The ticking bomb problem

by John Quiggin on May 12, 2004

In response to the exposure of widespread torture prisoners in Iraq (on all sides) and elsewhere, it’s inevitable that the “ticking bomb” problem should be raised.

‘You hold a terrorist who knows the location of a defusable bomb which, if exploded, will kill x million people. Do you have the right to torture him/her to find the bomb?’
Various answers to this question have been offered, none of which seem entirely satisfactory.

Instead of offering an answer to this question, I’m going to look at a question that follows immediately, but doesn’t seem to have been asked. Suppose that someone has used torture to extract information from a prisoner in the belief (factually correct or not and morally sustainable or not) that doing so was justified by a “ticking bomb” situation. What should they do next?

My answer is that the torturer should immediately turn themselves in, and plead guilty to the relevant criminal charges. I think this answer can be defended from a wide variety of perspectives, but the intuition is simple. If the situation is grave enough to warrant resort to torture, it’s certainly grave enough to oblige someone to take actions that will result in losing their job and going to jail.

In consequentialist terms, it’s desirable in general that laws against torture should be obeyed. Since few people will want to follow such an example except in similarly extreme circumstances, immediate confession will undermine the law less than committing torture and getting away with it[1]. Other theories will, I think, give the same answer.

Turning from individual ethics to law and public policy what this means is that laws against torture should be enforced in all cases. A plea in mitigation might be considered in cases like the one described above – a proven urgent and immediate danger, followed by a voluntary confession – but even so, the torturer should be removed from their job and spend some time in prison. In any case where a confession is not made, no claims about mitigating circumstances should be admitted.

The frequency with which incidents of torture are isolated responses to extreme emergencies, followed by an immediate confession, is vanishingly small. So if you accept the answer I’ve given to the question posed above, the ticking bomb problem has no practical relevance.

Whether or not torture can be justified as a matter of individual morality in some extreme cases, it should be punished in all cases, and severely punished in nearly all cases, as a matter of public policy.

fn1. The hypothesis that one can get away with torture without anyone else knowing about it can be dismissed as unworthy of serious consideration. For a start, the suspect who has been tortured will know, unless they are silenced.

{ 63 comments }

1

dsquared 05.12.04 at 9:35 am

IIRC, Joseph Raz wrote a book on the general issue civil disobedience which reached basically this conclusion.

2

Neil 05.12.04 at 10:01 am

In the most famous treatment of the dirty hands problem, Walzer reaches a similiar conclusion, with an interesting (but unargued for) twist. Walzer endorses Camus’ view that those who stain their hands in a good cause should be, and should be prepared to be, punished – apparently, in order that the rules be rightly valued. Here’s the twist: when we impose the punishment, Walzer suggests, we get our own hands dirty and therefore must pay the price ourselves. As I said, he doesn’t argue for that claim; perhaps the thought that if someone performs a necessary ‘dirty’ act, in our name, their punishment is necessary but undeserved. So the punishment itself is a justified moral wrong, like the original dirty act itself.

3

ji 05.12.04 at 10:46 am

All this torture talk shows how “soft” life is in the clinically safe west. After a couple of days I could bring myself to look at all the Iraqi prisoner humiliation photos, but it was a profoundly disturbing.
So far regarding the Berg video I have chickened out. Even looking at the basic men-in-a-line photo turns my stomach, as I know what is to happen. So, I dare not watch the Berg video (yet?).
However if you told me I would have to hack off someone’s arm or leg with a penknife in order to save my friends and family – I would do it, without pleasure, but because it had to be done. Needs must.

4

Motoko Kusanagi 05.12.04 at 10:55 am

Slavoj Zizek made more or less the same points in a LRB essay:

I can well imagine that, in a particular situation, confronted with the proverbial ‘prisoner who knows’, whose words can save thousands, I might decide in favour of torture; however, even (or, rather, precisely) in a case such as this, it is absolutely crucial that one does not elevate this desperate choice into a universal principle: given the unavoidable and brutal urgency of the moment, one should simply do it. Only in this way, in the very prohibition against elevating what we have done into a universal principle, do we retain a sense of guilt, an awareness of the inadmissibility of what we have done.

In short, every authentic liberal should see these debates, these calls to ‘keep an open mind’, as a sign that the terrorists are winning. And, in a way, essays like Alter’s, which do not openly advocate torture, but just introduce it as a legitimate topic of debate, are even more dangerous than explicit endorsements. At this moment at least, explicitly endorsing it would be rejected as too shocking, but the mere introduction of torture as a legitimate topic allows us to court the idea while retaining a clear conscience. (‘Of course I am against torture, but who is hurt if we just discuss it?’) Admitting torture as a topic of debate changes the entire field, while outright advocacy remains merely idiosyncratic. The idea that, once we let the genie out of the bottle, torture can be kept within ‘reasonable’ bounds, is the worst liberal illusion, if only because the ‘ticking clock’ example is deceptive: in the vast majority of cases torture is not done in order to resolve a ‘ticking clock’ situation, but for quite different reasons (to punish an enemy or to break him down psychologically, to terrorise a population etc). Any consistent ethical stance has to reject such pragmatic-utilitarian reasoning…

5

Rick 05.12.04 at 12:00 pm

It is my opinion that the Terrorist by the nature of his actions has already condemned himself to death. If said terrorist has any useful information that would save lives then society owes it to the innocent victims to extract the information. The torture may be at the hands of one or a handful of individuals, but it is at the behest of society, even if it is not openly condoned.

