Torture and Psychology

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shutterstockAny discipline that makes claim to scientific status is ineluctably bound to consider ethical problems: If its aim is to truly understand the phenomenon that is its focus, then the possibility of control and manipulation of that phenomenon is a theoretical possibility. When the discipline has an applied dimension, that possibility is instantiated in practice, and the ethical concerns intensify. Medicine is, perhaps, the most obvious exemplar of this linkage, and that has led to the positing of a single overriding principle to guide and constrain its power: Do no harm.

In Psychology, binding ethical guidelines have been slower to emerge. The conduct of some celebrated (and intellectually valuable) experiments has been ethically debatable, to put it mildly, and if you are not already familiar with the relevant names and findings, you soon will be: Milgram, Zimbardo, Money, Little Albert. The use of non-human animals in research has become ethically problematic only recently despite the suffering inflicted on countless sentient creatures in the pursuit of psychological knowledge. Not only research, but also the practice of Psychology has been implicated as well: the use of psychiatric diagnosis as a tool of political repression was common in both the former Soviet Union and, according to Thomas Szasz, in the United States. It was fervently hoped that the development of comprehensive ethical guidelines would put a stop to these disturbing tendencies, or at least identify clearly the parameters beyond which lay widely-accepted recognition of wrong, and sometimes criminal, behavior.

Recent events have demonstrated conclusively that such hopes were mistaken. This article makes evident the continuing temptations of psychological knowledge to serve the needs of power rather than enlightenment. One can argue about the politics of torture (I can’t, but others can and do); one can seek the high moral ground by placing defense of country before defense of individual autonomy; one can even deny that torture is in fact torture, and thereby resolve the cognitive dissonance that arises from actually knowing that one is acting in bad faith.

What one cannot do, I think, is pretend that it is the duty of psychologists to put their understanding of human behavior at the service of the state if that means they are subverting the intentions of international law and the explicit ethical imperatives of their own chosen profession. The crimes against truth and morality described here should alert us yet again to the fact that people who think themselves good can do very bad things. That is something to remember when making judgments about actions taken in a different time and moral climate; it is even more important to remember it here and now.

One Comment

  1. These article was very interesting, a very big connection to the experiment I chose, The Stanford Prison Experiment. Both articles are related to prison and how people act, both guards and subjects. From the conclusion of the Stanford experiment, we see how much damage was done to the participants. Many things are similar in treatment, in both cases the prisoners have no identity, mistreatment, overriding of power, and no help to the victims. Prisons connected to Stanford ended after five days because of the physical and mental damage done. This is happening again, just not in a trail room.

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