Waldron on torture Notes for May 3

Main points

Waldron discusses two points: the desirability of pursuing a strict definition for the term “torture” and whether any legal limits should be considered absolute.


Our discussion showed that we were divided about the first question. J.P. said that some of these cases will eventually wind up in court and that, when they do, we will need definitions to know who can be convicted of what. Jamie expressed some doubt about that and added that there are disadvantages of attempting to offer a definition.

Most of our discussion centered on a particular phrase of Waldron’s that I found interesting: “there are some scales one really should not be on” (p. 518). Chris and Jamie persuaded me that it’s a less useful point than I had thought: everything depends on how you describe the relevant scale.

For instance, it may well be that if you have to ask about the line between flirting with students and harassing them, you’re on “the wrong scale.” But if the scale is “ways of interacting with students,” then it’s a scale that every teacher has to be on even though that scale includes a line between flirting and harassing. Similarly, if there is a scale of acceptable and unacceptable interrogation practices, torture will, presumably, be on the scale along with other clearly acceptable practices. There’s no question of getting off the scale unless you’re going to abandon interrogation altogether.

Alex, on the other hand, made the case that we should think of the relevant scales as falling within categories of behavior, such as the acceptable and unacceptable.


Most of the arguments here are familiar ones, though they’re not any worse for that.

We talked a bit about the point that everyone draws the line somewhere (p. 527). I think Waldron meant this to show that no one engages in purely consequentialist thinking: there are some things every psychologically normal person is unwilling to do.

But Max was quite correct in pointing out the limitations of the point. In particular, it doesn’t show that the proper place to draw the line is before interrogation involves torture.

This page was written by Michael Green for Philosophy of Law, Philosophy 34, Spring 2010. It was posted May 3, 2010.
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