6

des 05.12.04 at 12:10 pm

Moral dilemmas are so much easier when you have no morals, isn’t it?

7

Bob 05.12.04 at 12:10 pm

The fine distinction between terrorism on behalf of some cause and a unilateral decision by some state to exact just retribution is unlikely to be universally apparent and agreed.

8

Ilkka Kokkarinen 05.12.04 at 1:10 pm

Jef Raskin has a good piece on this very topic, “The Flawed Calculus of Torture“.

Quote: “In the commentator’s calculations he balanced one guilty party killed against hundreds of innocent lives saved. However, that is not the right equation. For each such success, there are thousands who are tortured or murdered on the guess that they will reveal valuable information. More often than not, as history shows, they do not possess the information sought or do not have the power to do what the torturer wishes them to.”

9

Harry Clarke 05.12.04 at 1:31 pm

Can I pose a simpler question?

‘Most public policies hurt some people in a way that cannot be completely compensated. When should society take an action that hurts a few in the interests of a majority?’

This is a classic concern of utilitarianism and bears some relation to the Ticking Bomb problem.

A difference is that this type of issue is a repeated game where some might lose on certain occasions but gain on others. The similarity with the TB problem is the claim that many gain from the harmful acts of the few.

So is the TB problem just an extreme instance of the problems of utilitarianism in making social choices?

10

dan 05.12.04 at 2:04 pm

it should be punished in all cases, and severely punished in nearly all cases, as a matter of public policy.

Rather than providing a plausible solution to the extreme “ticking bomb” dilemma, a blanket proscription of the kind advocated above seems far more likely to provide an invitation to jury nullification.

The practicality (as opposed to the moral tidiness) of such a proscription, after all, depends entirely on the presumption that average citizens will consistently agree to punish defendants who resorted to torture and thereby saved lives. (Begging the question of how those citizens ought to feel about that dilemma, which of course is the point of the dilemma.) Merely saying “There oughta be a law!” shortcuts the entire debate, replacing argument with a sort of sui generis legal fiat.

Like far too many romantic legal pronouncements which fail to admit the input and behavior of actual human beings (various international laws and UN resolutions come especially to mind), the above solution seems to assume that juries will enforce an objectionable law simply because they’ve been righteously instructed to do so.

So it fails for me, I’m afraid.

11

Poppy McCool 05.12.04 at 2:05 pm

The Israelis and many others don’t think torture works. If they are right, then no.

12

Dan Hardie 05.12.04 at 2:08 pm

‘If the situation is grave enough to warrant resort to torture, it’s certainly grave enough to oblige someone to take actions that will result in losing their job and going to jail.’

Yes- and if the person who turns himself in is then acquitted by the jury on the grounds of justification for his actions? Given that it is a well-established point of law that you can have ‘justified homicide’ to protect your own life or others, I would have thought that this is a very real possibility. And the consequences of such an acquittal would likely be to increase the chances of further torture.

13

Dan Hardie 05.12.04 at 2:45 pm

‘The frequency with which incidents of torture are isolated responses to extreme emergencies, followed by an immediate confession, is vanishingly small.’

That’s surely the key point, and it’s one that Dershowitz (among other disgraceful examples) completely failed to make during his advocacy of ‘torture warrants’.

14

mattpfeff 05.12.04 at 2:46 pm

There are two distinct questions here (of course) — what should the torturer do after, and what should be the consequence. To the first, yes, he or she should submit to the rule of society, and if he has acted illegally or immorally, pay the appropriate price. But, to the second, if we agree it is right to torture another person in order to prevent yet greater harm, how can it then be right to further harm the individual who, by our own standard, did the right thing?

15

Randy Paul 05.12.04 at 2:55 pm

I would like someone to address this possibility in the “ticking bomb” scenario:

Someone is being tortured to extract information about a ticking bomb. The perpetrator being tortured breaks and gives them information knowing full well that the information is false and thus the “ticking bomb” detonates while the authorities are searching for it in the wrong place.

The proponents of the “ticking bomb” scenario seem to believe in the inviolability of the information extracted. I think that it would be rather dangerous to trust someone under these circumstances.

16

Joe Ruby 05.12.04 at 3:10 pm

The “ticking timebomb” problem bears about as much relationship to reality as the Cretan paradox (“all Cretans always lie, etc.”) Like the Cretan paradox, the timebomb problem makes unrealistic assumptions about truth-telling: it assumes that a captive will lie (“I don’t know”) when not being tortured, but will tell the truth (“it’s at Grand Central Station”) when being tortured. This assumption has not been demonstrated.

