Doctors in the decent society: Torture, ill-treatment and civic duty

Michael L. Gross

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


How should physicians act when faced with corporal punishment, such as amputation, or torture? In most cases, the answer is clear: international law, UN resolutions and universal codes of medical ethics absolutely forbid physicians from countenancing torture and corporal punishment in any form. An acute problem arises, however, in decent societies, but not necessarily liberal states, that are, nonetheless, welcome in the world community. The decent society is often governed, in whole or in part, by religious laws, and while these states abridge various human rights they are peace loving, generally tolerant, and offer their citizens wide avenues for political participation. Under these circumstances the prohibition against corporal punishment and torture weakens, often compelling physicians to participate. This is true in two cases. In Rawls' hypothetical nation of Kazanistan, Islamic law is the order of the day, and amputations and corporal punishment play an integral part in the execution of traditional Islamic justice. In Israel, torture is sometimes used to elicit the information needed to thwart impending terror attacks. In each case, a physician's participation is essential. In light of the near universal condemnation that accompanies torture and corporal punishment, physicians can only appeal to norms anchored in collective well-being and concern for life that override respect for human dignity in these societies. Western societies have consistently rejected this reasoning, but it is part and parcel of life in the decent society.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)181-203
Number of pages23
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 2004

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health(social science)
  • Philosophy
  • Health Policy


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