Devil of a decision

July 2, 2004

Bob Brecher replying to Alan Dershowitz's recommendation of torture in some legal cases (Letters, June 18) rightly stresses that this would be a slippery slope, but he fails to make the point that torture is simply wrong. The deliberate infliction of pain and suffering is a form of coercion and it offends against basic principles of the rule of law, such as equality before the law, the right of self-defence and the presumption of innocence. The very idea of a "judicial" practice of torture is therefore a contradiction in terms.

What makes Dershowitz's stance at all plausible is the assumption of a collectivist-utilitarian type of morality where absolute standards of morality do not prevail. Dershowitz wants to back people into a corner by making them choose to take one life to save five. In this kind of moral universe, all values are relative and even evil comes to seem relatively good.

Brecher slips into this kind of collectivism by arguing that a society that condoned judicial torture would diminish us all morally. But "society" as a whole doesn't make this choice: governments do - on our behalf. The problem with the kind of perspective that supposes that values belong to the institution and not the person is that it assumes a situation of totally social good or bad that leaves the individual apart and non-responsible.

This in itself leads to corruption.

Dershowitz's view is the classic Faustian temptation to suppose that we can do a deal with the Devil on our terms - and we know where that leads.

Nigel Probert

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