An item in the English newspaper The Guardian has touched off a heated controversy. The piece refers to the airline-bombing plot that British authorites nipped in the bud last week, and says that the key witness in the case, one Rashid Rauf, a British citizen, revealed what he knew only after he was “broken” under interrogation by Pakistani questioners, which suggests rather strongly that he was tortured. The information obtained, however, most likely prevented the murder of thousands in simultaneous midair bombings. The question, of course, is whether the benefit thus achieved justifies the use of methods from which compassionate people and humane societies recoil in horror.
This is a very difficult question, one that divides people deeply. Here are some arguments for and against:
Those who argue in favor of using any means necessary (and nearly all of them would agree that torture is repugnant; we shall leave aside those who actively endorse its use in order to inflict suffering on our enemies) do so from a “utilitarian” point of view: simply put, the idea is that there is going to be suffering whether or not we extract the information we want. Either the conspirator will be made to suffer in order to coerce him to reveal what he knows, or others will suffer. Utilitarianism attempts to reduce the choice to a calculation – we assess the suffering on the one side, weigh it against the suffering on the other, and choose the course with the lowest score (often this is expressed in terms of maximizing happiness rather than minimizing suffering, but the idea is equally applicable in either sense).
This view is clearest in the simplest cases. For example:
We have in our custody someone whom we know with complete certainty to be in control of a nuclear weapon that will explode in the heart of one of the world’s major cities in one hour if it is not deactivated. There will be enormous destruction, with the loss of thousands, if not millions, of lives, and incaculable suffering all around. The only hope of preventing this catastrophe is to convince the villain to reveal the location of the bomb in the next few minutes.
What are we to do? Many would say that in such an extreme case we must use whatever forms of coercion we have available.
Contrast this with the following case:
We have in our custody someone whom we know to have planted a bomb, set to go off in one hour, at the remote residence of an elderly childless hermit. The location is unknown to us, but we are quite certain that if we do nothing the victim of this unusual plot will be killed.
Perhaps in this example your intuition tugs in a different direction. But what has changed? Obviously the threat in the first case differs quantitatively from that in the second; but I would argue that there is no difference in kind. So if you would approve a harsh interrogation in the first example but not in the second, you are basing the decision on the amount of suffering that is in store. This sort of calculation is at the heart of utilitarianism.
But even if we agree that this is the correct approach to the question – and many don’t – these calculations are not usually so simple. For example:
We have in our custody three men, and we have absolutely reliable information that that one of them is the man responsible for having kidnapped two dozen schoolchildren, who are buried alive in a shipping container somewhere. The children have twelve hours to live before they suffocate. All of the men in our custody insist they are innocent. One of them is lying.
Well, what now? Can we justifiably use physical coercion here? There is a very good chance that we will be using it on an innocent man, unless we happen to work on the guilty party first. What if instead of two dozen schoolchildren we have only two? The utilitarian calculus is not so clear anymore.
The other view – perhaps it is your own – is that there are some things that we as civilized people simply must not do, and that torture is one of them. The reason most commonly given for adopting this view is that by torturing another person we lower ourselves; by using such methods to combat evil we sacrifice our own goodness. But are we not then putting ourselves – our wish not to lower ourselves, for the sake of our own souls – ahead of the needs of those who will suffer and die if we do not gain the information needed to save them? Could you justify this to the parent of a child who would be certain to die if the villain does not yield his secret? More tellingly, could you justify it to yourself, if you were the parent? Perhaps you could. But do the same considerations apply to an agent of the state? In the first example, if you were the one who had the villain in custody, could you justify, on the moral argument above, allowing the annihilation of an entire city, knowing that many of those who will die do not share your view? Again, perhaps.
The philosoper Scott Carson, at his excellent website An Examined Life, offers a post in which he makes a personal case for refusing to torture. He argues that the most important good is to have a rational relationship with God, and that when we torture we violate that relationship. Even to spare the physical suffering of millions of innocents, torture is unwarranted, Carson argues, because that physical suffering cannot itself interfere with their relationship to God. (I am paraphrasing; please go to the post itself and read it.)
But although Carson’s post is intended as a critique of the prevalence of the conventional utilitarian view these days, it seems to me that all he is doing is substituting different variables into the same utilitarian formula – the spiritual wound suffered by the torturer outweighs, in his equation, the merely physical suffering of those we would seek to protect by a coercive interrogation. He is certainly entitled to his belief. But is it appropriate as government policy, when the first job of government is to defend the people, many of whom do not agree with this religious perspective? Even Carson acknowledges that this may not be so; he writes:
There are many ways to approach this question, and mine is a highly personal one; I suspect that it will not be shared by very many others.
This is an extremely difficult issue. What do you think?