Let’s posit a slightly more realistic version. We hold 10 captives and we have reason to believe that some — but perhaps not all — know the location of a ticking timebomb. Do we torture all ten? If one tells us that the bomb is at Grand Central Station, do we torture the other nine in order to gain corroborating- or perhaps conflicting- information? Perhaps we torture the one who gave us the information as well, in order to make sure he’s not lying. After all, time is short and millions of lives are at stake.

Now try the problem with 100 captives, or 1000, and not one known timebomb, but an uncertain number of dimly perceived threats.

The morality of torture is that you must be willing to torture innocent people. The ticking timebomb problem is not set up to help us think clearly about this fact; it’s designed to make clear thinking difficult.

17

h. e. baber 05.12.04 at 3:22 pm

I agree with Quiggan’s solution as far as it goes. However the optimal solution, if it could be pulled off, would be to throw the guy in jail and then, once the publicity dies down, get him out, provide him with a new identity, possibly a little plastic surgery…like the Witness Protection Program on “The Sopranos.”

Of course if the ruse is discovered you then have to stage similar show trials for the perpetrators of the scheme.

Remember, no good Act Utilitarians should ever admit to being one.

18

Zizka 05.12.04 at 3:26 pm

As I said elsewhere, I think that the “ticking bomb” question is a deliberate slippery slope, intended to break the taboo on torture. No one intends for it to be limited only to the extreme case hypothetically given, or believes that it will be.

The solution proposed here sounds too much like it will lead to the kind of jury nullification that happened in our Sourth with lynchings. Nice try, though — I’ve toyed with the idea myself.

My understanding is that the Israelis believe that torture is a flawed but useful tool. Rather than renouncing torture, they’ve just acknowledged what it can and can’t do.

In the other thread I suggested a Mohs Scale for hypothetical examples. 10 would be a bomb set in a preschool. 0 would be a bomb directed at violent, homeless heroin addicts who do not have the excuse of mental illness. I would put mouthy, Beavis-and-Butthead-type middle school students at about 5.

19

GMT 05.12.04 at 3:40 pm

What is the point of this hypothetical?
I haven’t heard of a single instance of anything like this.
What I have seen is US interrogators admitting to the Red Cross that at least 70% of those who got “processed” by England, et al., were picked up at random.
Waving around Tom Clancy scenarios, in which the choice is necessarily simple, won’t make the crimes committed in the real world go away.

20

pepi 05.12.04 at 5:39 pm

I believe this question has been discussed in series 2 of “24”, when President Palmer authorises torture on a member of his own staff who was plotting with the terrorists and knew where the bomb was. It worked. Ditto when Jack tortured Sayed Ali.

Of course it always works with Bauer. Cause he’s a torturer with a conscience and a good cause.

And he’s not real.

I have no idea how to answer that question in reality. It shouldn’t be necessary, if intelligence and police do their job properly.

Torture still rightly remains a crime in spite of having been used countless times even by countries who consider it a crime.

But there is still a difference between torture for interrogation ends, and the gratuitous sadism at Abu Ghraib.

21

Sebastian Holsclaw 05.12.04 at 6:18 pm

It seems to me that there are cases where a taboo will be broken and quite possibly go unpunished but society should attempt to preserve the taboo in non-extreme cases by making a blanket rule against the act without exceptions.

It seems to me that this argument shares some space with doctor-assisted suicide. In hypotheticals regarding assisted suicide there is always a hopeless patient, yet perfectly clear of mind, in great pain, and completely unable to sign a do-not-resusitate order and take pills on their own. It seems to me that the taboo against torture and the social concept that a doctor should do no harm are both worth preserving enough that in the truly exceptional cases it would be best to let things happen quietly. And in the non-exceptional cases there should be vigorous prosecution.

(Just to be perfectly obvious, the torture in Iraq is clearly a case which is not even excusable for those who accept the ticking bomb hypothetical.)

22

Jason McCullough 05.12.04 at 6:22 pm

Would you shoot your wife in the head to save your child? It’s a bullshit, contrived question to rationalize evil.

23

Stefanie Murray 05.12.04 at 6:41 pm

Terry Karney, who does interrogation for the military, has been commenting regularly at Making Light and Electrolite. He has a riveting description of how interrogation actually works here, and many other comments in that thread and others that shed a bit of light in this mostly heated area.

He comments sepcifically on the “ticking bomb” scenario here:

Unless the bomb is going to go off a long time from now, all the guy has to do is 1: hold out until it goes off or 2: tell a good lie, and trust that the situation won’t be resolved until it goes off (a healthy lead, into the area the bomb is would be the best at this, the assumption would be he told the truth and the EOD guys either failed to find it, or to defuse it.

But then I happen to think that doing evil, with good intentions is a filthy sin, and might not be one I can get absolution for, certainly I can’t if there is no afterlife. In that case I have to be able to look in the mirror every morning and move the razor up and down, not sideways.

24

Claire 05.12.04 at 6:46 pm

Torture is to be condemned, and should always be prohibited. Unless the alternative is something worse.

The problem is that there can be no one, single answer that is always ‘right’. If socially conscious and well-meaning individuals are looking for that ‘right’ answer, then they’re going to be massively disappointed.

