Torture Test

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?

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  1. Andrew says


    There are some really crazy people out there who really want to hurt us. The question to me is how do we contain them without making more? If we don’t, how does it ever end?

    Your third example really gets to the challenge we face but you leave out a nuance of the utilitarian analysis that concerns me.
    What if the number of suspects is not 3 but 15? What if it is 100? Where in this continuum is the US and its allies operating? I’d guess the truth is closer to 100:1 than it is to 3:1, but of course I don’t know.

    What happens to the ‘innocents’ that are mistreated in the process? How do their views of the US change in the process? In the long run, are our actions creating less people who want to hurt us or more?

    Posted August 23, 2006 at 1:03 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Hi Andrew,

    Thanks very much for commenting.

    You are right, the utilitarian calculation becomes very difficult indeed in the circumstances you describe. To muddy the waters further, I’ll point out that my “toy” examples contained another simplifying assumption, which is that those we have in custody fall into one or another binary category: either they are wholly innocent, or they are the guilty party. In fact, the situation is much more complex; there are those who sympathize with our enemies, who support them by looking the other way as they operate against us, who may “know someone who may know something” but do not themselves participate actively, and so forth.

    How are we to act? Is it even possible, in such a fluid and nuanced environment, to outline a clear set of guidelines? I think the difficulty of doing so is what tends to make absolute declarations – Torture is always wrong! or We must do whatever it takes – we’re at WAR! so attractive.

    I know that bloggers usually make some sort of normative exhortation – they offer some argument or other, then say “Here’s what we ought to be doing…” But I’m not doing this here. I find this question almost intractably difficult, and wrote this post in order to point out how complex the issue is to those who react so superficially whenever it comes up, and to try to get some help in working through it; I had hoped to start a conversation among my intelligent and thoughtful readers.

    My feeling is that we must err on the side of humaneness wherever possible, but that we must temper mercy with justice, especially given the ruthlessness of our foes.

    Posted August 23, 2006 at 3:14 pm | Permalink
  3. RM says

    The conditions of the hypothetical problems at the beginning of this text are just stupid and thus make any response to the hypothetical equally stupid. How can anyone know “with complete certainty” that something is going to happen and not know the rest of the details. That is not possible. What you really have is a bare suspicion that your captive knows something, so you are torturing him on speculation, a fishing expedition. Victims of torture always lie. They say what they believe the torturer wants to hear. Torturers are sociopaths. They have huge agendas of their own which dominate the interrogation/torture. The victim will be responding to that and will answer in ways that soothe the sociopath’s own dysfunction.

    Torture is a crime like rape. All torturers or rapists try to shift the blame or the debate to the victim — he has vital information, her dress was too short, he’s a member of a dangerous group, she asked for it. Rape/torture grows out of the insecurity of the perpetrator. It establishes his power and his own sense of his truth and mission. It is never about the victim. The victim is irrelevant. It could be anyone. There are 12 year old kids at Guantanamo who were tortured. What could they know? They were tortured simply because US CIA and Marines and Special Ops needed for their own psychological reasons to torture someone. That’s all there is to it.

    By taking the hypothetical problems seriously, you buy into the perspective of the torturer. You can’t do this anymore than you can buy into the perspective of the rapist. Torture is ALWAYS and under ALL circumstances wrong. That is what both international and US law says.

    Posted April 4, 2010 at 7:59 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    The hypothetical is simply that: an artificial construction, however implausible, designed to put the question at hand in the sharpest relief.

    Hypotheticals such as these are used routinely in philosophical investigations of moral questions; there is a morality project underway at Harvard, for example, that uses far less plausible scenarios than this. The story that gave rise to this post, keep in mind, was not hypothetical at all.

    If the question is “are there any conceivable suituations under which torture is morally justified”, then simply to answer that “Torture is ALWAYS and under ALL circumstances wrong” is mere question-begging, and does nothing to advance the discussion. It is an assertion, not an argument.

    I must add that the question was not whether this or that particular instance of torture was justified, and so citing specific instances, as viscerally repugnant as they may be, is also to miss the point. In other words, while it is certainly true that unjustifiable torture occurs daily around the world, that is not sufficient to establish that torture is morally unjustifiable under any and all circumstances.

    I have as deep an emotional aversion to the idea of torture as you do; I find it deeply abhorrent. That is not the point here.

    Posted April 4, 2010 at 11:25 pm | Permalink

2 Trackbacks

  1. By waka waka waka » Blog Archive » Good Questions on August 23, 2006 at 5:59 pm

    […] One of the greatest benefits of blogging is the opportunity one has to converse with, and learn from, people that one might otherwise never have met. Scott Carson, professor of philosophy at Ohio University and author of the blog An Examined Life, has taken the trouble to respond to my comments on his post about the defensibility of torture. He makes some excellent criticisms of my post, and I am very grateful to him for taking the time to do so. […]

  2. By waka waka waka » Blog Archive » Furious George on September 13, 2006 at 10:50 pm

    […] It’s video week at waka waka waka. My friend Jess sent me this clip, which is a prickly discussion between Matt Lauer and George Bush on the subject of torture. Here are two men who obviously cannot stand each other, trying as hard as they can not to attack each other physically, and just barely managing. They are standing too close to each other, and while Lauer is trying awfully hard to be deferential (you’re always “one down” when you’re with POTUS), W is right up in his grill, jabbing away with his index finger in a way that would certainly get my Irish up. It’s hard to believe this is the President of the United States being interviewed by one of the nation’s foremost news anchors; the whole thing seems more like two ill-tempered dads getting into it at a little league game. […]

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