Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Pain and the ticking bomb

Isn’t it odd how the specific location of certain passages stays with one long after the whereabouts of the original copy of the book itself has become another faint memory?

Read carefully and think:

“Whatever pain achieves, it achieves in part through its unsharability, and it ensures this unsharability through its resistance to language. “English,” writes Virginia Wolf, “which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear has no words for the shiver or the headache….The merest schoolgirl when she falls in love has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind for her, but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and the language at once runs dry.” True of the headache, Woolf’s account is of course more radically true of the severe and prolonged pain that may accompany cancer or burns or phantom limb or stroke, as well as of the severe and prolonged pain that may occur unaccompanied by any nameable disease. Physical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it, bringing about immediate reversion to a state anterior to language, to the sounds and cries a human being makes before language is learned.

Contemporary philosophers have habituated us to the recognition that our interior states of consciousness are regularly accompanied by objects in the external world, that we do not simply “have feelings” but have feelings for somebody or something, that love is love of x, fear is fear of y, ambivalence is ambivalence about z. If one were to move through all the emotional, perceptual, and somatic states that take an object—hatred for, seeing of, being hungry for—the list would become a very long one….This list and its implicit affirmation would, however, be suddenly interrupted when, moving through the human interior, one at last reached physical pain, for physical pain—unlike any other state of consciousness—has no referential content. It is not of or for anything. It is precisely because it takes no object that, more than any other phenomenon, resist objectification in language….. To witness the moment when pain causes a reversion to the pre-language of cries and groans is to witness the destruction of language… but conversely, to be present when a person moves up out of that pre-language and projects the facts of sentience into speech …How is it that one person can be in the presence of another in pain and not know it—not know it to the point where he himself inflict it and goes on inflicting it?

“For an analysis of arguments about torture, see Henry Shue, “Torture,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 7 (Winter 1978),124-43.

Especially pernicious in discussions of torture is the argument that a hypothetical case can be imagined in which, for example, saving a city from a nuclear bomb might depend on torturing the madman who placed it there and knew where it was hidden (see Shue, 141)

Introducing an “imaginable” occasion for torture that has no correspondence with the thousands of cases that actually occur has the effect of seeming to change torture to a sanctionable act. As Shue points out, the absolute prohibition against torture must be kept in place; and should the unlikely “imaginable” instance actually ever occur, the torturer would have to rely on convincing a jury of peers that the context for his act was exceptional (55) … That is, torturing should be perceived with the same acute aversion with which one’s own legal culpability and one’s own death are perceived; and while it is certainly possible and desirable that a jury would exonerate anyone in this situation, it does not follow that any such guarantee should be provided before the fact. That one might have to do something one day that is wrong does not mean that the act has ceased to be “wrong” and punishable. It is unlikely that any saviour of the city would actually be inhibited by the lack of pre-existing moral and legal assurances of immunity.

It is a peculiar characteristic of such hypothetical argument on behalf of torture that the arguer can always “imagine” someone large-spirited enough to overcome (on behalf of a city’s population) his aversion to torture, but not so large-spirited that he or she can accept his or her legal culpability.” [Note 160, p.352]


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