This is a decision of situational ethics, and can only be answered by the person who legitimately has to make that decision. It’s not an easy one, and it’s not a decision between right and wrong, but between wrong and wrong. Hobson’s Choice, as it were. And making no choice is a choice in and of itself. I hope like hell that I never have to make such a choice, but if I do, then I will make what I believe to be the best one and then live with the consequences. Including all those armchair moralists who will sit and smugly condemn me no matter what decision I make.

That’s the difference between reality and living in a fantasy world where no one gets hurt and everybody lives happily ever after.

My only consolation is that in the afterlife, if there is one, that I will be accountable for my own actions and decisions, and that those armchair moralizers will be irrelevant.

25

Claire 05.12.04 at 6:50 pm

And one further comment: I am thankful that we have people in our military, our police, and our government who are willing to make these kinds of hard choices and live with the consequences.

By the way, for those of you who are adamantly against use of torture under any circumstances, I have a question. Would your answer change if you or one of your loved ones were one of the x million who were going to die? Yes? Then I am thankful that you’re not the one who will have to make the decision.

26

Bill Carone 05.12.04 at 7:01 pm

“My answer is that the torturer should immediately turn themselves in, and plead guilty to the relevant criminal charges.”

We desperately hope that someone will do the right thing, but we disapprove of anyone who does? This seems contradictory to me. Why is it right to punish someone who did nothing wrong?

Perhaps such punishment will reduce the number of illegal tortures in the future. Is it okay to punish an innocent to prevent others from committing crimes? This also sounds worrying; it is similar to punishing one innocent person for another person’s criminal acts (another standard consequentialist conclusion).

“Other theories will, I think, give the same answer.”

I don’t think so; consequentialism has a notoriously difficult time providing convincing answers to these kinds of questions (see above), and needs to provide a lot of defense for its positions.

If the results are sufficiently catastrophic, deontological theories will allow such balancing of good vs. bad. However, I’m not sure that the amount of torture we are talking about is sufficiently catastrophic (I am not an expert on either the amount of illegal torture in the world or how much would be prevented by John’s suggestion).

If not, we might override a categorical prohibition against torture in a ticking time bomb case, but not be able to override a categorical prohibition against wrongful imprisonment against the innocent torturer. So here would be a deontological argument against your position.

I don’t know what virtue ethics would say about this; punishing innocent people isn’t a particularly good habit to fall into, so that might be an argument against it. However, torturing people isn’t such a good habit either :-)

27

taak 05.12.04 at 8:17 pm

I think that the real problem is most of the time the “ticking bomb” argument is used to justify torture in cases where the stakes are not that high. Make the case with the extreme and then pretend that it implies that it is true for lesser cases as well.

28

Stefanie Murray 05.12.04 at 8:27 pm

There is never any excuse for torture as a method for obtaining reliable information. *Because it doesn’t work.* Not in the ticking bomb scenario, not in any others.

Seriously, read Terry Karney.

29

Zizka 05.12.04 at 8:29 pm

I think that Claire should be blown up after having been tortured. She’s far too invested in situational ethics. When I meet her in situational Hell I will be happy to say so to her face, too. (No, I’m not a situational ethicist. I plan to go to Hell for different, unrelated reasons.)

30

Researcher 05.12.04 at 8:41 pm

The answer is that prosecution would be required by law.

The secondary answer is that no jury on earth would convict and if it did, no President would pass up the opportunity to issue one of the most popular Pardons in history. A smart constitution doesn’t trust lawyers all the way.

31

joe 05.12.04 at 8:43 pm

The original question can be put this way:

“How many human lives must be saved to justify a moral agent’s abandoning their humanity?”

The effort to really quantify the break-even point exposes the central issue. If you can say “1 billion”, you can justify saying “1” with the same argument. Ends categorically do not justify means. Sorry to dissapoint everybody here, but doing the Right Thing doesn’t mean you will always like the outcome. Greek tragedies are written about this.

32

joe 05.12.04 at 8:56 pm

Minor edit to my comment above – the remark “sorry to disappoint” reads as too uncivil; apologies. However, I do feel that the previous commentors are working with an unexamined prejudice that “some good outcome is always possible in the terms of the original problem, if only we philosophize effectively enough”. … with the possible exception of those who (rightly) attacked the problem statement. But, I would suggest that true moral clarity has a straight answer even for unfairly-worded questions.

33

Thorley Winston 05.12.04 at 9:14 pm

Rick wrote:

It is my opinion that the Terrorist by the nature of his actions has already condemned himself to death. If said terrorist has any useful information that would save lives then society owes it to the innocent victims to extract the information. The torture may be at the hands of one or a handful of individuals, but it is at the behest of society, even if it is not openly condoned.

That’s pretty close to my opinion as well as torturing a terrorist to get information to save lives is no more morally problematic than executing a murder or overthrowing a socialist government as each by the evil of their own actions has already forfeited their moral claim to their rights. Since there is no moral problem with making either decision in those specific situations, it becomes a matter of utility as whether executing the murderer, torturing the terrorist, etc. is more likely to lead to a better outcome than if we did not.

