torturing the torture debate. again.

The anti-water boarding rationalizing is still in gear. PhysOrg reports on a study about Crossing the line: What constitutes torture?. As one might guess, it is a study whose goal is to find a reason to support a foregone conclusion.

The study’s conclusion: “The legal standard for evaluating torture is psychologically untenable.”

So what can be done? First, overcompensate. “Knowing that we tend to be biased toward not counting torture as torture, we should define torture very liberally, very inclusively,” says Loewenstein. And don’t trust empathy. “This is an area where we can’t rely on our emotional system to guide us. We have to use our intellect.”

The whole idea boils down to the assertion that you can’t know what is torture unless you’ve experienced it. Without that shared experience, you cannot have a proper empathy. An example of how tortured this approach is involves the fact that many in the US armed forces are trained in torture resistance by being actually subjected to the enhanced interrogation techniques that offend the researchers.

There is another interesting indicator in the research by the indication of the standard of referent.

“Our research suggests that, except in a rarified situation”—during actual suffering—“people are going to exhibit a systematic bias to under-appreciate the misery produced by the tactics they endorse,” says Loewenstein.

Misery? That is an entirely different standard than “infliction of severe physical or mental pain or suffering” which the U.N. uses.

This sort of ‘research’ indicates why the ‘debate’ is so non-productive. It is full of subjective and perceptive measures and non-established presumptions such as that about empathy.

The question for defining what is torture and what is not needs better. The focus of research needs to be on something empirical or at least objective. For example, if someone is subject to torture that leaves physical scars, then you have a measure of the nature of torture you can use to determine if it was severe or not. That sort of torture, though, is old school. Modern methods, such as water boarding, do not leave any physical evidence so how can you measure its impact on the subject to determine severity? It does seem that if a human undergoes something severe, its impact should be visible in some definable way. Research that makes that impact measurable in some way would be a contribution to the debate. The PhysOrg reported study does not meet this level of integrity.

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