The Ethics of Torture
Friday, April 9, 2010 -- 5:00 PM
John Perry

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.

Comments (24)


Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, April 9, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

Stating that waterboarding is not torture is like

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.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, April 10, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

This sounds like a round-a-bout way, and polite wa

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.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, April 10, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

Alex, the "if" thing is revealing. I wonder if we

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?

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, April 10, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

Yes, IF torturing uncovers a terrorist plot and sa

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?

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, April 10, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

It strikes me that we struggle so much with the et

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.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, April 10, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

I think - and I think this is demonstrated by huma

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.

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, April 12, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

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

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

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, April 12, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

The police have to make quick judgements as and wh

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.

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, April 12, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

I still don't believe in any form of torture to be

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

Allan Lichtenberg

Tuesday, April 13, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

I think that the utilitarian position would be to

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.

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, April 14, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

It seems that when making a case for the morality

It seems that when making a case for the morality of torture that the utility of torture, for gathering information, is used a a supportive argument. Shouldn't the ethics of an action be considered separate from it's utility?

Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, April 15, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

What IF the guy you've decided is the kidnapper di

What IF the guy you've decided is the kidnapper didn't take the child? What IF the guy who does the torturing ends up with the type of Post Traumatic Stress that makes him kill 10 children? What IF by crossing the line and becoming torturers, ourselves, we are no different, morally or rationally, than the terrorists we are seeking to eliminate?

Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, April 16, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

Torture is wrong, and to rationalize it is the cas

Torture is wrong, and to rationalize it is the case for all the worlds current trivialities.

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, April 18, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

For an interesting follow-up, a book recently came

For an interesting follow-up, a book recently came out by a philosopher at UWO entitled "The Absolute Violation: Why Torture Must be Prohibited". It's a comprehensive refutation of the arguments in favour of torture, including act and rule utilitarianism, as well as "dirty hands" reasoning, "what if" thought experiments, and the like. Just thought I'd bring it up as an interesting resource, given the discussion above.

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, April 26, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

I would like to think I'm a compassionate person,

I would like to think I'm a compassionate person, so it does trouble me a little bit that I can't shake the notion that sometimes torture could be the lesser of 2 evils. Although I wouldn't call this pro-torture, I have been labeled as such by others. My one question that hasn't been answered sufficiently (for my own tastes, anyway) is where does the regress stop? Could it not be argued reasonably well that imprisonment alone is torture? The broad definition given for torture earlier was "severe mental anxiety and suffering." I would, I believe, trade the option of 50 years in prison for 1 year of water boarding (having never experienced either, that might seem week, but the point works for me).
So, sure, water boarding is torture. Is everyone here agreeing that people who have committed crimes can't have anything inflicted on them that someone could call torture? Doesn't seem like a fair argument to draw your own arbitrary line and lambaste everyone who thinks it should be drawn somewhere else. Everyone here has been respectful, and thanks for that. What a great website.
How do we agree on where the line should be drawn?

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, May 10, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

Torture is never good. We should abolish it and le

Torture is never good. We should abolish it and let the Russians keep it.

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, July 13, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

Philosophy as applied logically to a semantic idea

Philosophy as applied logically to a semantic ideal world works just splendidly, but any philosophy that does not take into account the volatility of physical reality will always fall short of doing anything but making idealists feel good about themselves. Are pain and torture abhorrent? certainly. Are they entirely necessary in some few instances? you bet. Does the natural world give an inkling as to what is philosophically sound in theory? No. If you kidnap my daughter, I will most definitely torture you until you tell me where she is. We do what we must in desperate situations, no matter our personal bents.

Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, March 16, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

I've been down the road of

I've been down the road of this question many times over the years. I've had professional Army interrogators work for me, and I've dealt with others since then. I set up and ran an interrogation facility in Baghdad for over a year. I can tell you a few things:
1. Regarding the utilitarian argument: torture is ineffective, or at best no more effective than properly done interrogation. If you put a person into a position to say anything just to get you to stop, that is exactly what you'll get.
2. There are exactly two ethical systems in the world: The End Justifies the Means, or The Ends and Means Must be Justified Separately. And the first is really no ethics at all, since the purpose of ethics is to limit behavior, and the first leaves no actual limits. Torture advocates fall in that group.
3. On a philosophical level, once you accept that people are not just objects, the ability to justify torture disappears.
4. I train soldiers - the consequences of training torturers are simply unacceptable.
5. In any case, we've signed and ratified the Geneva conventions that forbid torture - which by Article 6 of the constitution makes those provisions the supreme law of the land. So as a practical matter the debate is - or should be - long since over.

