The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 reopened what many people in this country had long assumed was a settled ethical question: Is torture ever morally permissible? Within days, some people in the United States began to suggest that, in these new circumstances, the new answer was, Yes. This book argues that 9/11 did not, as some have said, "change everything." Institutionalized state torture remains as wrong today as it was on the day before those terrible attacks. Furthermore, U.S. practices during the "war on terror" find their roots in a history that began long before 9/11, a history that includes both support for torture regimes abroad and the use of torture in the jails and prisons of this country. The author argues that the most common ethical approaches to torture - utilitarianism and deontology - do not provide sufficient theoretical purchase on the problem. Both methods treat torture as a series of isolated actions that arise in moments of extremity, rather than as an ongoing, historically and socially embedded practice. She advocates instead a virtue ethics approach, based in part on the work of Alasdair MacIntyre. Such an approach better illumines torture's ethical dimensions, taking into account the implications of torture for human virtue and flourishing. An examination of torture's effect on the four cardinal virtues-courage, temperance, justice, and prudence or practical reason-suggests specific ways in which each of these may be deformed in a society that countenances torture.
Rebecca Gordon received her B.A. from Reed College and her M.Div. and Ph.D. in Ethics and Social Theory from Graduate Theological Union. She teaches in the Department of Philosophy and for the Leo T. McCarthy Center for Public Service and the Common Good at the University of San Francisco. Previous publications include Letters From Nicaragua (1986) and Cruel and Usual: How Welfare "Reform" Punishes Poor People (2001).