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Torture Doctors Don’t Care April 15, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, ethics of care.
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A leaked report by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) concludes that medical personnel were involved in torturing terrorist suspects held overseas by the CIA, according to reports in the New York Times. The article highlights the fact that the medical personnel were violating codes of medical ethics.

Facilitating such practices, which the Red Cross described as torture, was a violation of medical ethics even if the medical workers’ intentions had been to prevent death or permanent injury, the report said. But it found that the medical professionals’ role was primarily to support the interrogators, not to protect the prisoners, and that the professionals had “condoned and participated in ill treatment.”

This suggests that there is something especially egregious about medical personnel being involved. Torture is bad, but it is even worse when medics participate.

Dominic Wilkinson at Practical Ethics asks why:

But would it really make it better if the assistants were soldiers or CIA officers who had received some medical training? What if they were scientists or vets?

He goes on to argue:

Sometimes we hold doctors to higher standards than the rest of the community. We may, for example, feel particularly aggrieved if a doctor gossips about our health to another patient, but not be concerned (or as concerned) if this is done by our hairdresser. But the moral requirement not to torture or to assist in torture is not of this nature. It is something that should have equal force on a doctor or a CIA officer, a hairdresser or a vet…But the reason that it is wrong for doctors or other health professionals to assist in torture is because it is torture – not because they are doctors.

I am not convinced that the wrongness of the action is unaffected by the fact it is committed by medical professionals. And I think the ethics of care explains why.

We expect medical professionals to be at least in part motivated by care. Doctoring or nursing is a helping profession in which having the motive to help others is essential to being successful.

Medical professionals who assist with torture not only violate their medical code of ethics. They also are acting on a motive which is diabolical when it moves a medical professional, thereby amplifying the wrongness of their actions.

CIA officers (or hairdressers) need not have any special caring motive. Thus, although they violate a code of ethics by torturing prisoners, their motives are not in substantial conflict with the motives required to do their job.

Of course, all human beings ought to be motivated to some degree by care (on my view of an ethic of care). The act of torture by anyone (in most circumstances) is wrong because it (usually) lacks a caring motive. But for persons who are not medical professionals, that wrongness is not amplified by a motive utterly out of line with professional requirements.

There is more on torture of a different sort at Reviving the Left.

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Comments»

1. a hartzenbusch - April 27, 2009

“Medical professionals who assist with torture not only violate their medical code of ethics. They also are acting on a motive which is diabolical when it moves a medical professional, thereby amplifying the wrongness of their actions.”
And when the Justice Department finally decides to prosecute those involved in the crime of torture, let us insist that the medical personnel involved in such acts is also charged as aiding and abetting torture.


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