Dirty hands, cosmopolitan value and state evil: Reflections on torture

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[Extract] The debate about state use of torture has surged in the last 5 years. Oren Gross, Alan Dershowitz, Michael Gross, and Fritz Alhoff are a sample of those arguing either for the legitimation of, or excusing, the use of torture by state officials in prosecuting struggles against other states or non-state actors. Although the arguments for torture vary, I intend to explore, evaluate, and reject one specific argument first made by Michael Walzer in his 1970’s paper “Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands”.
I will first locate this within the general ethical division we remark in the history
of western philosophy. Of the deontological, utilitarian, and virtue-ethical traditions only the first seems to be unequivocally opposed to the state use of torture. Not one of the defences of torture that I have encountered relies on the deontological principle, and I think not surprisingly, for deontology offers the strongest foundation for unconditional prohibition of torture. It takes its cue from the Kantian categorical imperative, in particular the end in itself formulation. This specifies that one may never use an individual merely as a means to prudential purposes, no matter how pressing. The categorical imperative stresses the absolute worth and dignity of the individual will.
Since state torture essentially requires the state agent to break the will of individuals and groups through the infliction of intense physical and psychological suffering, it is a direct attack on the most fundamental value of deontological theory.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)66-79
Number of pages14
JournalAnimus: a philosophical journal for our time
Publication statusPublished - 2006
Externally publishedYes


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