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.