Psychology and torture

Stanley Fish has an interesting opinion piece in today’s New York Times.  In September the American Psychological Association (APA) reversed its position and now bans its members from participating in some military interrogations and all torture, a stance taken earlier by the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association.  (The psychiatrists’ group is also known as APA; in order to avoid confusion, for today APA means the psychologists.)  Fish wonders why it took the psychologists so long.

Fish first suggests that psychologists reached this position more slowly because medicine and psychiatry are fundamentally healing arts, whereas psychology is an academic field that pursues knowledge, not just healing.  As might be expected, several commenters quickly note that medicine and psychiatry also engage in academic research, courtroom testimony, and other non-healing pursuits.  Nonetheless, Fish has a point.  Medicine, and by extension psychiatry, have a long and relatively narrow history of focusing on the well-being of individual patients.  In contrast, psychology originated in academia; clinical psychology is a relatively new addition to a scholarly and experimentalist field.  Perhaps that history made it harder for the APA to separate itself from the fascinating if troubling human realities of military interrogation and torture.

However, this account seems incomplete, and it appears that Fish feels that way, too.  His argument shifts to the alleged difference between pure and applied knowledge:

[T]he moment psychological knowledge of causes and effects is put into strategic action is the moment when psychology ceases to be a science and becomes an extension of someone’s agenda.

He argues that psychology is heir to the ancient discipline of rhetoric, the art of persuasion where the “emphasis is not on what is true, but on what works.”  The susceptibility to “base appeals” has been “mapped and scientifically described by the modern art of psychology.”  He concludes: “Applied psychology can never be clean.”

Several comments that follow Fish’s paper take issue with the last line.  What does it mean to be clean?  Can any real-world field be clean?  Others (e.g., here and here) note the long history of military funding of psychology, and suggest a “follow the money” approach might address Fish’s original question.  Still others argue that the involvement of psychologists can be merciful in settings of interrogation and torture, as the alternative is sheer physical agony at the hands of the untrained.  One professor of rhetoric defends his maligned field.  And so it goes.

In my view there is no sharp distinction between pure and applied knowledge.  Every bench scientist and laboratory researcher hopes his or her work will someday prove useful.  This hope fuels the endeavor.  The problem is, one never knows in advance the uses any knowledge may serve.  Atoms for peace, or atomic weapons?  Microbiology for vaccines, or for bioterrorism?  Given that it is impossible to know in advance, ethical prohibitions apply to unethical behavior.  There is no such thing as unethical knowledge.

“Slippery slope” arguments applied to behavior are very pertinent here.  If it is wrong as a physician to be present in the torture chamber, is it also wrong to be available nearby?  How about acting as personal physician to the torturers, so they can have long, healthy careers torturing others?  These are not easy lines to draw, but the distinctions are important.  Likewise, if psychology in the service of brutally extracted confessions is wrong, how about psychology in the service of involuntarily altering a pedophile’s obsession?  Or influencing an addict to turn away from recreational drugs?

These kinds of lines are best drawn by larger society, not professional organizations.  Harsh interrogation and torture (which exist on a continuum) are unethical for everyone, not just mental health experts.  The behavior itself is wrong.  The specific means used and the professional status of its practitioners are immaterial.  Position statements by professional organizations are largely symbolic in the context of a larger society, national and global, that still condones these practices.

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