David Luban

A Communicative Conception of Torture

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According to international law, torture is the intentional infliction of severe physical or mental pain or suffering. The well-known US torture memoranda show how easy it is to manipulate that definition. The present paper argues that the legal definition has another drawback: it fails to fully describe the practice of torture in a way that allows us to understand its evils. A better definition is this: Torture is the assertion of unlimited power over absolute helplessness, communicated through the infliction of severe pain or suffering on the victim that the victim is meant to understand as the display of the torturer's limitless power and the victim's absolute helplessness. The paper defends this "communicative conception" of torture, and uses it to analyze the evils of torture. The analysis explains why torture belongs on the short list of historically ubiquitous practices that liberal cultures regard as not merely wrong but unthinkable.


  • Torture
  • Cruel
  • Inhuman
  • or Degrading Treatment
  • Interrogation
  • US "War on Terror"
  • Communicative Action


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