Understanding Torture


J. Jeremy Wisnewski, Understanding Torture, Edinburgh University Press, 2010, 273pp., $37.50 (pbk), ISBN 9780748635382.
Reviewed by Brian Feltham, University of Reading

Though very topical thanks to recent events, moral debate over torture is nothing new -- it is, of course, as old as torture itself. While focusing on more recent debates, this new book does a terrific job of situating them within the broader history of torture before mounting a sustained argument against its practice. It is a work of applied ethics and is aimed primarily at non-experts in both the discipline and the topic, while at the same time making an original contribution to the debate. While this would be a great book for anyone to read, it is clearly of particular use to students (most likely undergraduates) taking a course in applied ethics generally or the ethics of war in particular. There is some discussion of broader ethical theories (though perhaps not as much as would be ideal for more philosophical courses), and there is some good discussion of general philosophical methodologies (which would make it excellent for those less familiar with philosophy, such as politics or war studies students). Wisnewski approaches his subject holistically: looking at the history of torture, its role in judicial procedure and its legal status, and -- most importantly -- the reality of torture: what it is like to be tortured, to live with having been tortured, to perform torture, and what the broader social and political implications might be. As Wisnewski makes clear, it is not an easy matter even to understand what torture is -- and he intends that his whole book should be read as (in part) an attempt to explain this. While introductory in nature, the book is organised as a sustained line of argument for the unconditional moral wrongness of torture. This is a position I share; though as I shall outline below, I am not persuaded that Wisnewski's own arguments are entirely successful. 

Full Review can be read here.


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