However, as other have pointed out, there are moral problems that arise as a consequence of such a policy. Namely that it may lead to the torturing of innocent people (who were wrongly though to be terrorists) which is morally repugnant. While it is silly though to think that there could never be a situation in which such a decision is the better option, the danger of making it policy is that you could harm an innocent person in the process as well as come to rely on what is a questionably effective means of gaining accurate or useful information.

34

Randy Paul 05.12.04 at 9:28 pm

That’s pretty close to my opinion as well as torturing a terrorist to get information to save lives is no more morally problematic than executing a murder or overthrowing a socialist government as each by the evil of their own actions has already forfeited their moral claim to their rights. [my emphasis]

Cool. When do you plan to invade Sweden?

35

Thorley Winston 05.12.04 at 9:28 pm

“How many human lives must be saved to justify a moral agent’s abandoning their humanity?”

That question presumes that there is something akin got “abandoning their humanity” in inflicting pain in every circumstance. Sort of like the sort of moral idiocy embraced by pacifists and thsoe who oppose capital punishment in every circumstance. Quite a few people recognize that the “break even point” is not “how many lives can be saved to justify X” but rather “at what point does a person’s actions (e.g. being a terrorist or a murderer) in violating the rights of others cause them to forfeit their own?”

We already have to make such decisions every day in our criminal justice system when it comes to depriving people of their right to property (fines), liberty (imprisonment) and life (execution) after due process. The intentional infliction of discomfort (torture or corporal punishment) is certainly not as severe as depriving someone of their life which is certainly justified in extreme circumstances (e.g. in which a person has unlawfully or unjustly taken the life of another) after due process to determine that the person was guilty of the offense warranting such a punishment.

36

Adam Kotsko 05.12.04 at 9:31 pm

The entire point of an exceptional situation is that one cannot write legislation to account for it. Perhaps a presidential pardon would be a way of handling the situation you address.

Those who say that torture doesn’t work, however, ultimately have the strongest argument: since torture doesn’t work, torture is always ipso facto committed for immoral ends (such as the ones Zizek points out in the quote above).

37

Thorley Winston 05.12.04 at 9:34 pm

I wrote:

That’s pretty close to my opinion as well as torturing a terrorist to get information to save lives is no more morally problematic than executing a murder or overthrowing a socialist government as each by the evil of their own actions has already forfeited their moral claim to their rights. Since there is no moral problem with making either decision in those specific situations, it becomes a matter of utility as whether executing the murderer, torturing the terrorist, etc. is more likely to lead to a better outcome than if we did not.

Randy Paul wrote:

Cool. When do you plan to invade Sweden?

Try reading the entire paragraph instead of trying to pick out one portion to set up a strawman argument.

38

Thorley Winston 05.12.04 at 9:39 pm

Adam Kotsko wrote:

Those who say that torture doesn’t work, however, ultimately have the strongest argument: since torture doesn’t work, torture is always ipso facto committed for immoral ends (such as the ones Zizek points out in the quote above).

Trying to stop a bomb that may kill millions of innocent people is an “immoral end?”

39

Thorley Winston 05.12.04 at 9:54 pm

Sebastian Holsclaw wrote:

It seems to me that this argument shares some space with doctor-assisted suicide. In hypotheticals regarding assisted suicide there is always a hopeless patient, yet perfectly clear of mind, in great pain, and completely unable to sign a do-not-resusitate order and take pills on their own. It seems to me that the taboo against torture and the social concept that a doctor should do no harm are both worth preserving enough that in the truly exceptional cases it would be best to let things happen quietly. And in the non-exceptional cases there should be vigorous prosecution.

Good analysis. It reminds me of Jonah Goldberg’s articles on what he calls the “hidden law” in which there are something which are officially illegal (e.g. abortion, assisted suicide, etc.) but are not rigorously prosecuted when done on the sly except in extreme circumstances. This serves to keep such things rare but not so widespread as to increase the likelihood of abuse. Granted torture is a somewhat different matter in that the actors would likely be the government or its agents in which case transparency and due process (which are but two reasons why the alleged abuse of the Iraqi detainees would not qualify) are the more appropriate safeguards.

40

DBL 05.12.04 at 9:57 pm

This is an easy case for me – if I were on the jury in a case where a government agent is accused of using torture to extract information about the location of a ticking bomb, I’d vote to acquit, regardless of the judge’s instructions on the law. As you move on the continuum away from those facts, to situations where the bomb may or may not exist or whether the suspect is one of many who may or may not have information, my willingness to acquit against the law would depend on whether I thought the agents were acting reasonably in the circumstances.

41

Randy Paul 05.12.04 at 9:58 pm

Thorley,

I read your whole paragraph. If you cannot see the “moral problem” in overthrowing a popularly elected socialist government, then God help you. Nothing strawman about that.

Of course considering the tone in such statements like this,

Sort of like the sort of moral idiocy embraced by pacifists and thsoe who oppose capital punishment in every circumstance.

one can only imagine why you choose to engage anyone. My wife and I both oppose the death penalty in all cases (her brother was murdered several years ago, by the way) and yet we somehow find it in ourselves not to engage in ad hominem attacks against those whose opinion we do not share. Perhaps you can afford the rest of us the same courtesy.

