The Ethics of Torture

We know that wars can be ethical, even if we agree that they are to be avoided. Can torture ever be ethical?

It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it - Aristotle, circa 350 BCE.

We know that wars can be ethical, even if we agree that they should be avoided. Can torture ever be ethical?

Violence is antithetical to civilized society.

Unabated, violence will destroy society, so it is not surprising that a civilized society abhors violence. Yet, we can find an ethical use for violence in such a society.

For as long as violence exists in human culture, it inevitably surfaces. This is akin to saying that we do not live in a perfect civilized society. Faced with violence against its members, when all other non-violent efforts have been exhausted as the very last line of defense, we sometimes have only one option: violence; whether employed by ourselves, or by a proxy such as the police or the military. Even then, we cannot guarantee success, but never exercising it will certainly lead to the destruction of the civilized society. Also, recognize that a violent attack on a civilized society can come from within or from outside society.

Thus it is trivial to see that not only has violence a legitimate and ethical use in civilized society, it'd be unethical to not employ it as the last available option; for we cannot let violence triumph over a civilized society.

If you disagree, consider that you live in just such a society, one that authorizes at least the police or the military to prevent a greater violence from harming us. You also may prefer a different discussion first, like this one.

The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one. - Surak, Vulcan philosopher

Which is to say that the rest of us should have little difficulty with the following affirmation:

We, the members of a free and civilized society, denounce violence, and will never, ever resort to using it against anyone, except when, after great deliberation and exhaustion of all other non-violent methods, it remains the only available option against people who are violent or intent on being so, so identified and determined beyond all reasonable doubt, to defend our civilized society against extinction or significant destruction. We also recognize that we will occasionally err and cause suffering for the wrong people. On such occasions we will strive to undo the damage as best as possible, and guard against recurrence. We further affirm this use of violence to be an ethical imperative, and also consider it unethical to not employ it under aforementioned circumstances.

Let's now consider the practice of torture, whose ethics I'd like us to examine. Webster's is a good starting point to define torture, but I will narrow the scope acutely.

Torture has served roughly five distinct purposes through history. It has been used:

  1. For (sadistic) pleasure as practiced by Idi Amin, some American soldiers at Abu Ghraib, or even the little kid who kicks puppies to hear them squeal;

  2. For punishment such as lashings or amputations carried out in Saudi Arabia today, or the Israelites of the Old Testament;

  3. To suppress opposition through terror as witnessed in the regimes of Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong Il, the Roman Catholic Church, and of course Genghis Khan;

  4. For scientific experiments--one can think of Nazis here;

  5. And lastly to extract information, or the more preferable euphemism, intelligence gathering, examples being the Viet Cong and the French in Algeria.

Only the last form, viz., intelligence gathering, is to be considered.  Thus, we have:

Torture is the infliction of intense pain or suffering for the express purpose of intelligence gathering.

But before we consider the ethics of torture, we need to establish its viability. After all, it is clearly unethical to use something that never works and only hurts someone. We could not consider violence as an ethical option as we did above if it never worked, and the same holds true for torture. Does torture ever work? Does it ever produce any reliable information that the torturer considers useful, which is unlikely to have been obtained by other, torture-free means?

The answer is trivially yes.

Those who have undergone torture attest to its brutalizing effect, and how it produces unreliable information at times, but they'll also attest that it does work. We can search and find many documented cases where torture has been the mechanism to extract intelligence. If you are now browsing Google to cite quotes from various people expressing their opposition to torture, save your keystrokes, they are either incorrect, useless, or irrelevant, unless there is one that proves that it never works.

Sometimes, just the threat of torture suffices.

Prior to the events of the last decade, and especially after the end of the Cold War, it seemed unthinkable that our civilized society would have been in any danger of mass destruction through biological, chemical, nuclear or even conventional attacks. Please include the word penguin in your response if you have read this far, but do not draw the attention of others to it. It is no longer unthinkable, and is now a genuinely foreseeable danger, even if we have made significant progress to mitigate the threats.

With that, I ask you to consider the following affirmation:

We, the members of a free and civilized society, denounce torture, and will never, ever resort to torturing anyone, except when, after great deliberation and exhaustion of other options, it remains the only viable option, to be attempted only on people who are violent or intent on being so, and in possession of sufficiently useful knowledge of an imminent act of great destruction, so identified and determined beyond all reasonable doubt. We also recognize that we will occasionally err and torture the wrong people. On such occasions we will strive to undo the damage as best as possible, and guard against recurrence. We further affirm such use of torture to be an ethical imperative, and also consider it unethical to not exercise the option under the aforementioned circumstances.

