbarians," he said. "In the 1980s the British were using what they called 'The Five Techniques' against the Irish, for example. What's unique about our policy under the Bush administration is we've been explicit about what we've done.

"If you look at international law, there's really no question: What we've done is torture. Waterboarding is torture. The U.S. has even called it torture. We criticized other governments for it until the Bush administration."

While Wisnewski has another book in the works that will be an overview of the subject, "The Ethics of Torture" focuses on just that. He and Emerick address such questions as "What makes torture morally reprehensible? Are there any conditions under which torture is acceptable? What is it like to be tortured, and why do people engage in torture?"

They note that even those who have been vocal and political opponents of the practice have tended to "underestimate its wrongness."

"It's not just that torture victims have undergone pain or lost their dignity," he explained. "They have, but it's deeper than that. A person who undergoes torture never stops being tortured. It changes the very way one experiences the world. Victims are no longer able to relate to other people, they're no longer able to trust the world, or to trust their own sensibilities; their families fall apart, and in most cases their bodies turn against them. They end up living with hypertension, in chronic pain, and with other symptoms.

"Torture permanently changes the way you experience the world. It changes the person you thought you were. Torture violates dignity so exhaustively that it's matched by perhaps nothing else."

Wisnewski and Emerick intend to do additional work on the question of torture in the near future. These research plans involve exploring questions of race and gender in the torture literature. "The existence of latent anti-Arab racism," Wisnewski contends, "informs much of the literature that defends the use of torture in the West." Wisnewski further claims that "sexist assumptions about compulsory masculinity often infiltrate our thinking about the use of torture. These assumptions are deeply problematic in moral deliberation." Wisnewski and co-author Emerick intend to produce an article exploring these issues when they complete the independent projects on which they are currently working.

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Hartwick College is a private liberal arts and sciences college of 1,480 students, located in Oneonta, NY in the northern foothills of the Catskill Mountains. Hartwick's expansive Liberal Arts in Practice curriculum merges traditional liberal arts study, personalized teaching, and experiential learning approaches to emphasize Connecting the Classroom to the World. Add to that a wide range of off-campus internships, collaborative research, study-abroad opportunities, and a unique January Term, and Hartwick prepares students for the world ahead. Strong financial aid and scholarship programs keep a Hartwick education affordable.

Contact: Christopher Lott
Phone: 607-431-4030