Hippocratic Hypocrites – Doctors Who Torture

The involvement of medical professionals in military torture is not a recent phenomena. In fact, it has been occurring for centuries. However, such involvement did not become an important public issue until the advent of Nazi Germany. The unspeakable atrocities committed by Nazi doctors on concentration camp captives were well documented, and the public was made aware of them. Because of their hideously appalling nature, massive scale, and systematic execution, these actions were met with tremendous condemnation by the medical community, though torture had been carried out by countless medical professionals in the past. Nevertheless, over 60 years removed from Hitler’s Germany, we still find medical professionals assisting military personnel in carrying out “specialized interrogations.” In this post, I intend to address the question of whether or not it is especially wrong for medical professionals to participate in torture. Is there something about the profession which makes it particularly reprehensible for a doctor to facilitate military torture?

I have a problem with the idea that a profession ought to dictate a moral code for the person adopting said profession. This sort of mentality is riddled with inconsistencies that few realize. Holding people like politicians, doctors, and others to higher standards is a strictly emotional enterprise that is unfair and very poorly thought out. Worst of all, it draws attention away from the actual crime being committed, and it legitimizes the action if carried out by somebody else. Let me try and explain what I mean.

We consider hypocrisy to be a bad thing. The problem is that hypocrisy is only bad when the action in question is bad. Consider the example of tobacco company executive. Based upon his job, he should be walking around convincing teenagers to smoke, shouldn’t he? If he stops his 18 year old son from picking up a smoking habit, isn’t he being a hypocrite? Yet, nobody is going to criticize that man for stopping his child from smoking. In that scenario, people manage to mentally separate the two roles of father and executive. They can’t manage, however, to do the same with doctors.

Let’s apply this to a doctor facilitating a military torture action or interrogation. The doctor is no longer acting as a doctor. He is now occupying an entirely different space, a new ontological niche in the social order. The people who claim it is unethical for doctors to participate in torture are the same ones who think torture is unethical in itself. The converse is also true. The doctor who tortures or facilitates torture is acting as a special military interrogator. And in that capacity, he is doing his job. We can argue about whether or not the job itself is unethical, but that is an entirely separate issue.

What really separates a medical professional from anyone else that would torture somebody? The only difference is a body of specialized knowledge. Medical professionals have an intricate understanding of the human body and its operations, and therefore can be instrumentally effective torture machines. We have the mistaken feeling, however, that certain bodies of knowledge have a moral code attached to them. Just because somebody has an MD, it doesn’t make them a saint, nor does it prescribe any necessary moral system. What if somebody was educated in marketing? They could develop ad campaigns for teddy bears, or they could develop ad campaigns for cigarettes. They also possess a specialized body of knowledge, yet nobody is up in arms when marketing training is used to sell harmful products.

These problems aside, the real issue is that focus is drawn away from the actual. The problem isn’t that doctors are participating in torture. Rather, the problem is torture is occurring. Furthermore, if it is especially wrong for doctors to commit such actions, then the necessary implication is that it is not as wrong for others. This principle also cannot be applied in the law. Do we give harsher punishments to doctors who kill people versus butchers who kill people? That doesn’t really make sense, does it? And yet, the moral principles most people argue for would dictate such a system of punishment.

The medical community is in a special position to criticize torture and actually achieve tangible results in terms of mitigating the frequency of its use. This body of individuals has a specialized knowledge of the human body which can dramatically influence peoples’ opinions about torture. Instead of attacking it head on, though, they choose to focus only on members of their own community. This essentially says, “Well, it’s ok for you to do it, but we don’t want our people doing it.” This is a terrible approach and tremendously limits any change which would occur otherwise.

People should examine their gut emotional reactions to things to see if they actually make sense. Most people “feel” certain ways about a great deal of issues, but they don’t really know why. More importantly, they try and find logical justifications and just end up placing straw barriers around their fragile opinions, barriers which can be blown down by the lightest breeze. Instead, try taking a minute to think about, examine, and understand your feelings.