The Blog: Cogito Ergo Blogo
The Ethics of Torture
Is water-boarding torture? If it is, does that make it wrong? Always? Usually? What is torture, and why is it always, usually, or sometimes wrong?
Almost every dictionary gives two definitions of torture: a narrow one… inflicting great pain. And a broad one… severe mental anxiety and suffering. Water-boarding clearly counts as torture by the second definition, perhaps the issue isn't clear given the first definition. But sure if our topic is the ethics, or morality, of torture, we need the more inclusive definition – severe mental anxiety and suffering.
Kant said you should never treat people merely as instruments; never just as means to your own goals. Humans, he says, are autonomous beings with their own goals. There's a difference between a tape recorder and a person. If you're having trouble getting information out of a tape recorder you can pound on it or kick it -- it may not be very effective, but it isn't immoral, at least not if you own the tape recorder. But if you want to get information out of a person, you should connect your desire for information with their goals. You should convince them to tell you what you want to know.
But Kant’s is not the only possible position. A pure utilitarian says that an act is right if it brings about the greatest good for the greatest number. If someone has kidnapped a child and left them to die somewhere, and you need to find out where, and torturing someone til they talk is the only way to find out… it might be the right thing to do. It'll be better for the child, and even for the criminal - it might prevent a murder charge. OR… If torturing a terrorist uncovers a plot, it might save thousands of lives. How can that be wrong?
But these remarks apply only to act utilitarians. There are also rule utilitarians. They say that we should adopt rules that, if followed, will bring about the greatest good for the greatest number. Not torturing could well be such a rule. If we don't have a firm rule against torture, torture might not be limited to cases of kidnapping and terrorism. So, even from a utilitarian point of view, a ban on torture may be justified.
But surely the rule should be, don't torture except in extreme circumstances. Imagine being the parent of a kidnapped child, or losing your family when terrorists blow up a building. You'd be pretty angry if you found out later that Kiefer Sutherland could have gotten the information to save their lives, if he had engaged in a little torture. I mean of course the character he plays, Jack Bauer, on 24 -- the TV show. He tortures several people on each program, to foil terrorist plots. Most viewers seem to think he's doing the right thing.
So TV watchers must be utilitarians, not Kantians. But you know, there are some other issues we should discuss, too. Right or wrong, torture happens. Is it effective? Sometimes soldiers, even American soldiers, are ordered to engage in torture. Does it destroy your character if you torture someone? What is, so to speak, the phenomenology of torturing and being tortured –-what's it like to be, or to have been, the torturer or the tortured?
Our guest for our torture program is Nancy Sherman, from Georgetown University, who's thought long and hard about torture and related topics.
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