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Ethical considerations on the complicity of psychologists and scientists in torture
  1. Nicholas Greig Evans1,
  2. D A Sisti2 and
  3. J D Moreno2
  1. 1 Philosophy, Lowell College of Fine Arts Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Massachusetts Ringgold Standard Institution, Lowell, Massachusetts, USA
  2. 2 Medical Ethics and Health Policy, Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
  1. Correspondence to Dr Nicholas Greig Evans, Philosophy, Lowell College of Fine Arts Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Massachusetts Ringgold Standard Institution, Lowell, MA 01854, USA; nicholas_evans{at}


Introduction The long-standing debate on medical complicity in torture has overlooked the complicity of cognitive scientists—psychologists, psychiatrists and neuroscientists—in the practice of torture as a distinct phenomenon. In this paper, we identify the risk of the re-emergence of torture as a practice in the USA, and the complicity of cognitive scientists in these practices.

Methods We review arguments for physician complicity in torture. We argue that these defences fail to defend the complicity of cognitive scientists. We address objections to our account, and then provide recommendations for professional associations in resisting complicity in torture.

Results Arguments for cognitive scientist complicity in torture fail when those actions stem from the same reasons as physician complicity. Cognitive scientist involvement in the torture programme has, from the outset, been focused on the outcomes of interrogation rather than supportive care. Any possibility of a therapeutic relationship between cognitive therapists and detainees is fatally undermined by therapists’ complicity with torture.

Conclusion Professional associations ought to strengthen their commitment to refraining from engaging in any aspect of torture. They should also move to protect whistle-blowers against torture programmes who are members of their association. If the political institutions that are supposed to prevent the practice of torture are not strengthened, cognitive scientists should take collective action to compel intelligence agencies to refrain from torture.

  • medical ethics
  • torture
  • complicity
  • psychology
  • cognitive science
  • psychiatry

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  • Twitter NGE @neva9257; DAS @DominicSisti; JDM @PennProf

  • Contributors NGE and DAS conceived the initial paper. All authors contributed to the writing of the final manuscript. Responses to revisions, and editing, were undertaken by all authors.

  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient consent Not required.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.