42

Thorley Winston 05.12.04 at 10:03 pm

Or perhaps a better analogy (to fit the specific case) would not be between torturing a terrorist versus executing a murder but rather in torturing someone to protect an innocent life versus a self-defense killing to protect an innocent person. The torture in this circumstance is intended not as punishment for the crimes of the terrorist but rather as a means of protecting the lives of others – similar to killing someone in the defense of others.

43

matt butler 05.12.04 at 10:40 pm

When accusing others of holding “unexamined prejudices”, Joe, you should be a little more cagey about your own – tossing around capital letters and phrases like “true moral clarity” can get you in trouble… It’s a tautology that one ought to do the Right Thing. But history’s greatest horrors have been perpetrated by people who claimed, loudly and even eloquently, that what they did was Right.

A principled public morality cannot be based on what you or I personally find repellent. We need to be able to argue for our principles in terms that apply not only to fair and compassionate people like ourselves, but to psychopaths, fanatics, and bored, sadistic, racist prison guards. And the starting point for all such arguments is a democratically imposed imperative to protect individuals and society from harm. The fundamental terms of civic discourse are, necessarily, ends and not means.

Fortunately, there are excellent consequentialist arguments for a blanket prohibition on torture. The ticking bomb problem relies on some very strong epistemic assumptions: one knows there is a bomb, one knows that it will kill people if not defused, one knows that the prisoner posesses information sufficient to find and defuse it, one knows that torture can accurately extract this information but that other forms of interrogation cannot, et cetera.

Agents in the real world never have these certainties. They don’t even have approximate certainties or precise probabilities. They have only their own suspicions and instincts and heat-of-the-moment judgements – human faculties that are notoriously fallible.

And the harms of torture – to the victim, to the victim’s family and community and identity group, to the interrogator, and to the moral fabric of the whole society – are known. They are known all too well by all too many. And they are grievous.

Because of the overwhelming one-sidedness of this moral calculus, interrogators, even if they are dyed-in-the-wool consequentialists, should avoid torture in every case. And society should compel them to do so in every way possible.

44

Thorley Winston 05.13.04 at 12:37 am

Randy Paul wrote:

I read your whole paragraph.

Which means then that his omission of the sentence in which I stated that the decision was contingent on whether it “is more likely to lead to a better outcome than if we did not” was deliberate on his part. Hence a strawman argument.

If you cannot see the “moral problem” in overthrowing a popularly elected socialist government, then God help you.

There’s isn’t a moral problem since socialism is a violation of individual rights regardless of whether it is created by a majority voting to steal the property of a minority or imposed by a dictatorship. Either way, anyone has the right (but not the obligation) to work to overthrow a socialist government just as they would any other group of thieves.

Nothing strawman about that.

The “strawman” reference was to how you removed the early qualification of my original post in order to distort its context.

Of course considering the tone in such statements like this,

Sort of like the sort of moral idiocy embraced by pacifists and thsoe who oppose capital punishment in every circumstance.

one can only imagine why you choose to engage anyone.

Because thankfully not everyone I engage with is a moral idiot who thinks that violence is automatically bad without regard to its context. The number of people who actually think that all war is bad regardless of the stakes or consequences or that it is always wrong to kill someone regardless of what the person has done or will likely do are thankfully few and far between.

I would no more find it no more offensive than for someone on the Left to decry the “moral idiots who think we should nuke every country that we don’t like” as it is an equally stupid position. Unless they tried to set this up as a strawman argument to distort the views of those who do find violence acceptable under certain (but not all) circumstances.

45

Karl Rove 05.13.04 at 12:49 am

John Kerry: Please, please, please go to the American public in November making Quiggin’s argument.

Oh, and be sure to use words like “consequentialist” when you do.

46

sd4 05.13.04 at 1:42 am

_socialism is a violation of individual rights regardless of whether it is created by a majority voting to steal the property of a minority or imposed by a dictatorship_

Could someone please put up some sources on this:
1) where individual rights are defined
2) definition of property
2) definition of socialism

47

Frank Wilhoit 05.13.04 at 2:05 am

You *don’t* know whether your terrorist knows anything, and even if he does, anything you get out of him under torture is meaningless.

If he has the brains God gave a shit-fly, he will never trust you to keep your end of any bargains you try to make with him.

If he is fool enough to trust you, but retains any presence of mind, he will tell you a plausible lie to make you stop torturing him right now, in the hope that something will turn up before you figure out it was a lie.

48

Pedro 05.13.04 at 4:54 am

A handsome guy meets a pretty girl and asks her: “If I give you one million dollars, will you make love to me?” She ponders the question and answers “Yes”. Then he asks, “What about ten dollars?” She snaps back angrily, “Do you think I’m a whore?”. “Well, that matter was settled with my first question. Now we’re just discussing the price.”

49

Zizka 05.13.04 at 6:18 am

Damn! I missed Thorley. Damn! Damn!

