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Sharam Kohan

Torture is a work of inflicting unbearable pain that leads to devastation, a being broken, undone, overwhelmed in such a way that once tortured one remains tortured. By ‘devastation’ is meant the moral equivalent of psychological trauma: one is undone in one’s status as a person. In torture the victim experiences himself to be existentially helpless before another who has complete control over his body: the victim’s active body belongs to the torturer, leaving the victim with only his passive, living body. The torturer thus separates the experience of pain from pain’s function of being a reason to act in an appropriate way. The torturer attempts to heighten the sensation of pain while emptying pain of its reason-giving force. Finally, the relation between torturer and victim is shown to be an analogue to the relation between master and slave.

At a crucial moment, torture is like a rape, a sexual act without the consent of one of the two partners. Rape and torture have the same fundamental structure. In rape and torture this devaluation occurs through dispossessing the victim of her bodily autonomy and integrity. To be so dispossessed, violated, causes devastation. This analysis assumes that persons both have a body that is the instrument of their actions in the world, and they are their living, sentient body. Torture and rape work to deprive victims of their voluntary body and to leave them with only their sentient, living body.

The dignity constellation is composed of love, lovability, respect, self-respect, and dignity. Developed through an analysis of the Nuremberg Laws and the procedures of death camps (according to Hannah Arendt), the moral character of the human body (following Fichte), the devastation of slavery (following Orlando Patterson), and an account of the dignity befitting the dead, the resulting constellation claims: Dignity is the representation of self-respect, where self-respect is the stance of one who takes herself to be of intrinsic worth and acts accordingly. Self-respect is the feeling of self-worth derived from first love. Thus to respect human dignity is to respect an individual’s standing as a constitutively vulnerable being possessed of intrinsic worth. Respect for dignity and self-respect are the third person and first person perception of the same intrinsic worth that requires the insistent affirmation of the self and the continuous acknowledgement of (respect from) others to be sustained. Self-respect requires the affirmation of bodily autonomy, while respect for dignity requires the recognition of bodily integrity.

Articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that makes it, as a response to the Nazi deformation of law, an exact analogue of the uprising of the rule of law analyzed in Chapter 1. It is then argued that modern moral philosophy in its deontological, rule-based and utilitarian forms are forces of moral alienation, that is, they are forms of moral reflection and self-understanding that separate persons from their deepest moral commitments and experiences. Utilitarianism undermines our collective experience and understanding about the meaning of torture in relation to the rule of law; while deontological moral principles undermine women’s experiential knowledge of the moral injury of rape, while tacitly leaving the deformation of patriarchal assumptions about embodiment and reason untouched. Modern moral philosophy abstracts from moral experience, making the reality of moral injury imponderable. As a consequence, most women in the modern world do not and cannot have the trust in the world enjoyed by most men. Such an unequal distribution of trust is a marker for our moral malformation and the systematic injustice of the modern society.

Torture, as well as cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, should be banned at all times including in times of war. No national emergency, however dire, ever justifies its use.

Sharam Kohan has been a human rights advocate and promoted United Nations’ Convention Against Torture for the past twenty years.