The Corner

Context Is Everything

I personally believe torture is wrong. We shouldn’t do it. Even if it means me, my husband, and my two sons get blown up. Seriously, if I had to choose I’d say: Death is common to us all; torture is a choice. This doesn’t resolve all our public controversies. You still have to decide what exactly the essence of torture is:


This APA press release heading, “Saying it Again: Psychologists May Never Participate in Torture” got me wondering: When is it okay to inflict pain in order to gain information?

Study participants were given money, with the understanding that they could keep for themselves whatever cash remained. They experienced one pulse of electric shock and then had to indicate how much money they would pay in order to avoid receiving 15 more shocks of the same intensity. Then, a computer program would determine how much the volunteers would actually have to pay. The program would randomly select a dollar amount — if that amount was higher than what the participants were willing to pay, then the participants would be shocked. However, if the computer’s price was lower than the participant’s price, then they would pay the computer’s price and avoid the pain. The volunteers were informed that the computer selection would be completely random, so it was really in their best interest to select a price that accurately reflected how they value the pain from the electric shock. For each volunteer, this process was repeated a number of times, with differing intensities of shocks.

Obviously, I’m not saying it’s the same thing; it’s not. I’m just saying it raises the question: What is the meaning of the word, torture? Is it consent that makes the difference between inflicting pain for science and torture? Is it the motivation of the person inflicting suffering? Or is inflicting pain on humans to extract information always wrong? Or is it only wrong when the person can’t get up and walk away if he or she wants? Is it a question of how much pain or deprivation?

Sadly, we need to know. I don’t.


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