50

jdw 05.13.04 at 6:25 am

So a guy goes into a police station and announces that he’s just planted a bomb somewhere in the city. Crack FBI Information Gatherers discover that he is a very tough nut to crack. Is it wrong to drag his mother into the room and start chopping off her fingers? The only reasons I can see for a yes answer smack of rank sentimentality.

51

Simon Kinahan 05.13.04 at 10:53 am

It seems to me that the “ticking bomb” hypothetical is engineered to produce the answer that torture is sometimes necessary, but that it is built on unrealistic assumptions that never apply in reality, and which make the conclusion invalid for some of the purposes for which it is used: to argue for judicially sanctioned torture, for example.

In particular, the hypothetical situation supposes a degree of certainty that the person caught really is guilty and has the information required that never seems to exist in real cases. Far more often, torture is justified retrospectively using information that was extracted through it, even if that then turns out to be unreliable.

52

pepi 05.13.04 at 11:47 am

So a guy goes into a police station and announces that he’s just planted a bomb somewhere in the city. Crack FBI Information Gatherers discover that he is a very tough nut to crack. Is it wrong to drag his mother into the room and start chopping off her fingers? The only reasons I can see for a yes answer smack of rank sentimentality.

So now laws have become a matter of rank sentimentality too? Nice.

It doesn’t matter anyway, whatever answer one may give to that question, because unlike moral dilemmas like euthanasia, situations where the terrorists turn themselves in, or are caught, and then tortured to extract ticking-bomb information, and that information turns out to be accurate, which one can’t know beforehand but only after finding the bomb… only happen in action movies and tv series.

In reality, historically, torture has always been used for intimidation purposes, most often by dictatorial regimes, against political dissidents. In that, it has sadly worked very well to its intended effect.

I doubt, even if it had been as extensively used in anti-terrorism, it was ever proven to be working for its (supposed) intended effect in that context. When the purpose is not to crush dissidents, or just for the sheer sadistic “fun” of it, but to extract information, you’re just as likely to get useful intelligence by consulting a oujia board. Anyone would say anything when under torture. They got nothing to lose. Especially if it’s suicidal terrorists.

I may be naive or optimistic, but I think the bulk of intelligence work very rarely involves getting info directly from terrorists. It’s the kind of boring work that doesn’t make for exciting movie plots or hypothetical dilemmas, that seems to have proven more effective.

53

Mother Teresa with an Uzi 05.13.04 at 3:50 pm

Most of the torture advocates on this thread, who so happen to be the same adovcating the war, would probably make Robespierre proud. Nothing like the random (yes i know you think you’re application is scientific), use of violence to achieve the ‘democratic dream’.

54

Thorley Winston 05.13.04 at 6:02 pm

Most of the torture advocates on this thread, who so happen to be the same adovcating the war

Sort of like how the same people self-righteously decrying the thought that torture of a terrorist to save innocent lives might even be justified or moral were the same ones who opposed overthrowing the dictatorship in Baghdad who thought it was great for laughs?

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Thorley Winston 05.13.04 at 6:15 pm

JDW wrote:

So a guy goes into a police station and announces that he’s just planted a bomb somewhere in the city. Crack FBI Information Gatherers discover that he is a very tough nut to crack. Is it wrong to drag his mother into the room and start chopping off her fingers?

If she’s an innocent bystander, absolutely it’s wrong (unless for some reason she consents).

If she was complicit in planting the bomb (or some other comparable action), a terrorist herself or tried to protect him from the police, maybe not.

56

joe 05.13.04 at 7:29 pm

Thorley:

“How many human lives must be saved to justify a moral agent’s abandoning their humanity?”
That question presumes that there is something akin got “abandoning their humanity” in inflicting pain in every circumstance.

Context, friend. We are talking about representatives of the state *torturing* terrorists to uncover dangers. That sort of torture is “abandoning humanity” in my view. But your claim that I equate torture with “pain in every circumstance” is the product of your imagination. It is fully human, for example, to punch people in the head who triumphally refute tendentious misreadings of others’ blog comments. (Joke)

Matt:

What objection is there to capitalizing the words “Right Thing” in the sentence “doing the Right Thing doesn’t mean you will always like the outcome”? Surely we can agree on this without claiming to be able to identify the Right Thing. Also, I agree with you that the phrase “true moral clarity” just sounds awful. You don’t know me, and people who use such phrases around tend to be overconfident crackpots, so I can’t blame you for reacting as you did. I probably shouldn’t have written it that way. However, the sentence as written: “true moral clarity … has straight answers to hypothetical situations” should be uncontroversial, since it is a tautology. If you are clear on your morals, you can give clear answers to moral questions, i.e. “no torture under any circumstances” — furthermore, if you are clear on your morals, you are not going to be buffaloed by outrageous hypotheticals into imagining that there are boundary cases. Hypotheticals such as this are more tests of whether the moral agent has fully thought his position through to the end (and will hold it when confronted with disagreeable entailments) than they are tests of the validity of the position. A rhetorical trick, not a dialectical one.

