The Torture Debate and the Toleration of Torture [Book Review]

Criminal Justice Ethics 38:138-152 (2019)
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One of the questions raised by this important and thought-provoking collection of essays on torture is how and why the consensus that torture is wrong - a consensus enshrined in international law for decade - has become so fragile. As Scott Anderson writes in the introduction to this volume, "how did abusing and torturing prisoners suddenly become so popular?” The chapters in this volume offer insights into this question from the perspectives of history, psychology, law, philosophy, and sociology. This interdisciplinary approach highlights important and often overlooked aspects of the torture debate. Yet, the questions that the authors take to be important (for example, about whether the justification of torture should even be contemplated) reflect different and sometimes incompatible normative assumptions about what torture is and about what matters in the torture debate. These assumptions, I shall argue, are shaped by, and play a role in shaping, the moral, political, and social narratives that contribute to or resist the toleration of torture in the US and elsewhere. Thus, while the disparate nature of the contributions (perhaps inevitably) undermine the cohesiveness of the volume as a whole, it illuminates, even if it does not resolve, larger questions about the place and function of academic debate in the history and use of torture.
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