Torture Research

Is Torture Morally Permissible?

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A good overview of the moral debates on torture, with contributions from writers on different sides of the debate, is Greenberg, Karen J., ed. 2005. The Torture Debate in America. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. A recent book arguing in favor of torture in limited situations is Bagaric, Mirko, and Julie Clarke. 2007. Torture: When the Unthinkable is Morally Permissible. Albany: State University of New York Press. A recent article arguing against torture in any situation is Twiss, Sumner B. 2007. “Torture, Justification, and Human Rights: Towards an Absolute Proscription.” Human Rights Quarterly 29, 346-367. Both of these 2007 sources have current literature reviews that summarize the ethical arguments for and against torture.

Another good source, publicly available for free on the internet, is Seumas Miller’s article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. This article summarizes the arguments for and against torture, and has a good bibliography of sources. The article opposes torture warrants or other legalization of torture, but argues that in isolated, extreme cases, police and other authorities would be morally justified in using torture even though it was illegal.

While Miller’s article provides a good summary of the philosophical debate over the morality of torture, I believe his conclusions to be not only wrong, but dangerously wrong one, so I feel like I should rebut it here. For a fuller rebuttal, see Rejali (2008), pp. 446-479.

Miller offers two hypothetical situations in which he thinks torture would be justified. The first is a situation where a robber steals a car in which a child is asleep in the car seat, and disposes of the car, but is caught later by the police. He refuses to admit he stole the car or tell police where it is, even though they are sure he is the thief; if the police don’t find the car’s location in 20 minutes, the child will die of heat stroke. In the second situation, a terrorist has hidden a nuclear time bomb in a city, and if the police don’t find it in time, it will detonate and kill thousands of people.  Miller argues that torture is justified in both situations.

The problem with Miller’s argument, and that of other philosophers, is that Miller has little knowledge of how interrogators operate or how interrogated people respond to torture. They assume that torture is an effective way to get accurate information quickly, and that torture works in situations where other methods fail. Both assumptions are wrong. As Rejali has shown (2008), torture does not work more quickly than other methods of interrogation, and it normally takes days for torturers to break their victims’ will to the point where they will talk. Second, torture does not work as well as more conventional methods of interrogation.

Returning to Miller’s examples, in the first case (the car thief who accidentally kidnapped a child), it seems likely that other methods would be more effective than torture in getting the thief to reveal the location of the child. The thief is portrayed as “sneering, defiant and belligerent,” and a person who “makes no secret of his contempt for the police.” After being beaten, the thief “finally realized the beating would go on until he told the police where he had abandoned the child and the car,” and tells them.

If the thief is so contemptuous of the police, it seems that beating him would be as likely, or more likely, to make him angry and defiant than to confess. Other approaches would probably be more effective: offering to drop the charges against him entirely, offering a monetary reward for the child’s safety, or even sending the mother to make a personal appeal to the thief’s sense of compassion. After all, this is a common thief, who just wanted to acquire a car, not a psychopath who enjoys killing children. Finally, the thief has a strong motive to resist torture, as the torture would not “go on until he told the police where he had abandoned the child and the car.” The beating would actually go on until the twenty minutes had passed, after which time there would be no point in beating him, except as punishment. In any case, after twenty minutes had passed the thief would have an even stronger motive not to talk, as a confession would make him liable for murder.

The second example, of the “ticking bomb,” is equally unconvincing. If the terrorist is truly committed to his cause, it seems unlikely that torture would cause him to change his mind. The terrorists who destroyed the World Trade center were brave enough to commit suicide for their cause; the terrorist in this example would likely be brave enough and dedicated enough to resist torture for an hour or two until the bomb went off. Actually, all he would have to do is name a false location, and then another one, staving off torture while sending police on a series of fruitless searches until the bomb detonated. And torture is not better than doing nothing. Sending police teams to search for the bomb in likely locations, or even at random, would be a more effective use of resources then sending them to search for what would almost certainly be false leads. Finally, real-life bomb plots of this sort, such as the one in London, were thwarted when friends and family members came forward with information. If members of the terrorists’ community knew the police would use torture, would they come forward as quickly?

The final problem with the ticking bomb scenario is that arguments like it are used by real-life torturers both to justify torture and to justify torture in violation of the law. Miller’s two scenarios are extreme ones, as they justify torturing a certainly guilty person to save the life of an innocent child (scenario one) or thousands of civilians (scenario two). But if torture of one apparently guilty person is permissible to save a single child’s life, or thousands of adult lives, why wouldn’t it be permissible to save a few adult lives? Or even just one? And does it matter whether the adult in question is a civilian? Why not use torture to save the lives of policemen, or soldiers?

In my own research on the moral reasoning of torturers, I found that soldiers who use torture make use of the exact same logic as philosophers who support the exceptional circumstances argument. Soldiers assume that they only torture the guilty, and that torture works better than other methods to gain information to save the lives of their comrades. In fact, the opposite is true: objective studies of military use of torture find that many, many more innocent people are tortured than guilty, and that

My main criticism of philosophical arguments is that philosophers show little inclination to learn about how torturers actually work, or whether torture is actually effective. Philosophers show great sophistication in moral reasoning, but naively accept torturers’ assertions that torture works without trying to corroborate these claims through independent evidence. Miller’s case study is typical: the car thief case is a story that Miller heard from a New Zealand police officer. Miller notes in passing that the police officer admitted to falsifying the arrest report and perjured himself at the thief’s trial, but Miller nonetheless presents the anecdote as if it were a true story.


Written by tortureresearch

January 27, 2010 at 8:13 pm

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