Loving the torturer

There was a post over at ¡No Pasarán! today that I couldn’t disagree more with on the moral imperative of torture. The poster is wrong because torture is itself immoral. It is a violation of the dignity of the person; it treats persons as means rather than as ends. There can never be a moral imperative to perform an immoral act. The exponents of torture may believe there is pragmatic necessity to torture but any idea of moral imperative is simply wrong.

Discussions of the morality of torture usually center on one of two parties: the victim of torture or the innocents at risk. Consider the “ticking bomb” scenario:

At 11am on a Monday morning, the Metropolis police discover that a terrorist cell plans to blow up the city with a huge bomb. The bomb is set to explode at 12noon that same day–in one hour. At that same time, the police capture a known terrorist and bring him to a police station for questioning. In order to find out where the bomb is located and disarm it, thereby saving millions of lives, the police decide to use torture.

We wish to save the prospective innocent victims so (the argument goes) we torture the “known terrorist” who is presumed to have information which could lead to the prevention of the crime. This is a dramatization of the question “Does the end justify the means?”

The answer is “No”. You may allow an evil act to achieve a greater good but you may not intend an evil act to achieve that good. It is morally permissible to order a soldier into battle to defend the country. You don’t intend the death or injury of the soldier (although it may happen). It is not morally permissible to rob a bank to give the proceeds to the poor. The worth of the end may possibly be mitigating but it is not exculpatory.

There is an additional problem with the “ticking bomb” scenario: ignorance. Unless you’re absolutely certain that the person you’re about to torture actually has the information you’re trying to obtain, you’re advocating torture in the hope that useful information might be obtained. That’s just too low a bar. And I honestly don’t see how you can have that kind of certainty without already having the information in hand. As Augustine put it:

What shall I say of torture applied to the accused himself? He is tortured to discover whether he is guilty, so that, though innocent, he suffers most undoubted punishment for crime that is still doubtful, not because it is proved that he committed it, but because it is not ascertained that he did not commit it. Thus the ignorance of the judge frequently involves an innocent person in suffering. And what is still more unendurable — a thing, indeed, to be bewailed, and, if that were possible, watered with fountains of tears — is this, that when the judge puts the accused to the question, that he may not unwittingly put an innocent man to death, the result of this lamentable ignorance is that this very person, whom he tortured that he might not condemn him if innocent, is condemned to death both tortured and innocent.

But there is another party in torture who is injured by the act: the torturer. Every time one human being tortures another he values other human beings less and is more inclined to treat other human beings as ends rather than means. This is a “slippery slope” argument but not merely a slippery slope argument since each and every step downwards is itself wrong regardless of the intent. The torturer is also injured by the act of torturing another by virtue of becoming a moral cripple.

It is not just concern for the tortured which should cause us to avoid torture. It is our love for the torturer which should cause us to stay our hand.

11 comments… add one
  • Actually, Saint Augustine and the No Pasarán post do not contradict one another. Augustine is saying that torture to “discover whether [an accused person] is guilty” is unacceptable, and Charles Krauthammer says nothing that contradicts that. Au contraire: …”whatever extreme measures are used are for reasons of nothing but information. Historically, the torture of prisoners has been done for a variety of reasons apart from information, most prominently reasons of justice [cf Augustine] or revenge. We do not do that. We should not do that. Ever.”

    To understand things that may seem foreign and theoretical to us, I have often found it helpful to put a personal context to it. Imagine that a neighboring house has been blown up, with all its inhabitants inside it, and it is discovered that the people had all been chained down to prevent them from escaping before the fireball went off. Now imagine you have found the guilty party, or even only a suspect, albeit a pretty credible one. At that moment, a policeman comes over from your own house and gives you this message: your spouse, your children, your parents, and, say, a half dozen of your friends have been chained to the walls. No bomb has been found. Yet.

    What do you do? A related question: what would you do if you were one of the chained persons, with your friends, your children, your nieces and nephews, and other family members in risk of suffering a premature (and horrible) death, and a person you knew well — perhaps your spouse — refusing to do anything because it would bring “injury” upon the torturer. Personally, the answer is easy: I would not forgive that person (either in this life or in the afterlife) for sacrificing good and honest peoples’ lives so that a piece of $&*@ should not feel violated — nor should I!…

    Theoretical? Imagine Maoussoui, the only 9-11 terrorist to have been captured before the attack on the Twin Towers. Imagine if that Frenchman, under torture, had named only one of his co-conspirators. Could 9-11 have been averted? Could at least one of the four planes’ hijackings have been fouled, avoiding, say, the attack on the South Tower? Thosse are examples — one hypothetical, the other real — of what Charles Krauthammer calls

    cases in which we are morally permitted–indeed morally compelled–to do terrible things.

    PS: Here is a related post that appeared on No Pasarán, which is a translation of an editorial that ran in a Romanian newspaper

  • Beltran Link

    If you are saying that a person cannot possibly do something so vile as to place himself outside of normal human consideration, I would say you are wrong. Kant, and no rational philosopher, would agree with you. Its best to go deeper than the surface on philosophical issues. Erik’s comment personalizes the issue a bit. Don’t dismiss it lightly.

    You’ve got a public persona, at work, on the blog, with friends. You’ve got a private persona that you might not even know yet, unless pushed to extremes. Torture is one of those issues where most folks hide behind platitudes: “never” “oh no! immoral!” “you brute!” and so on. It’s probably best to do that publicly. Privately, if that’s the extent of a person’s understanding, they’re not very deep.

