Blurry Thinking on Torture Debate

In the wake of the killing of bin Laden, we’ve been treated to a reprise of the almost ten-year long debate over “enhanced interrogation tactics,” i.e., torture.  There are really two questions here–“Is it ever right to torture?” and “Does torture work–does it yield vital information we must have and could not get otherwise?”

Listen to the coverage and you’ll notice that many commentators are blurring the two questions; one moment they’re arguing that torture really doesn’t “work”; the next moment, they’re arguing about whether it is right or not. The two questions–morality and efficacy–must be untangled.

1. The first question is one of morality: Is it ever right to use torture? You can set up 24-style hypotheticals if you like. If we knew or strongly suspected that Terrorist X had information about a bomb set to kill dozens or hundreds of people in the next few hours, would we be justified in waterboarding the suspect, or burning him with torches, or tearing off his flesh with needle-nosed pliers, or using some similar tactic to elicit the information?

For the person who believes that such tactics are immoral, the answer is easy: No, we cannot use those measures. End of story.

Not even to save  innocent lives?

No. If you are making the moral case, you cannot justify your actions by referring to the good results that would come of torture. It does not matter if thousands of women and children could be saved by information gleaned from torture. It is wrong, and it cannot be used by people of conscience. If the tree is poisoned, its fruits are poisoned too.

What about the utilitarian argument–that saving hundreds of people by torturing one person produces so much  “good” and happiness that it outweighs the pain and fear of one man? 

Unless we are willing to treat certain people (like suspected terrorists)  as means to an end, torture still cannot be allowed.  People are to be seen as ends in themselves, not instruments to be used as we please to bring about desirable ends.

2. But does torture work? Only after we’ve answered the morality question does this question matter. Those who believe torture is always wrong will not be moved by stories about its beneficial results.

Only those who believe torture may sometimes be morally right are free to ask, next, whether in fact it works. Only then does it make sense to talk about the chances of getting good information through torture, and whether the good produced by the torture justifies its use.

Obviously, if there were no cases in which torture had ever produced valuable intelligence, it would be at best a waste of time and at worst an act of fiendish evil to practice torture. But, if torture is morally wrong, it does not matter if every single instance of torture produces life-saving information.

It is certainly within the realm of possibility that a suspect who really does have valuable info might give up that info rather than have his ears torn off or his genitals burned with torches.

It is certainly within the realm of possibility that a suspect who has not actually been tortured, but thinks he might be so treated, might talk to avoid such agonies.

It’s also possible that people being tortured or threatened with torture might just make up an attractive story to avoid the agonies. (Of course, the same thing might happen with a prisoner who was treated kindly.)

Again, the  key point being lost in the current babble: The question of torture’s morality cannot be answered with reference to its effectiveness. We can’t say, “Well, look, when they waterboarded Abahzi Al-Azooga, he told them who bombed the trains in Madrid, so it was right to do that to him.”

No. If waterboarding is morally wrong, it’s morally wrong even if you could save the whole world by doing it. That’s precisely the question so dramatically raised in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

“Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature . . . and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears.  Would you consent to be the architect on those conditions?”


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