Tuesday, April 03, 2007

When Torture is Good

From the desk of Jane Galt, comes this:

I'd rather be waterboarded than put in the general population of a high security prison. It is entirely possible that life at Guantanamo is more bearable than life at San Quentin, and no, that is not a defense of Guantanamo.
She goes on to add, as she must, that torture is bad and wrong.

But is it? Or is there a time when torture is in season?

Imagine a time in the near future when we have invented a weapon so powerful that it could cause the Sun to nova, destroying our planet. Perhaps it's a scheme to divert a moon-sized object into collision course with the Earth, to satisfy the apocalyptic vision of a brilliant but misunderstood Muslim postal worker. Undoubtedly, any means necessary to save the human race, including the torture of one unhappy camper, would be acceptable.

Suppose, then, there were a nuclear bomb ticking away in the middle of a major metropolis -- or the town where your family reunion is being held. The fellow who planted it turns himself in to police in the next town over the horizon, believing that a jail will be a lot safer for him than anywhere else in a few hours.

If torturing that one fellow will save the lives and secure the liberty of millions (and of your family), would it be OK? To me, there's not much question that it would.

So if it were a conventional bomb, like the one Timothy McVeigh exploded outside the Oklahoma City Federal Building, would it have been acceptable to torture the bomber to stop that bombing?

We could continue the slippery slope down to the life, or injury, of one person, or even to some injury to property or the environment. While we would find torture acceptable to prevent some circumstance, there is a line below which we would not. Somewhere between racial annihilation and spitting on the sidewalk we would say no, it's unacceptable to torture to prevent that crime, but perhaps not a spree of such crimes.

But why is that? We believe that torture is wrong because of an emotional and philosophical reaction against it, but that emotion comes from several different directions.

First, torture is associated with the evil tyrants of history and malevolent prison guards, who have used it to punish as much or more than to gain information. We, the enlightened, don't want to be like them, and that ideal manifests itself in an emotional response: torture is bad.

Torture is inflicting pain on someone who can't fight back, an activity which repulses normal people. We are generally much happier taking a paternal or pastoral attitude toward prisoners. Even if we must treat them harshly, we don't want to treat them cruelly.

But probably the best reason to avoid torture is that torturees lie. People will say anything to make the pain stop even for a moment. The torturer often wants to hear a particular answer, and the torturee can sometimes figure out what to say. Torture is properly seen therefore as an unreliable means of gathering information.

So back to our imminent disasters. Why is torture acceptable to avert them, and how do we know where to draw the line? There are several principles we can see.
  1. Time pressure: there's a deadline which will pass without torture
  2. Balance: harm to the torturee will prevent greater harm to others
  3. Specificity: the question is known, but the answer is not
  4. Verifiable: the information needed can be quickly verified (or refuted) without torture
Torture is only acceptable when we must act quickly to obtain specific answers which can be checked without resort to torture, but cannot be obtained otherwise. If you disagree, you are welcome to your integrity, but I am not willing to accept the consequences of preserving your clear conscience.

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Anonymous said...

"If you disagree, you are welcome to your integrity, but I am not willing to accept the consequences of preserving your clear conscience."

i guess that includes the integrity of america. if anyone actually read this other than me and agreed, it would be a sad day.

Loren Heal said...

So if the survival of the human race were at stake, you would refuse to torture the pangenocidal maniac who was about to do it?

theNewsThinker said...

To Lauren Heal: "So if the survival of the human race were at stake..." That is exactly what the war criminals in Washington want you to believe. America is always being threatened. There's always the next bin Laden, or terrorists or communists. But for some reason we're always the one making a mess in other countries around the world. The hypo you posit is interesting on an academic level - but in reality this situation has never occurred. It is never legal to torture someone (until Congress says so at least). I can agree with you it may be justified morally - but we cannot live by exceptions. We live by the rules. If a situation did exist like you said - we must rely on the people who believe what they're doing is right (even if they think torture is the only way), but they must be held accountable for it. Look at all the people we tortured after 9/11 for the same reason you posted about - stake of the human race or America was on the table. The torture did more harm then good. Look at the ISIS hostages - they're being waterboarded, tortured and beheaded (and wear orange jump suits) - I wonder where they got all those ideas.

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