  • Beltran, I think you’re wrong on this count and I’d certainly like to see some substantiation for your claims. Here’s what Kant said about capital punishment:

    His death… must be kept free from all maltreatment that would make the humanity suffering in his person loathsome or abominable.

    That would appear to directly contradict your claim.

  • Yes, DS, except we are not talking about punishment, capital or other, or anything implying “reasons of justice or revenge”. We are talking about scenarios, some hypothetical, others horrifyingly real, in which deliberately imposing harm and pain upon one person (a rather vile one, I might add) would (or at least might) help prevent the suffering of targetted people (many of them “innocents”, i.e., unaware and unarmed non-combatants) whom that person has deliberately marked for a perhaps horrible and, certainly premature, death.

  • There is a wider question, of which torture is only a small part. The combatants who fight for Al Queda are unlawful combatants. Their goal is to undo Westphalian rules and return us to a much bloodier age. One of the reasons that we have rules of war at all is in order to shield the civilians from the consequences of war. Those ruinous consequences, after all, were what made the Peace of Westphalia happen in the first place and set it as the cornerstone of the modern system.

    Essentially, legitimate combatants trade many effective combat techniques in exchange for the protection of the innocent. Terrorists and other unlawful combatants make use of these forbidden techniques and gain a real combat advantage because of it. Unless the rules of war are to be abandoned entirely, they must be punished for it. They must suffer a loss of the rights of captivity for their own combatants, the loss must be of such nature that it is more painful than to continue to cause the death and injury of the innocent through the use of banned techniques.

    One of the things that unlawful combatants are proposed to give up is the right not to be interrogated beyond name, rank, and serial number (the latter two of which they may not have anyway). The question I would put to you all is how rough can that interrogation get before it should be halted? And if that level of roughness is not enough to deter future innocent civilians from losing their lives, who is to blame? Are we morally culpable for not imposing a sufficient penalty for violating the laws of war?

  • I’m pretty Kantian on this, TM. Actions should have consequences but those consequences should not violate the person’s essential humanity. I believe that unlawful combatants who are not American citizens and are taken prisoner on the field of battle in opposition to the United States overseas should be executed but the execution should take place without cruelty. And, as I said, I’m opposed to torture.

    As to your question I don’t have a ready answer—I’ll have to consider it.

    I understand your point on undoing the Peace of Westphalia but I’m not sure I’m completely in agreement. One possible interpretation is that we are, in fact, opposing a nation (Islam or, possibly, the Arab nation) and that Al Qaeda is its army. I suspect that’s how the members of Al Qaeda view it. Are they attacking civilians? I’m not sure that’s how they see it.

    Were we attacking civilians when we bombed German munitions plants?

    One thing I’m really convinced of is that we need some mechanism for determining what is and isn’t a nation or state in Westphalian terms. The Syrias and Saudi Arabias of the world are simultaneously hiding behind their nationhood and avoiding the responsibilities that nationhood conveys.

  • mannning Link

    Now I have your position more fully in view. You are willing to execute the terrorist, but not torture him for his information. Torture is worse than death, and the information content within this terrorist can be destroyed forever.

    Further, in fear of torturing a possibly innocent man or men, we should even refrain from the attempt. Plus, it harms us if we condone and perform torture. You are not interested in outcomes, but only in the acts themselves. That about right? Oh, and you have a closed mind on the subject now. End of Story. Well, it is at least clear!

    Suppose I could tell you of a case where a variation of the Ticking Time Bomb Scenario actually took place, a suspicious person was captured and the person was tortured. He did reveal the details of the plan and the exact location of the weapon. This saved only a few hundred men from a fiery death, but those men were extremely grateful, as you can imagine. You are saying that this was the wrong thing to do? Are you saying that the interrogators should be punished?

  • I don’t have a closed mind on it but I’m not particularly impressed by ad hominem arguments of the sort you put forward at OTB or by anecdotes. And, yes, I believe the interrogators should be prosecuted although the nature of the punishment might vary based on mitigating circumstances.

    I don’t see what sorts of acts could be prohibited under the narrow sort of consequentialism you’re putting forward.

  • mannning Link

    In the scenario as given, no acts would be prohibited at all by those in the immediate situation against the terrorist. It would be their call at the moment, and distant laws, policies, decrees, and directives against their use of torture would not necessarily be of any concern whatsoever to them! They would act on their knowledge of the moment, I believe, and what they see as the right thing to do, if they could.

    You think I used ad hominem arguments! Clearly we have a huge difference of opinion on that score. The TTB is a thought experiment in the first place, whether it has ever been done in fact. That is not an ad hominem argument.

    If you are upset by the contempt I show for silly retorts, so be it.

  • Chris Link

    We must do whatever it takes to get information from these captured terrorist, I am against torture but do believe that waterbording is ok!! Left-wingers want to abolish waterbording which doesn’t surprise me at all since their mission is to up-root the war on terrorism. Democrats are to affraid of hurting peoples feelings & saying, and, or doing whatever it takes to gain the Presidency.

    I thought John Kerry was bad when he kept “riding the fence” on issues. I see Mrs. Slick Willie Clinton doing the same thing, she refuses to answer the question about allowing Illegal’s to get driver license in her state of NY. I’ve seen 2 video’s of her “dancing” around the issue.

    I am honestly affraid of the Democratic party taking over the Presidency!! more than a majority are to “soft” when it comes to terrorism, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they change the interogation process all together. Like I said in paragraph 1…..Democrats are to affraid of hurting peoples feelings. Sometimes you have to be harsh on people, especially people who are totally commited to the destruction of our society!!!!

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