The Ethics of Torture
Sunday, April 11, 2010

What is it

According to former Vice President Cheney, practices widely regarded as torture prevented further attack on America after 9/11.  The facts are in dispute.  But suppose he is correct – can torture be justified on such utilitarian grounds?  What is the philosophical basis of our aversion to using torture?  Is the moral principle not to torture absolute or circumstantial?  Ken and John consider the ethics of torture with Nancy Sherman from Georgetown University, author of The Untold War: Inside the Hearts, Minds, and Souls of Our Soldiers.

Listening Notes

John and Ken begin by discussing two major moral views, Kantianism and utilitarianism, and how they come to bear on the question of whether torture is ever ethical. Subscribers to Kant’s moral framework would take a hardline approach and claim that it is never right to treat people like tools; humans are autonomous beings, and torture is a direct violation of this fact. In contrast, utilitarians, Ken explains, would claim that torture could be the right thing to do if it brings about the greatest good for the greatest number of people. John wraps up the initial part of the show by listing a couple other questions to consider besides the morality of torture. Is it effective? What is it like to torture, or to be tortured?

After Ken introduces Nancy Sherman, John asks for her working definition of torture. Nancy answers by saying that there is no clear line between interrogation and torture; the two exist alongside each other on a continuum. Next, in response to audience member questions, Nancy, Ken, and John discuss the efficacy of torture, the role of power in the tortured/torturer relationship, and how one famous prisoner of war, James Stockdale, channelled the philosophy of Epictetus to endure intense suffering. 

Late in the show, John asks the million dollar question. Is the morality of torture a matter of absolutes, or is it sometimes permissible to torture? Nancy forcibly responds with a Kantian point of view. Torture, she claims, is never morally acceptable. Ken challenges this stance with the ticking time-bomb thought experiment. He describes a scene in which a bomb is set to go off in Manhattan, and hundreds of thousands of deaths might be avoided if the mastermind of the plot is tortured and the bomb can be dismantled with the resulting information. 

Nancy stands her ground. Such extreme hypotheticals, she insists, are a luxury of philosophers’ parlor talk. Policies must be rooted in realistic circumstances, and using such a far-fetched example to justify torture opens up a card for the act to be acceptable in other cases too. Nancy concludes by returning to a point she stresses throughout the show. Even when interrogation is done correctly, with no torture involved, the interrogator will feel morally queasy. Such feelings aren’t just static noise; the psychology of soldiers reveals morally relevant phenomena that shouldn’t be ignored.

  • Roving Philosophical Reporter (Seek to 5:02) : Chris Arendt, a former guard at Guantanamo Bay, confesses that he considers himself guilty of participating in torture. In addition, Justine Sharrock, author of Tortured: When Good Soldiers Do Bad Things, offers her thoughts on how torture affects both soldiers and their communities back home.
  • Philosophy Talk Goes to the Movies: John and Ken discuss A Serious Man, the latest film by the Coen Brothers.

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Nancy Sherman, Professor of Philosophy, Georgetown University

Bonus Content


Philosophy Talk Goes to the Movies: A Serious Man

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