Psychologists do not swear any oath to “Do no harm”

Theoretically Doctors follow the Hippocratic Oath though I am not certain that all Doctors all around the world actually swear to do so. Psychologists and other therapists are not required to hold to any oath. They do not swear as many believe to “Do no harm”. So the two psychologists who designed and ran the CIA’s torture program and managed to extract $81 million for their services did not break any oaths. (Of course, $81 million for 2 people for 12 years is only $3.375 million per psychologist per year).  In any case any obligations to a patient did not and do not apply. Those being tortured were certainly not their patients – they were just subjects to be wrung dry. Medical Doctors were also around as reported by the Washington Post:

But in most instances documented, medical personnel appear to be enablers — advising that shackles be loosened to avoid extreme edema while a detainee was subjected to prolonged standing or stress positions; covering a wound in plastic during water dousing; and administering “rectal feeding” and “rectal rehydration,” which one medical official described as an apparently effective way to “clear a person’s head” and get him to talk.

The psychologists used the techniques developed by Martin Seligman on dogs. Learned helplessness is a behaviour in which an organism forced to endure aversive, painful or otherwise unpleasant stimuli, becomes unable or unwilling to avoid subsequent encounters with those stimuli, even if they are escapable.

Martin Seligman’s painful animal experiments and theory of learned helplessness began at the University of Pennsylvania in 1967. ….. In learned helplessness studies, an animal is repeatedly exposed to an aversive stimulus which it cannot escape. Eventually, the animal stops trying to avoid the stimulus and behaves as if it is helpless to change the situation. When opportunities to escape become available, learned helplessness means the animal does not take any action. ……. In CIA interrogation manuals learned helplessness is characterized as “apathy”

I suppose torture qualifies as painful and unpleasant stimuli.


Two psychologists contracted by the CIA to create enhanced interrogation techniques for al-Qaeda detainees have come under fire for violating human rights and medical ethics. Although pseudonyms were used in the 480-page report published this week by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, it was clearly referring to Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell, who were paid US$81 million for their work.

Both Jessen and Mitchell had worked on  the military’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) program in which soldiers are trained to endure brutal mock interrogations, including waterboarding. After 9/11 they were asked to design an interrogation program. …… 

The strength of ten

 The techniques they designed were based on the notion of “learned helplessness”, which was developed in the 1960s with dogs by Martin Seligman (who is mortified by his indirect link with torture). People who face unending adversity eventually become depressed and give up attempts to improve their situation. The CIA’s psychologists thought that this state would encourage detainees to become cooperative and volunteer information.

Physicians for Human Rights was highly critical of the participation of health professionals in all stages of the CIA’s program. Their involvement in monitoring the torture techniques was central to providing legal protection to interrogators, said PHR, as torture could them be described as “safe, legal, and effective”.

About half – if not more – of the US believes that the CIA torture program was justified even if torture – at heart – is wrong. I observe that the debate in the UK is about under what conditions torture may be acceptable, not on whether torture is wrong. In India, torture in the service of the State or of religion is implicit and considered justifiable. In Sweden torture is absolutely wrong and only to be used by others – where it may be justifiable. The prevailing Value which applies to humans as a whole, it seems to me, is that in certain circumstances, torture is regrettable but acceptable.

Human Rights are whatever a society determines it to be. The UN or European Human Rights conventions are supposed to be well meaning goals but that is all they are. Countries sign up to these conventions only because it is the “politically correct” and expedient thing to do. But what they truly  believe in is something different. Actual values determine actual behaviour. The conventions may represent “values we would like to aspire to” but they are not values that we do have. When Obama proclaims “That is not who we are” he forgets that what we do – not what we say – is who we are.

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