Having said that, I agree generally with your comments. :-)

But will no one respond to my suggestion that philosophical tidiness is a chimera here? I am a Kierkegaardian scholar and a fan of Camus. Which means in brief: some (obviously bad) moral choices can be rejected outright on the basis of argument, but none can be positively *chosen* on grounds other than subjective.

Thorley, you (and others) may now slander these gentlemen or my alleged misunderstanding of them at your leisure. :-)

57

Randy Paul 05.13.04 at 7:50 pm

I’ll defer to the experience of those who actually conduct interrogations (i.e., professionals):

”You’ve got to be able to count on the quality of the information you’re obtaining,” said Michael Baker, a 16-year veteran of the C.I.A. who is now chief executive of Diligence Middle East, a private security company that is working in Iraq. ”And once the prisoner is being tortured, how do you rely on what he’s saying, because people will do anything to make the torture go away,” Mr. Baker said.

58

Thorley Winston 05.13.04 at 9:25 pm

Joe wrote:

Context, friend. We are talking about representatives of the state torturing terrorists to uncover dangers. That sort of torture is “abandoning humanity” in my view.

Based on what standard other than you own emotions?

But your claim that I equate torture with “pain in every circumstance” is the product of your imagination.

A claim that is the product of Joe’s imagination or misreading of my previous comments. If you have a definition of torture (I’m open to one other than the “intentional infliction of pain”) that you prefer, let’s have it. If you have a situation more compelling than trying to protect the lives of millions of innocent people (the hypothetical case in question), let’s hear it. Otherwise this seems to be Joe trying to skirt the actual issue.

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joe 05.13.04 at 11:25 pm

Thorley interprets my comments as trying to “skirt” the actual issue. I accept this as an accurate, though pejorative description from his point of view. I am claiming that the implicit presentation of the issue is faulty, and I am challenging it. (Hence the back-and-forth claims of misreading each other.)

Let me turn this thought experiment around. What if the terror suspect says to his interrogator: “I can and will resist any form of torture. However, I am thoroughly insane. Therefore, if you saw your own legs off before my eyes with an electric chainsaw, I will cheerfully give you the information that you may then use to save the lives of millions. However, if you will not do this, they will certainly die.” He is telling the truth about this.

Thorley, would you blame the interrogator for the deaths of millions if he refuses?

60

Thorley Winston 05.13.04 at 11:43 pm

No

61

joe 05.13.04 at 11:43 pm

As others have pointed out, the “compelling” situation of protecting the lives of “millions” of innocent people is not so compelling when epistemological uncertainty is introduced. It is factually uncertain whether the suspect really has the necessary information. For the guilt of the suspect to become “certain” at some point one must make a morally consequential decision to accept that the evidence “proves” they do indeed have the information. This final “leap” of conviction is based on emotions.

So yes, the decision is based “on my own emotions”. It is an “existential” decision. This is *unavoidable*. (And so much for Kierkegaard.)

The underlying question then arises: what is the *quality* of my emotions on which these decisions are ultimately based? Can we even speak of such things? How? I contend that only in terms of such a discussion could the issues raised here be properly addressed.

Thorley suggests that in my previous remarks I was unable to provide a better definition of “torture” than “the intentional infliction of pain” and therefore it was absurd to suggest that “torture” = “abandonment of humanity”. But *that* is my definition: “the intentional infliction of pain to such a degree that it constitutes abandonment of humanity”.

No doubt many readers think this argument is even more absurd than the first. What then is “humanity”? they ask. I respond: you mean you don’t know? But I think you do. Why else are we all agreed that the ticking bomb endangering millions is something that we must stop?

But, the participants of this thread have all no doubt read Camus’ _The Rebel_ very thoroughly, and as I am simply repeating its fundamental argument, I am boring them, surely.

62

joe 05.14.04 at 12:01 am

Thorley: “No”

OK then. My morality says that “torturing” another person is equivalent to “sawing my own legs off”, cuz we’re all brothers and sisters, man. (Really.)

63

tombo 05.14.04 at 1:12 am

Before this thread veers further into academic seminar lounge status, here’s a very real situation.

At this moment we have in our custody Khalid Muhammed, the Chief Operating Officer, as it were, of Al Qaeda. He was captured in the Philippines last fall and is now being held, I suppose, deep inside an aircraft carrier somewhere off the coast of Diego Garcia or some other remote and secure location.

Khalid Muhammed is believed to be the top AQ gruppenfuehrer (# 3, after ObL and Zawahiri) who devised the 9/11 mass murders and the masked terrorist who sawed off Danny Pearl’s head. He has confessed to plotting to repeat the 9/11 mass murders, this time by hijacking and blowing out of the sky numerous airliners over the Pacific Ocean.

Here’s the only hypothetical part: say that a) we know that this week, as per Khalid M’s plans, his fascist operatives are planning an atrocity on a scale even larger than 9/11 and that b) my (or let’s say, your) sister has urgent business that will require her to board an airliner crossing the Pacific this week. Khalid M refuses to release any details other than that the atrocity will take place this week.

Do you torture Khalid M for this information that can save many thousands of innocent lives?

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