The Ethics of Torture

Posted by John Perry
administrator,Featured Contributor

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.

April 10, 2010


Alex Greene's picture
Submitted by Alex Greene (not verified) on April 10, 2010

Stating that waterboarding is not torture is like saying that fellatio is not a sexual act, or that embezzlement is not theft.

Every advocate of torture loves the word IF:- "IF a child is kidnapped, and IF the kidnapper was resistant to normal persuasion, and IF the child's life was at stake, IF, IF, IF" and so on.

Always, images of abduction and children and death. Always, the appeal to the crowd: "The children! Won't somebody PLEASE think of the children!"

And we are then expected not only to stop debating at that point and side with the torture advocate, but to /stop thinking altogether/.

How about a few IFs of our own?

- IF we adopt the stance that waterboarding is not torture, what will stop enemies from using it on our own soldiers, our kidnapped aid workers ... our children? After all, by the standards we have set for our own, they are not in fact torturing our kidnapped people at all, are they?

- IF, let's say, we decide to turn our backs on the Geneva Convention and begin to accept one kind of torture, what other acts will society also begin to overlook? Physical mutilation? Scarring and branding? Rape?

One final IF - because we are now all trained by the media to accept Lewis Carroll's maxim of "What I say three times is true" - IF we begin to accept waterboarding and, later, other forms of torture as a routine interrogation procedure, how long until we throw away all the rest of the safeguards of jurisprudence, such as trials with a jury of one's peers, presumption of innocence, habeas corpus, due process and hearsay evidence?

I just find myself wondering how long it will be before, for want of ethics, through our becoming too lazy and apathetic and "couldn't be bothered" to uphold principles of fairness our ancestors fought and died for, our civilisations just sleepwalk their way back into barbarism.

Robert Mendez's picture
Submitted by Robert Mendez (not verified) on April 11, 2010

This sounds like a round-a-bout way, and polite way, to discuss our military's barbaric behavior. I would say, imposing your will on someone who is unable to defend themselves constitutes torture for modern society. I would hope that anyone who feels that progress had been made over the centuries would also believe that we must make these definitions more sensitive, rather than revert to tactics we have long since abandoned.

Robert Mendez's picture
Submitted by Robert Mendez (not verified) on April 11, 2010

Alex, the "if" thing is revealing. I wonder if we might feel differently if we classified soldiers as "torture ready," or torture qualified. Just as you mention that torture also makes it ok for others to do the same, I wonder how the torturers are selected? Is there special training, and do they get a special medal or badge? Is it an ad hoc thing that follows you through the ranks? Does it not seem likely that all these stages are also approved by an administration, or do we all agree that the Pentagon is the soul arbiter of such organizational decisions?

asp's picture
Submitted by asp (not verified) on April 11, 2010

Yes, IF torturing uncovers a terrorist plot and saves lives, you could argue that torture is not wrong. But what if torturing doesn't uncover anything at all? What is the justification for this vile act then? The fact that there might have been a terrorist plot? That leaves a lot of room for justifying all kinds of behaviour towards people, just based on suspicion.

And another if - IF we torture innocent people mistakenly believing them to be harmful (as was the case with numerous prisoners of Gitmo who were tortured, found to be innocent and then released from prison), are we not harming innocent people as well as exposing ourselves to danger as those people might then feel the need to seek revenge? Are we not, then, introducing a very real threat that our actions, intent on preventing the danger of terrorism, might end up encouraging more people to commit terrorists acts against us, because of our utter unjust treatment of innocent people?

JP's picture
Submitted by JP (not verified) on April 11, 2010

It strikes me that we struggle so much with the ethics of torture in interrogation but that we rarely discuss (in the US?) the use of lethal force by police officers. In the case of police the extreme case does present itself, and it seems the cultural consensus is that someone threatening others with a weapon can be killed, not just made to feel pain.

While I am against torture it seems that applying this ethic to police work would mandate never inflicting pain regardless of the threat imposed by a suspect.

Robert Mendez's picture
Submitted by Robert Mendez (not verified) on April 11, 2010

I think - and I think this is demonstrated by humans daily - we can rationalize anything. It is not difficult to imagine the worst since the news and the tube attribute daily to our worst antics. This question of torture however ignores the torturer. The individual given the job of inflicting the pain, the masked hangman. How many parents have no problem with that individual being their son, or, perish the thought, their daughter? Exactly what are we doing to that person? Are we not sentencing this person to a lifetime of horror as well? Based on recent testimony by those so ordained, they suffer as well.

Michael J Ahles's picture
Submitted by Michael J Ahles (not verified) on April 13, 2010

I don't question right, why do you?
Why are you so confused?


costume jewellerry's picture
Submitted by costume jewellerry (not verified) on April 13, 2010

The police have to make quick judgements as and when a threat arrives and often at a time when their own lives are at risk. Must be difficult to stay rationale.

uk bingo's picture
Submitted by uk bingo (not verified) on April 13, 2010

I still don't believe in any form of torture to be effective, even if it's for the greater good. We can't just sacrifice or harm a single human life just for the benefit of the many. victims of tortures -- their despondency will only lead to much more complex psychological effects. Great post by the way, I especially liked the analogy of Kiefer Sutherland's character in 24 being related to your topic.

Allan Lichtenberg's picture
Submitted by Allan Lichtenberg (not verified) on April 14, 2010

I think that the utilitarian position would be to agree to torture, because of a hypothetical case in which torture would (might) save many lives, is phylosophicaly unsound. The correct utilitarian question would be whether torture would be permitted to be applied to many people, in order to occasionally apply to the hypothetical case. In that case the utilitarian would certainly answer no. Even a narrower formulation of the question, ie restricting torture to extreme cases would also be answered in the negative by the utilitarian, since the benefits of torture are necessarily problematical, eg might worsen the outcome, rather than improving it, while the down side is always obvious.