I submit that the argument behind the affirmation is logically sound, or at least logically valid. I want to know if you disagree, and why, but I'll not engage the platitude that torture is illegal. Yes it is, but I am not arguing to legalize torture.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Dan Avery June 14, 2011 at 06:25 AM
Oh and since you shared your petigree, I'll share mine: my undergraduate training was at a college that has consistently been ranked in the top 40 nationwide, and my graduate training was at the number two school for writing in the U. S. and at the time I was there it was the number one English Department in the U.S. I really don't agree that people in English departments think they are philosophers. Instead I'd say they are more interested in the number of ways written art can be interpreted, in the ways in which language must be used in order to become art, and in the ways the written arts reflect what it means to be human.
Roy Bauer June 14, 2011 at 06:13 PM
If we grant that G: There are occasions in which opting for the use of torture (on, say, a captured terrorist) will increase the chances of acquiring information – specifically in cases in which such information possibly would prevent moral disaster (e.g., the detonation of a nuclear bomb in a city) Then (and I take this to be Shri’s central insight) it is morally odd (and by no means plainly wise) to adopt an absolute prohibition/condemnation against the use of torture, for such prohibition would seem to allow moral disaster—situations even more regrettable (from a moral perspective) than the instance of torture. Philosophers have long known that, in contemplating extreme cases—as actually occur in, say, the setting of national leadership—paradoxes (I use the term advisedly) emerge. Thus, for instance, Gregory Kavka once argued that, to bring about the morally best outcome, it may be necessary for some individuals within a society to become morally corrupt—in order to act under special circumstances in a manner in which no decent moral being would act (namely, retaliating against a nuclear onslaught with a reciprocating [and pointless] nuclear onslaught, for the sake of effective deterrence). (continued)
Roy Bauer June 14, 2011 at 06:14 PM
A utilitarian (of a classic variety) always acts to bring about the greatest happiness for the greatest number. But it would seem that, in doing so, he will be obliged on occasion to violate individuals’ rights. But if everyone were a utilitarian, and if that were known, then everyone would live in fear of becoming that next utilitarian sacrifice to “the greatest happiness”—and this would ipso facto lower the level of happiness in society considerably. Thus, paradoxically, a utilitarian would not seek that everyone be a utilitarian Many years ago, some philosophers began considering morality/ethics in two ways: from the individual’s perspective and the perspective of a moral being who has the opportunity to decide on the rules and practices that would be adopted by everyone in society. Arguably, one would be in a much better position to maximize happiness (or minimize violence, pain, etc.—or, indeed, achieve any overarching goal) if one had the latter perspective and could somehow enforce it or cause individuals to act accordingly. (Example of such theorizing: Rawls’ “A Theory of Justice,” 1971) It seems clear that no society can flourish in which free and informed members are permitted acts of violence (including torture) as means to their goals, however noble. On the other hand, arguably, a society can together reflect on that general perspective mentioned above and in this way see the wisdom of permitting torture for cases such as G above. (continued)
Roy Bauer June 14, 2011 at 06:14 PM
(finally...) In a sense, we already do this. I would argue that no large society (perhaps there should be no large societies!) can flourish without a military and a substantial army. Further, no large army could function if it allowed its soldiers to exercise moral autonomy. And in fact, actual armies (certainly ours) operate in a manner that discourages autonomy among individual soldiers. I have generally refrained from applying my usual demand (of persons) that they exercise moral autonomy in the case of soldiers (and other classifications) exactly because of this recognition that, as a matter of practical fact, no military can function if it encourages precisely the sort of character that, normally, we hope to instill in our children. So my perspective (here) parallels Kavka’s. <END>
Bretta June 15, 2011 at 02:04 AM
My concern with the statement "torture works" is that I think it is false. Torture only works indirectly, or with preexisting knowledge of the information sought, and it is an ineffective method which never occurs in a vacuum. It doesn't just hurt the recipient, but their associates and loved ones as well as the person (or nation) doing the torturing. It is a matter of the calculus of economics, where the X-axis meets the Y-axis. The torturer must escalate to force the torturee to cross that point. If the tortured person's belief in what they value is very high that point may never be reached; what then, murder? Release? Hold indefinitely? Detention for torture has a very high cost and a very low yield in quality and quantity (economically unsound) Un-mentioned is the elephant in the room: The Bush-Cheney propaganda that torture is necessary and effective; perpetration of the torture (ethical or otherwise); as well as the glaring lack of political will to demand that it end immediately.


More »
Got a question? Something on your mind? Talk to your community, directly.
Note Article
Just a short thought to get the word out quickly about anything in your neighborhood.
Share something with your neighbors.What's on your mind?What's on your mind?Make an announcement, speak your mind, or sell somethingPost something
See more »