Feel the pain — within limits

February 17, 2010 § 8 Comments

A punishment, even a punishment of life imprisonment or death, is necessarily and in principle limited. The suffering inflicted through torture is deliberately not limited: as far as the victim knows it could go on forever, and he has no notion — even if there are formal rules in place limiting it — to what extent it is limited. Indeed, letting him know its limits devalues it tremendously, as those who objected to release of that information will be quick to tell you.

Torturing someone to death as distinct from licit execution might seem to pose a special problem here. But on reflection I don’t think so, since the behaviors chosen in torturing someone to death are objectively suffering-maximization behaviors, distinct from licit killing-the-guilty-as-representative-of-the-common-good behaviors. If the punishment is death, then torture is by definition a means disproportionate to that end, so it fails both on intrinsic immorality and as disproportionate means.

Thoughts?

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§ 8 Responses to Feel the pain — within limits

  • M.Z. says:

    I think you have a genus problem. Many an advocate of torture wants to place torture in the area of punishment and more generally under the umbrella of correction. To save seven paragraphs I will propose without proof that the actions our government has undertaken cannot be understood as being correction. (Then there are those that attempt to argue that we are committing acts under the genus of war but then argue we aren't dealing with a person that enjoys the protections of war. Go figure.)

    The proper genus is intelligence gathering. The infliction of suffering is indeterminate because our desire for intelligence doesn't have a limit. The person's death is merely to seek the maximum potential of intelligence. Sometimes semi-moral prudence enters into the equation before death where the person decides zapping the man behind the curtain isn't going to lead to more correct answers, but as that experiment showed, the likelihood of stopping is very low once one is fully engaged.

  • zippy says:

    The infliction of suffering is indeterminate because our desire for intelligence doesn't have a limit.

    That is pretty interesting, at least as pertains to torture-as-interrogation, though I think there are other reasons that people are tortured. That goes back to our ancient discussions of torture's relation to the infliction of suffering on a prisoner as a “squeezing” of some commodity – often information, but sometimes something else like sadistic pleasure – out of the victim, irrespective of the victim's own good. Which goes further up the tree toward “treating a person as a thing”, I suppose.

    The reason so many people intuit that this is OK is that they think, well, he's heinous, he deserves anything we do to him. Of course even if that is stipulated to be true it isn't just about him: abortion is also, inherently, gravely harmful to the abortionist, and to the society which supports it.

    Thanks for the interesting comment.

  • Tommy says:

    Seems to me there is a basic ambiguity that undermines your point. At least it appears to, but I am willing to be shown otherwise.

    Some people claim that there are standard, ordinary punishments, given under law, for a convicted criminal, with a definite limit, that constitutes torture. In fact, there are some people who object to ALL forms of corporal punishment precisely as being on the torture scale. But without accepting that extreme position, we can easily see that some of the old-time punishments, like 5 lashes with a whip, are pretty commonly considered torture in today's point of view. Yet such a punishment clearly is limited, clearly was handed down in sentencing for the very reasons we punish at all. So it hardly seems the case that it is fundamental to torture that it is unlimited in the mind of the recipient.

    since the behaviors chosen in torturing someone to death are objectively suffering-maximization behaviors,

    I don't quite see that. Some of the methods of putting people to death were indeed more painful than simply chopping off the head, but were a far, far cry from _maximizing suffering_, such as hanging just to pick an obvious example. But that punishment, while limited in the amount of pain it inflicted, most assuredly has some people today who consider it a form of torture. So they would call hanging “torturing someone to death” without there being any “suffering maximization behavior”.

    The basic problem is that torture as commonly used includes some reference to either / or (a) lots of pain, and (b) some kind of setting aside of appropriate limits of humane constraints. Some people think that it is torture if it involves lots of pain, even if it is done in the context of legitimate punishment (or what would be legitimate if not for the amount of pain that they think is an excess), where others think that any kind of pain is torture if done in any sort of setting aside of humane constraints, even mild pain, and still others think that you need BOTH aspects in order for it to really be torture. And there are a lot of formal authoritative documents out there to support each of these points of view.

