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