Ethics and Torture

ETHC 1000

Professor: Dr. Linda M. Woolf

Office Hours:

Course Description:

What if a bomb was known to be ready to detonate in a city and you had in custody the person who had planted the bomb. It is acceptable to torture that person as a means to get the information on the location of the bomb? What if you only suspect the person of having such information? Is torture still acceptable? If you think torture is unacceptable, are other forms of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment that fall short of physical torture acceptable? And what if your job mandated being involved, directly or indirectly, with highly coercive interrogations and torture - what would you do? And is torture or other forms of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment an effective strategy to obtain information? Could you torture another human being? These are the sorts of questions we will address in this course.

In this course, we will examine the various definitions of torture, the international and domestic law concerning torture, the impact of torture on survivors, the effectiveness of torture as a means to obtain information, the role of various professions in torture, and the path to making torture acceptable to both torturers and an entire culture including the ethics of such a journey. Finally, as a case study, we will examine the journey of the American Psychological Association as it attempts to address the ethical role of psychologists in highly coercive interrogations.

Course Objectives and Outcomes:

  1. Objective: To explore various definitions of "torture" and "cruel, inhuman or degrading" (CID) as grounded in both international/domestic law and the research literature.

    Outcome: Students will be able to articulate various definitions of torture and CID and discuss the benefits and limitations associated with each definition.

  2. Objective: To become familiar with various United Nations (UN) documents and conventions related to the topic of torture and other CID treatment or punishment such as the UN Convention Against Torture and the UN Principles of Medical Ethics relevant to the Role of Health Personnel, particularly Physicians, in the Protection of Prisoners and Detainees against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

    Outcome: Students will be able to discuss the main points associated with each of these documents and conventions.

  3. Objective: To become more knowledgeable about the various types of torture and other CID treatment or punishment including both physical and psychological forms of torture and other CID treatment or punishment. To become familiar about the effects of such treatment on an individual, both short and long term.

    Outcome: Students will know the various types of torture and other CID treatment or punishment, both physical and psychological, and students will be able to discuss both the short and long terms effects of torture or other CID treatment or punishment on an individual both physically and psychologically.

  4. Objective: To examine the research literature concerning the utilitarian arguments for or against torture as means to effectively obtain information.

    Outcome: Students will be able to discuss the research finding concerning the usefulness of torture as a means to obtain information.

  5. Objective: To explore and evaluate the various cultural factors which may play a role in acceptance of torture and other CID treatment or punishment and the path to the creation of an "official" torturer.

    Outcome: Students will be able to discuss the psychological and sociological research concerning the creation of a culture accepting of torture and the steps leading individuals to participate in socially-sanctioned torture.

  6. Objective: To explore the media reports of psychologists' involvement in torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment at detention centers for foreign detainees and the ethics of such involvement. To explore the various current and future responses of the American Psychological Association in response to such reports.

    Outcome: Students will be able to discuss the issue of torture, ethics, and professional responsibility using the issue of psychologists' involvement in coercive interrogations and the APA's response as a case study.

Class Meetings:

Mondays, 2:00 - 3:50. Attendance in required.

Course Requirements:

An in-class midterm quiz, a final exam, a short paper, and class participation/discussion.

All grades will be assigned on a scale of 0 - 10 with:

90 - 100A-,AExcellent
80 - 89B-,B,B+Above Average
70 - 79C-,C,C+Average
60 - 69D-,D,D+Below Average
Less than 60FFailing

Percent of Grade:

Final Exam45%
Short paper15%
Class participation/Discussion 10%

Examinations: The in-class quiz will include multiple choice, matching, and short answer. The final exam will be inclass and include short answer and essay.

Short Paper: The purpose of the paper is to provide you with the opportunity to explore an area related to the issue of ethics and torture in more depth. The paper is to be a 3-5 page related to the issue of ethics and torture and will constitute 15% of your final grade.

Policy: Topics must be approved by the instructor. Directions for topic submission will be discussed during the first week of class. Topics that have not been approved will not be accepted. Deadline for acceptance of papers is Dec. 4. Note: This deadline is not a suggestion; papers accepted following the deadline will experience a drop in grade(s) except in cases of emergency discussed with the instructor.

Papers must be submitted electronically in Word format to

Class Participation & Discussion: Please realize that your participation in this class is extremely important. As such, class participation will constitute 10 percent of your final grade. The participation grade will derive from active discussion and analysis both in class and via the class listserv. Attendance alone is not enough to qualify for participation points.