    Legitimate punishments in general are a potential problem for your proposition, but especially any kind of corporal punishment.

    torturing someone to death are objectively suffering-maximization behaviors, distinct from licit killing-the-guilty-as-representative-of-the-common-good behaviors. If the punishment is death

    If the punishment is designed to be proportionate to the degree of evil in the criminal's offense against the state, sometimes this may be death by hanging, and sometimes a greater suffering is needed than the pain of death by hanging, and thus a more severe manner of death might be decreed. But in neither case is the pain inflicted open ended, since it is chosen specifically to be proportionate to the evil of the crime and the offender's evil will toward the state.

  • Lydia McGrew says:

    Just for the record: What I've read indicates that hanging as done in England at the height of the British Empire until it was abolished well into the 20th century was done in a particular way that was supposed to break the neck instantly and hence was a pretty humane way to kill the prisoner. It was called “being quick on the drop.” I have read (though the source was not maximally reliable) that there were even hanging trainers that went around the British Empire teaching hangmen in foreign countries to kill people this way by hanging.

  • Zippy says:

    Tommy:

    Since I'm not committed to the notion that five lashes or hanging are forms of torture, the specific examples don't necessarily undermine the proposal. On the other hand, the fact that suffering does seem to be on something like a 'continuous' scale does appear to invoke the sorites paradox.

    The question then becomes, “is it possible for an act falling under a sorites-like description to be intrinsically immoral”. I don't see why not. In which case the unlimited-suffering principle in the post would represent a sufficient case for torture — anything which meets the criteria is in fact torture, since the number of grains of sand is increased by the act or ensemble of acts with no upper limit — but there might well be other things properly called torture which do not meet the criteria.

  • Tommy says:

    Oh, before I forget:

    distinct from licit killing-the-guilty-as-representative-of-the-common-good behaviors.

    I've heard that “representative” sort of language before, but I am puzzled about where it comes from. Surely we don't punish at root to create a representation of the common good. Don't we punish to re-establish justice, which is of itself constitutive of the common good (at least, one aspect thereof)? Seems to me the punishment the state hands down isn't merely a foreshadowing of some ultimate justice, like a story-book allusion to some other reality. Ultimate justice will end up incorporating that punishment as an organic piece of the whole, because the punishment is, itself, just.

  • Zippy says:

    Oh, that was just my long winded way of saying that the acting person is a representative of the common good (as opposed to representing his own interests).

    It was my ham-handed way of tossing in the commutative-distributive or “competent authority” distinction.

  • Tommy says:

    Lydia, the sources I saw indicated that the quick neck-break was not practiced with any sort of common usage until the 1800's, and before that the short-drop was the norm, with death taking between 10 and 20 minutes. Though cutting off the veins and nerves induced paralysis and unconsciousness well before that, sometimes as quickly as 30 seconds.

    Be that as it may, I have never come across any authoritative Church source which suggests that hanging in order to enact the death penalty ought to be considered torture. Although I have heard any number of people say it now-a-days.

    Since I'm not committed to the notion that five lashes or hanging are forms of torture,

    Zippy, I am not surprised that you are not committed to that. But many people are, who oppose torture whole and entire. At least in their minds, torture is torture regardless of whether the criminal deserves punishment, and that kind of severe pain, life-threatening pain, mind-disrupting pain, is exactly the sort of stuff the Church has called torture.

    The point I was trying to get at would be made sufficiently if there is ANY old-style punishment meted out, under law, specified by the judge in order to be proportionate to the evil of the crime, that today all or nearly all of us calls torture. What about stoning? Or, what about being hanged, drawn and quartered? It is not important exactly where that line gets drawn.

    On the other hand, the fact that suffering does seem to be on something like a 'continuous' scale does appear to invoke the sorites paradox.

    Good point, I was not thinking about that point exactly in those terms.

    In which case the unlimited-suffering principle in the post would represent a sufficient case for torture — anything which meets the criteria is in fact torture,

    I guess so, if you are revising this statement in the first post:
    The suffering inflicted through torture is deliberately not limited:
    to identify some forms of torture. That would work. And it would also leave off the table for the moment the consideration of punishments that are also torture.

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