mirugai's picture

mirugai

Sunday, March 18, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

Wow: two brilliant

Wow: two brilliant philosophical arguments, almost two years apart. Nathan brings experience to the table and shows how experience affects (and should affect) rationality. I am very persuaded by the crystal clarity of your thinking, born of your experience, Nathan. Thank you. And Darrin shows the limitations of philosophy, in effect in support of Nathan's position. Intelligence being what (ever) it is, 1. no one ever admits they are wrong, 2. people are only looking for confirmation of what they believe or want, and 3. no one but the philosopher cares about what is right or rational, and how to mediate competing moralities.

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, March 19, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

bottom line torture doesn't

bottom line torture doesn't work. there's is no evidence that we ever gotten actionable intel from torture. no matter how much politicians and hollywood try to convince you otherwise. the FBI has been using techniques that do not require torture that are far more effective. this techniques probably would not help in the ticking time scenario but then neither would torture.
Those of us who had to interview people for information know, i was an auditor for years, you make a connection to the individual and the just spill there guts. you attack them and they fight you.

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, March 19, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

I heard your program on

I heard your program on torture today, 3/20/12, for the first time, and thought it was one of the worst programs you ever aired. If you start with an untrue premise, then your conclusions will be wrong.
You accept that the purpose of torture is to elicit information. I dispute your assertion. Torture is a political act. Its purposes are twofold: one is to scare the general population into behaving in ways congenial to a regime; and the second is to have those tortured confess to activities claimed by the regime in order to strengthen the regime's credibility. These purposes have been true since the Inquisition, the Salem witch trials, the SS Gestapo, and so on.
Further, there have been studies showing that people who knowingly commit acts that may lead to torture are better able to withstand torture than innocents caught up in a round up. The belief is that the former have some control over their lives, while the latter who do not, will tell their 'interrogators' anything to stop the abuse. Torture leads to misinformation in most cases, and it is impossible for the interrogators to know which statements they receive are true or false, unless they get people to confess to diametrically different statements - which also occurs.
The psychologist who called into your program was absolutely correct when he said torture leads to physiological changes. These changes may have to be discerned with CAT scans, MRIs, or neurological tests rather than by bruises easily visible by the naked eye, but often the neurological damage is more permanent and destructive.
Torture should never be permissible. I would be glad to know of any cases you know of where torture led to the saving of lives.

Fred Griswold's picture

Fred Griswold

Tuesday, March 20, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

I so far haven't seen any

I so far haven't seen any convincing examples of a case where torture might be effective. Torture victims don't tell you the truth. They tell you what they have to tell you to get the torture to stop. To take the example given above (which I take it was written by John Perry): "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." Suppose the guy tells you he left the child east of town, but he's lying, it was really west of town. The searchers will do their searching east of town. They would have been better off not to believe the torturee. Throwing a ticking time bomb into the story doesn't change anything. So I don't see how the effectiveness of torture could ever be used as an argument in favor of it. To think that torture would be effective is simply naive. Unless you define effectiveness a different way. Like, if you twist somebody's arm while asking "Did Saddam try to buy yellow-cake uranium from Africa?" and he finally says "Yes", and then you use that in your propaganda to justify a war, then maybe the torture succeeded.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, March 24, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

Even questioning the ethics

Even questioning the ethics of torture is horrifically unethical to me.
We sure have a long Way to go.
=

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, April 8, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

To me, the strongest real

To me, the strongest real world case for torture is the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. He was allegedly the architect of the September 11 attacks as well other terrorist activities. He was captured in 2003 and WAS tortured by the United States. For the sake of argument, let's assume the following 3 statements.
A) There was overwhelming evidence that he was responsible for the 9-11 attacks.
B) There was a significant chance that he knew about current plots, as well important structural and functional information about al Qaeda.
C) He refused to give up substantial information through normal interrogation methods.
If these 3 facts are true, I think it was OK to torture him. This man helped to kill thousands of people already, and he MIGHT have possessed information that could help us stop future attacks. I'm sure the torture was awful and may have destroyed him as a person. But it's very hard for me to feel bad for a mass murderer.
I acknowledge that if one of A, B or C were false, then the case for torture falls apart. Furthermore, I'm sure the US used torture on people where the case was much weaker, and I'm not sure if that can be justified.