Students with disabilities who believe that they may need accommodations in this class are encouraged to contact me or the Director of the Academic Resource Center, as soon as possible to ensure that such accommodations can be implemented in a timely fashion.

Policy Statements:

Plagiarism (attempting to pass off the work of another as one's own) is not acceptable. Plagiarism includes copying all or part of another's writings (even a single sentence), inappropriate paraphrasing, using another student's paper as your own, submitting a paper for more than one class. All papers will be submitted to the university's plagiarism database for review. Plagiarism, either intentional or unintentional, will result in a grade of 0 for that assignment and will be turned over to the appropriate university source for disciplinary action. In addition, cheating on exams will also result in the same fate.

Here are some Web sites that will help you avoid the problem of plagiarism particularly plagiarism resulting from paraphrasing too closely to the original source. -

Students are expected to arrive at class meetings having already read the material assigned, and to ask questions to clarify any areas that remain unclear. While every attempt will be made to explain or expand upon particularly difficult areas, the primary purpose of classroom lecture is to enhance, rather than to duplicate, the readings.

Late withdraws from this class will not be approved by the instructor except in cases of emergency discussed with the instructor. No late withdraws will be approved on the basis of poor class performance.

This syllabus is subject to change at the instructor's discretion. All changes concerning course requirements will be provided in writing. Changes concerning exam dates may be made at the instructor's discretion and communicated verbally to the class.

It is understood that remaining in this course (not dropping or withdrawing from this course) constitutes an agreement to abide by the terms outlined in this syllabus and an acceptance of the requirements outlined in this document.





October24 Introduction to class

What is torture?

Why do we ask the question?

Review United Nations Documents - see list below

October31What does International Law say about torture?
  • Human Rights Learning Centre (2006). Study guide on torture, inhuman or degrading treatment. Retrieved July 4, 2006, from

  • Mayer, J. (2005). The experiment. New Yorker, 81(20).

November7Extraordinary Renditions

The role of psychologists

  • Annas, G. J. (2005). Unspeakably cruel--Torture, medical ethics, and the law. New England Journal of Medicine, 352, 2127-2132.

  • Behnke, S. (2006). Psychological ethics and national security: The position of the American Psychological Association. European Psychologist, 11, 153-155.

  • Benjamin, M. (2006, August 4). Psychologists group still rocked by torture debate. Salon.

  • Farberman, R. (2005). 'A stain on medical ethics': Comment. Lancet, 366, 712.

  • Wilks, M. (2005). A stain on medical ethics. Lancet, 366, 429-431.

  • Woolf, L. M. (2005). Psychologists, coercive interrogations, and torture. Peace Psychology, 14(2), 1, 28-29.

  • Woolf, L. M. (2007, Sept. 1). A sad day from psychologists: A sadder day for human rights. Retrieved from

November14 Midterm Quiz

S-21/Tuol Sleng

No assigned readings
November21 & 28The path to torture for both individuals and cultures
  • Correia, I., Vala, J., & Aguiar, P. (2001). The effects of belief in a just world and victim's innocence on secondary victimization, judgments of justice and deservingness. Social Justice Research, 14, 327-342

  • Haritos-Fatouros, M. (1988). The official torturer: A learning model for obedience to the authority of violence. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 18, 1107-1120.

  • Kordon, D. (1991). Impunity's psychological effects: Its ethical consequences. Journal of Medical Ethics, 17(S), 29-32.

  • Wantchekon, L., & Healy, A. (1999). The "game" of torture. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 43, 596-609.

  • Woolf, L. M., & Hulsizer, M. R. (2005). Torture? But this is different! Peace Psychology, 14(2), 3-4.

December5Impact of torture on the victim

Should we torture?

  • Arrigo, J. M. (2004). A utilitarian argument against torture interrogation of terrorists. Science and Engineering Ethics, 10(3), 1-30.

  • Hanscom, K. L. (2001). Treating survivors of war trauma and torture. American Psychologist, 56, 1032-1039.

  • Hovens, J. E., & Drozdek, B. (2002). The terror of torture: A continuum of evil. In C. E. Stout (Ed.), The psychology of terrorism (Vol. 2, pp. 75-104). Westport, CT: Praeger.

  • Levin, M. (1990). Torture and other extreme measures taken for the general good: Further reflections on a philosophical problem. In P. Suedfeld (Ed.), Psychology and torture (pp. 89-98). New York: Hemisphere.

December12FINAL EXAM

Other Documents to be Examined in Class: