Credit where credit due

by Henry Farrell on November 8, 2007

Over the last few years, Crooked Timberites, myself included, have given some grief to Jonathan Adler both under his own name and his ‘Juan non-Volokh’ pre-tenure pseudonym for failing to say very much about torture, abuse of state power etc. So it’s only fair to note that he has recently been much more willing to “directly”: “criticize”: Bush administration overreach than in the past and seems to be “moving”: “towards”: saying that waterboarding is indeed torture. Unfortunately, Alan ‘if torture was good enough for the Nazis, it’s good enough for us‘ Dershowitz seems, if anything, to be getting “worse”:



Uncle Kvetch 11.08.07 at 6:00 pm

I’m moving towards thinking rape is a bad thing. Can I have credit too?


dsquared 11.08.07 at 6:02 pm

What do you mean? Dershowitz is “personally opposed to torture”! He says so himself! He is just in favour of it being legal to torture people, in favour of torturing people in some circumstances, in favour of Israel removing their ban on torturing people and in favour of the Democrats running for President on the basis of not opposing torturing people. He, himself, is “personally opposed to torture”. He even believes, personally, that waterboarding is torture (although sticking needles under people’s fingernails isn’t). I think we owe Dershowitz (who, let it go forth from this time and place, is personally opposed to torture) an apology. And as you might guess, I had an entire post on this subject ready to go this morning but WordPress ate it again.

Alan Dershowitz is personally opposed to torture! Let is be shouted from the rooftops! He said so himself, and I for one believe him.


JP Stormcrow 11.08.07 at 6:13 pm

Reading Dershowitz’s tortured logic “you would most certainly believe this must have been said by a Nazi, a Stalinist in the KGB or some mad despot — Pol Pot or one of his ilk.”


elef 11.08.07 at 6:15 pm

Should you be making fun of being “personally opposed”? For example, I’m personally opposed to killing animals, but it’s OK if the meat packing plant does it for me. Or I’m opposed to personally killing Iraqis, but it’s certainly OK for you and me to send our neigbors kids to do it. Why, I’m even personally opposed to shoveling snow, so I hire someone to do it for me. So what’s the big deal about torture? Let Cheney and his minions do it, as long as I don’t have to get my hands dirty.


bi 11.08.07 at 6:17 pm

Dershowitz makes it sound like torture is a personal lifestyle choice.

If we ban torture, next thing you know those Filthy Liberal Judges will be telling us what drinks we can drink! Do you hate freedom?

First they came for the torturers, but I was not a torturer; …


There is No There 11.08.07 at 6:19 pm

I’m moving towards thinking rape is a bad thing. Can I have credit too?

No, no, no, you’re going about this all wrong. You’re supposed to spend a lot of time dithering about what rape isn’t.


Barry 11.08.07 at 6:34 pm

“Reading Dershowitz’s tortured logic “you would most certainly believe this must have been said by a Nazi, a Stalinist in the KGB or some mad despot—Pol Pot or one of his ilk.” ”

Posted by JP Stormcrow

By now, Dershowitz is one of those ilk, at least in spirit. I imagine the fact that there hasn’t been that level of killing for his causes chafes him every waking moment.


tim 11.08.07 at 8:09 pm

Isn’t the point of Dersh’s statement something like: “If torture caused even people as committed as members of the French Resistance to give information to the Nazis, it might also cause people with knowledge of terrorist plots to divulge what they know”?

And if so, what’s offensive about that?


Backword Dave 11.08.07 at 8:09 pm

What does Dershowitz mean by “I am not now talking about the routine use of torture in interrogation of suspects or the humiliating misuse of sexual taunting that infamously occurred at Abu Ghraib.” Is there a proper use of sexual taunting? Is this yet another memo I didn’t get?


bi 11.08.07 at 8:22 pm


One, the Nazis’ brutal tactics are precisely the reason why they’re now considered something like the spawn of Satan.

Two, they lost. (And naturally losing a war isn’t really a testament to the usefulness of torture tactics.)


bi 11.08.07 at 8:24 pm

By the way, is there something with movementarians about quoting Clinton when they happen to agree with him?


tim 11.08.07 at 8:36 pm

Right, and the point is that if there was a technique that caused the French to give information to even the spawn of Satan, that technique might also be effective in causing people with knowledge of terrorist plots to tell us what they know.

The point about efficacy aside, isn’t it obvious that there is a moral difference between ruthless tactics used in the service of a criminal or genocidal agenda and ruthless tactics used to prevent a terrorist attack? How does it advance the debate to pretend that that difference isn’t there?


Roy Belmont 11.08.07 at 8:42 pm

The same moral logic that allows primate research to torment monkeys and apes – and cats and dogs and rabbits etc. – to achieve “scientific advancement” is working in Dershowitz’s busy little social conscience.
Since most of you can’t even get through that minor thicket without bogging down completely possibly you could spare a thought to the lack of a fundamental moral valence that could firmly distinguish the hierarchies involved.
What is it about humanity that makes us all morally equal to each other yet superior to the rest of the primate clan?
What hinders the arrogant placement of sub-categories like Dershowitz’s affinity groups, above other, lesser, possibly more dangerous ones?
Torturing monkeys to find out how bodies work, torturing Muslims to find out where the bombs are.


Seth Finkelstein 11.08.07 at 8:44 pm

I wish someone with the necessary academic status would try to corner him, along line lines of:

“OK, Alan,

Do you think the torture at Abu Ghraib was justified? No?

Do you think the torture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was justified? No? Remember, he likely did have some information. It wasn’t a ticking-time-bomb, but he was a high-ranking terrorist. Was this enough to justify torture?

Now, you base your argument on the fact that governments will inevitably torture in extreme circumstances. It’s not conjectural now. We know the US government has been torturing for far less than extreme circumstances. That it’s far closer to a tactic rather than a contingency plan.

You oppose all the above, right? You’re “personally opposed” to torture.


His whole routine has been to say that someday we might have to figure out how to deal with a weird hypothetical (what if there’s a ticking time bomb, and we know for certain who placed it, and have no other options …), so therefore the legal system must formally incorporate torture in near-unimaginable extreme circumstances. That’s been way superseded from the headlines where the legal system is now formally incorporating torture in far too routine circumstances. Yet in response he bangs the torture-warrant drum even louder.

That’s got some very shameful implications.


P O'Neill 11.08.07 at 8:53 pm

One particularly bizarre touch is when he really wants the Israelis to have tortured a suspect to help prevent a bombing, but he can’t actually produce any evidence that they did so.


Marc 11.08.07 at 9:52 pm

Tim: the brutal tactics of the Nazis failed. They turned the population against them, even in places like the Ukraine where the regime that they were fighting was pretty nasty in its own right. I don’t even think that the tactical virtues of vicious barbarism exist, but barbaric tactics are certainly strategic failures. There is, however, a broader point.

I know that you believe that whatever the US does cannot be wrong. However, you are advocating systematic state-sponsored torture. You cannot claim that your moral superiority insulates you from unpleasant comparisons when you have willingly abandoned morality. A nation that invades smaller, weaker neighbors and engages in torture of real or imagined foes brings certain images to mind. It’s worth thinking about what those images are.


geo 11.08.07 at 10:13 pm

I know that you believe that whatever the US does cannot be wrong

Personally, I’m a lot closer to believing that whatever the US (currently) does cannot be right, but I still don’t think marc is quite fair to tim or Dershowitz. Is the argument against torture conditional or absolute? Is it that, on a calculus of the likely consequences, it’s not warranted; or that even to calculate the consequences of doing some things is morally wrong? In the latter case, then there’s no possible hypothetical that could justify torture. But suppose a very nasty person in unquestioned possession of knowledge essential to prevent an imminent and enormous catastrophe informs his interrogators that, although he has a very low pain threshhold and would probably confess under torture, he’s not worried because he knows they’re unwilling to torture him? A bit unlikely, I’ll grant, but suppose. What should his interrogators do? If you say “torture,” then the intellectually honest thing to do is work backwards, expanding the hypothetical, until you reach your limit, and then measure your distance from Dershowitz.


Lester Hunt 11.08.07 at 10:14 pm

For me, the most convincing attack on torture is that of Vladimir Bukovsky. As an actual victim of torture, he knows a thing or two about it!


dsquared 11.08.07 at 10:20 pm

But suppose a very nasty person in unquestioned possession of knowledge essential to prevent an imminent and enormous catastrophe informs his interrogators that, although he has a very low pain threshhold and would probably confess under torture, he’s not worried because he knows they’re unwilling to torture him? A bit unlikely, I’ll grant, but suppose

I think it was Wittgenstein who noted that one of the main problems of ethics was that philosophers are invariably tempted into these kind of games, and in general fail to do the only sensible thing, which is to say “no, don’t suppose. This is not a bit unlikely, it’s more or less impossible and no moral intuition about such a wildly counterfactual hypothetical situation is reliable as a guide to anything. It’s not even obvious that this sort of story-telling has anything at all to do with morality”.

It always surprises me that, given the widespread popularity of Wittgenstein in other parts of philosophy, this eminently sensible approach has so few takers.


tim 11.08.07 at 10:30 pm

Marc –

Sticking to your narrower point because I couldn’t identify your broader one, surely the use of torture to protect civilians from possible nuclear, chemical or biological terrorist attacks is not at the core of what made the Nazis evil or what turned populations against them.


nick s 11.08.07 at 10:46 pm

Y’know, the whole ‘pseudonym to make blogging more comfortable till safely tenured’ thing doesn’t really sit well with moral courage.

As for Dershowitz, I think the idiomatic groundedness of ‘tortured logic’ is pretty instructive in this regard.


nick s 11.08.07 at 10:49 pm

And I’m not certain what your point is, tim, but your ability to juggle fruit is worthy of applause.


Bobcat 11.08.07 at 11:24 pm

Re: the ticking time bomb hypothetical: I think that if many people were ever faced with that, then they would probably torture, and probably think it was the right thing to do. And they might even be right.

But here’s the thing: the reason we shouldn’t dwell on such hypotheticals is not only, as dsquared pointed out, that they’re unlikely to happen, but also that we’re not debating single instances of torture. We’re debating a choice between two institutional structures: (1) an institutional structure wherein torture is permitted as long as the gov’t thinks they have reliable information that Smith is a terrorist and is going to talk if tortured; and (2) an institutional structure wherein we’re not permitted to torture. (1) will almost certainly lead to a lot of innocent people being wrongly tortured, and also a lot of guilty people being tortured to no avail (and also a lot of innocent/guilty people giving false information, which is how even more innocent people can end up tortured). (2) might lead to a terrorist attack succeeding that otherwise wouldn’t, but it’s quite difficult to tell how much institutional arrangement (2) would raise the chances of a terrorist attack succeeding. Moreover, even if we could tell, we’d have to balance off the number of innocents killed against the number of innocents tortured (as well as the negative consequences to our world image, and perhaps even the international system, because of our policies of torture).


miuw 11.09.07 at 12:27 am

The question isn’t whether torture ‘works’ or not, the question is whether or not we want to live as a people that puts torture to work.

It would be deeply disheartening if this debate about torture did not move beyond figurings of means-end calculus.

It is incidental to my position on torture that I think a regime which institutionalizes it is likely to create conditions in which it has many more enemies that it ‘needs’ to torture (and that therefore institutionalized torture, whatever its dubious efficacy in particular instances, does not ‘work’).

Some of us are apparently terrorized into believing that letting ‘terror suspects’ go untortured increases the risk we face of death-by-dirty-bomb. Still, scared to death as we might be, can we not ask whether there are values that might be worth not only living for, but (possibly) dying for also? It is not a common strength, but people die (and not necessarily kill) for deeply help principles often enough for us to be able to ask this question.

The efficacy of torture is not at issue, it is the morality of torturers that is at issue.


Anderson 11.09.07 at 12:42 am

Tim: isn’t it obvious that there is a moral difference between ruthless tactics used in the service of a criminal or genocidal agenda and ruthless tactics used to prevent a terrorist attack?


This has been another installment of short answers to ethics questions.


geo 11.09.07 at 1:06 am

dsquared: This is not a bit unlikely, it’s more or less impossible and no moral intuition about such a wildly counterfactual hypothetical situation is reliable as a guide to anything.

Is it really impossible that authorities — let them, for the sake of argument, be Swedish rather than American — should have in custody a demonstrably evil person with knowledge that would prevent much suffering of innocents (eg, the nuclear incineration of a major city), plausibly suspected to be imminent and therefore leaving little time for prolonged, nonviolent interrogation? More than a bit unlikely, of course — I was being ironic — but impossible? Not worth thinking about?


Davy 11.09.07 at 1:12 am

I basically made this point on another site but will make it again here as this issue really gets my blood up.

As dsquared notes, Marc’s (and others’) hypothetical 3-star action-movie scenario – where we are in the peculiar position of having, not only a “ticking nuclear time-bomb” (I like to imagine it with three different coloured wires for full fantasy effect) AND the terrorist mastermind in our hands with only hours (!!!!) to spare before New York blows up – is so fantastical and unlikely to begin with that having a serious discussion about legislating for its occurrence is ridiculous. If such a scenario were to actually occur (probably the day after Elvis comes back) I am sure the president would go ahead and torture anyway without legal approval and that there wouldn’t be a jury in the land that would convict him/her. However, as bobcat notes, if such a statute did exist its misuse would be almost certain (as things like Abu Ghraib attest). So, even without getting into a moral discussion about it, it’s better to leave it off the books then.

But regarding the moral issue: Tim makes a nice fruit salad when saying the difference between Nazis and us is the Nazis had a genocidal agenda and our agenda is beating terrorism. But, hang on; often the Nazis were combating what they considered terrorism (such as partisan attacks) and would massacre entire villages to prevent “terror”. So, fighting terror is really just one of the many things that the Nazi state did. It’s agenda is what helped shape the appalling content of its methods.

Which gets to the moral point. What is the U.S.’s agenda? If it is to defend individual human rights, well then, no torture. Discussion over. That’s the price of having principles. Sure, we might bend them in practice (such as the Keifer Sutherland 24-scenario which gets bandied about endlessly) but we certainly cannot legisilate for it and still claim we believe in those rights. The latter action inherently invalidates the former principle.

What really gets my back up though, is how the whole issue is framed to begin with. Somehow making the moral argument is characterised as a kind of weak, flabby, naive, and all-round “liberal” point of view. It’s not the hard-nosed stance of Bush and co. and wingnuts consider it indicative of how some people (i.e. the right) are more willing to make “tough” decisions than others. This is total BS.

How does you condoning the torture of another person so that you can marginally increase your own chances of survival make you tough? It strikes me as the essence of cowardice. Being tough means standing up for the principles you believe in, even if it increases the risks of your own demise. I live in DC and know that if anywhere has a chance of getting hit it’s here. Big deal. I’ll take my chances. I certainly am not so craven and terrified that I am willing to compromise pretty much all of my principles (habeus corpus, torture etc.) just so the big nasty Osama bin-monster-under-the-bed won’t get me.

Being tough means standing up for your principles and accepting that living in a free society carries risks. And the test of this toughness comes at times of danger.

Whatever supporters of torture may think they are, tough they ain’t.

Cowardly and pathetic might be better adjectives.


nick s 11.09.07 at 1:21 am

Not worth thinking about?

Not worth thinking about to the extent that ‘thinking about’ allows for bullshit institutionalisation of hypotheticals, which it clearly does here.

It’s worth thinking about in the same way we’ve all decided that, should we be in a lift plummeting to the basement at high speed, we’ll jump in the air precisely 0.3 seconds before it hits the ground.


SG 11.09.07 at 1:28 am

can I just ask, about this ticking time bomb situation, how did our heroic torturer come to know all these things about his … ah …. client (that he is a muslim, a terrorist, well-connected in a movement, that the movement in question is definitely violent, that the movement plans to do something bad, that this something will be so bad that it justifies torturing someone, that this someone is definitely the right someone, and that the event is going to occur so soon that the torturer really needs to get to work) without using torture but this one, final salient bit of information absolutely requires torture?

I’m sorry, but I can’t believe that this ticking bomb case can ever come about except that a) torture isn’t necessary in the first place or (what Dershowitz really wants) b) all the other information was also obtained by torture, and that’s just dandy thanks folks, now if you could just go to work on that raghead please Mr. Torturer Sir, you’ll get a medal of freedom one day I promise, just don’t put any of the details in your report because trust me, they are much more exciting and horrific in my imagination …


miuw 11.09.07 at 1:56 am

Why this insistence on whether torture ‘works’ or not? At the risk of repeating myself, rather than asking whether torture ‘works’ or not, isn’t the question whether or not we want to live as a people that puts torture to work?

We can dream up all manner of ingenious hypotheticals to find circumstances to justify the unjustifiable: just imagine that an evil genius has in his brilliant mind the code to defuse a bomb that will destroy London in thirty minutes. Knowing that he would be tortured if caught, he kept in his mouth a powerful anesthetic pill, which he duly bit, rendering him insensible to pain (not a poison pill, because he so evil he wants to hang around to gloat over the ruins of London). So, no point in sticking pins under his nails, but ‘we’ happen to have his two year old son (and though he’s evil he’s got a soft spot for his littleun). ‘We’ need to torture said toddler before his daddy’s eyes in order to save London. Imperative, therefore, that ‘we’ pass a law allowing for such eventualities, because while, personally, ‘we’ find torture repugnant ‘we’ need to pass laws to keep our cities safe.

One could go on and on like this. We can compare the Nazis and the Republicans, and then shriek that such a comparison is outrageous. This is all horribly beside the point.

The point is do we want to live under a regime that has institutionalized torture?

If this is a ‘problem’ that you have to weigh up, you may just get the regime you deserve.


Drake 11.09.07 at 2:33 am

“I’m moving towards thinking rape is a bad thing.”

This is an obvious strawman. The correct analogy would be to controlled, carefully-calibrated rape.


Anderson 11.09.07 at 2:34 am

Miuw’s example brings to mind Laura Bush’s favorite book, which I’ve quoted before in the present context:

Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature — that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance — and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth.

Dostoevsky was scarcely surprised that some people’s answer would be “yes,” but it’s depressing to less elevated souls like myself.


Matt Weiner 11.09.07 at 2:34 am

Jim Henley said it well about the “Isn’t this hypothetical worth considering?” school of reasoning:

Let’s say you’ve caught a suspect and you’re sure he’s a terrorist, and you’re sure there’s a nuclear bomb somewhere in Manhattan, and you’re sure he knows where it is, and you’re sure this particular terrorist has been trained to resist torture just long enough that you could never get the true location of the bomb out of him in time. But you’re also sure this particular terrorist is a pervert! And he tells you that if you’ll rape your own child in front of him, he’ll tell you exactly where the bomb is and how to disarm it. And you’re sure that he will, because your intelligence is that good in exactly that way….

[H]ow come we hear so much about the torture quandary and nothing about mine?… The answer is simple: State agents don’t have any ambition to rape their own children.


Russ 11.09.07 at 3:11 am


This might answer your question.

The self-described civil libertarian, Alan Dershowitz, published a book in 2002 entitled, Why Terrorism Works: Understanding the Threat, Responding to the Challenge. In Chapter Four, he calls for the use of “nonlethal” torture in “ticking bomb” situations. Unfortunately, he neither tells us how we can be sure that an event is not imminent nor how we can be sure that the torture applied will not have a fatal result. On the surface, his recommendation of pushing needles under someone’s fingernails appears to be a nonfatal technique. But, can we be sure of that in the case of an older source with a heart problem? As evidence that torture works, Dershowitz describes an event that took place in the Philippines in 1995. It seems the police captured one Abdul Hakim Murad after finding a bomb-making factory in his apartment in Manila. They beat him and broke his ribs, burned him with cigarettes, forced water down his throat, then threatened to turn him over to the Israelis. Sixty-seven days later he broke and told of terror plots to blow up 11 airliners, crash another into the headquarters of the CIA and to assassinate the Pope. Unsaid here is which of these purported plots were subsequently confirmed. Also, I find it curious that Dershowitz would argue for the use of torture in a “ticking bomb” situation based on a torture-interrogation example that took sixty-seven days to bring to fruition. According to WO Brian Copeland of the Navy/Marine Intelligence Training Course (NMITC), Dam Neck, Va., current Marine Corps interrogation doctrine is that detainee information is highly perishable and, in a tactical environment, has a shelf life of 24 to 48 hours.



geo 11.09.07 at 3:58 am

And I’ve always been amazed and scandalized that anyone in the wide world would answer anything but “Yes, of course!” to Ivan’s question. To condemn everyone who will ever live — trillions of people, on this hypothesis — to acute and hopeless agony rather than lethally torture a baby, who may, after all, have less sensitivity to pain than any of the millions of adult mammals we torture all their lives and slaughter every day for an unnecessary, possibly even unhealthy, variety of food — I don’t know what to say to such people. Yes, even if it were my baby.


ben 11.09.07 at 4:20 am

geo, nice job with the animal rights red herring there. Since you obviously oppose this practice, how does citing it support your pro-baby-sacrifice opinion?

I am also impressed that your commitment to some kind of consequentialism is so strong that you admit to being totally incapable of understanding how any reasonable person could possibly believe in absolute rights. Such people really are beyond comprehension.


geo 11.09.07 at 5:36 am


Red herring? I meant that I can’t understand how people who have no problem with inflicting colossal pain for no very good reason abhor inflicting infinitely less pain for an infinitely better reason.

Actually, like all Rortyan pragmatists, I don’t believe anyone, reasonable or unreasonable, believes in absolute rights. It’s not a coherent notion, any more than absolute truth.


Bloix 11.09.07 at 5:53 am

#18 – the torture that Bukovsky underwent – the punitive insertion and removal of a feeding tube – has been in use at Guantanamo.


JP Stormcrow 11.09.07 at 6:32 am

I think Hamilton-Lovecraft and Timothy Burke together make the most cogent argument against the way the “ticking bomb” BS has been deployed to justify prior authorization. (See comment 181 linked here & Burke’s endorsement/amplification at comment 208 – in between is mostly OT stuff.) Basic argument: if you think it is an honest-to-god ticking bomb scenario, do what you think you must, then throw yourself on the mercy of the court – it involves personal risk, but it no bigger than what we ask soldiers to routinely take in the course of their service to the government.

[Burke] If soldiers can put themselves in harm’s way and sometimes suffer death or lifetime maiming and disability, then you know what? A CIA agent or FBI agent or Attorney General or President can accept the risk that if in some extraordinary circumstance, they think they’ll have to use torture, then they might have to go to jail for it

All of this legal bullshit in the last eight years has come from cowards afraid of facing the consequences of their own declared principles. Most of what they’ve done is to protect themselves. Before they bothered to give US military armor on their vehicles, they were busy armoring up against administrations to come.


MFB 11.09.07 at 9:07 am

The torture issue is very important because it shows where people really stand. You can dance around and juggle as much as you like, on all sorts of issues, but if you are in favour of torture then you identify yourself as an enemy of civilisation.


bi 11.09.07 at 10:08 am


“infinitely better reason”

Oh, so consuming meat for daily nourishment and survival is suddenly a weak reason, compared to guarding against some totally made-up hypothetical involving a hypothetical ticking bomb where we just happen to have almost everything in place.

These nutbars really have their priorities straight. The dangers of massive flooding due to global warming are nothing compared to the dangers of US companies moving their operations offshore; the dangers of suspending habeas corpus are nothing compared to the great evil of paying any taxes; the total upsetting of the ecosystem due to genetically-modified crops must be weighed against the totally abstract spectre that we may be engaging in ‘plant Nazism’ by rejecting GM crops; etc.


bi 11.09.07 at 10:12 am

Again, what’s it with movementarians quoting Clinton when he happens to agree with them?

I think we can state a new law: If Clinton agrees with Republicans, then it proves that the Republicans are absolutely right. If Clinton disagrees with Republicans, then it proves that he’s being partisan just for the sake of it… and the Republicans are still absolutely right. Bingo!


Tracy W 11.09.07 at 11:32 am

Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature—that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance—and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth.

Given that we tolerate mining, an event that leads occasionally to terrible deaths of tiny creatures, albeit of adult miners rather than babies, but then in far larger numbers than one, and given that I am not at the moment eliminating every product in my life that used the products of mining at some stage, and I am not fighting a campaign to end all mining, then in my case the truth is yes.

How about you?

There are of course a number of differences. The continued deaths of miners is inevitable only in a stastistical sense, we’re talking about adult volunteers (though not always), rather than a life of peace and rest at last we get heating in winter, electricity to run our computers, cars and the like. But still it strikes me that there is a broad similarity between your hypothetical and what is actually happening in the world at the moment.


Tracy W 11.09.07 at 12:35 pm

Note, I am opposed to torture despite my use of the products of mining. For all the general reasons that all the opponents of torture have given on this thread.


miuw 11.09.07 at 1:10 pm

Tracy, that mining is a hazardous occupation is surely reason to a) promote legislation and innovation likely to make mining less hazardous for those who have chosen to be miners, b) work in the ways we feel we can most usefully against a political economy that entails many people being forced to work in dangerous mines in conditions akin to slavery (and, yes, this may include boycotting products).

Mining is not initself necessarily morally reprehensible, torture is. Rather than our systemic relation to mining, wouldn’t our relation to slavery offer a more telling parallel here? And surely that slavery still exists, and that we often ‘enjoy’ the indirect benefits of slavery, does not offer grounds for re-institutionalizing slavery?

As for the suffering-baby-and-perfectly-happy-society hypothetical, it is not particularly useful here for a number of reasons. The scenario of perfect happiness that it projects is utopian (some degree of human suffering is inevitable); even if such a state were possible, I’d want to argue that ‘perfect’ happiness could not in any case be founded on the practice of deliberate suffering (except perhaps in a society evenly split between sadists and masochists); and the scenario seems more suited to arguments about the institutionalization of human sacrifice than anything being discussed here (though, Anderson, I suspect more people would save the baby than you figure. Surely some moral philosopher has got together with some sociologist and conducted surveys?).

Which still leaves us with the question, not whether there are circumstances in which we might torture, but, do we want to, are we willing to, live in a society that sanctions torture?

Would anyone here answer in the affirmative?


Sebastian Holsclaw 11.09.07 at 3:50 pm

I feel about torture the same way I feel about doctor-assisted suicide. In extreme situations I would probably support it and wouldn’t opt to prosecute if I had prosecutorial discretion in the extreme instances. But it is well known that wherever you put the line, people will justify their way into going ‘just a little further’. So institutionally you don’t draw the line at the bleeding edge of moral acceptability, you draw it a little before that.

Legalizing torture even for ‘the extreme situations’ is too corrupting to the underlying institutions to make it worthwhile.

(Another example in the US would be the proliferation of dangerous no-knock warrants–the allegedly narrow exception to regular warrant rules has gone completely off the rails during the drug war.)


James Wimberley 11.09.07 at 4:35 pm

You can make a case that paedophile sex with children isn’t that bad really and the kids get over it. But don’t try this in court, or even in jail after you are sent down. Torture for any reason is a crime, in the laws of the USA and every other civilised state. Enabling torture by providing legal excuses may well be a crime too. I’m looking forward to Yoo and company in dock.


Tracy W 11.09.07 at 5:00 pm

Mining is not initself necessarily morally reprehensible, torture is.

Mining itself is not necessarily morally reprehensible, agreed. Being trapped by a fall-in with rising water and the air getting fouler and fouler strikes me as an appalling experience on the equal of the descriptions of torture I have read (though I have never endured either, so I am hardly speaking from experience.) Experiences like that are statistically basically inevitable if we keep mining.

Slavery is a different situation, as it is not essential to the production of any goods that I know of. Slaves were replaced by paying people directly quite efficiently. I don’t know any way to get the goods created by mining without mining, and in Anderson’s hypothetical baby situation torturing the baby is essential to creating the perfect society, so I think both situations are different to slavery.

I personally abjure torture because:
– unlike mining there is no evidence that torture leads to a better world
– I don’t trust any government with that power.

However, the only way I have been comfortably able to answer the ticking-time-bomb terrorist scenario is that if I was the police officer/intelligent agent in that case I would torture and then plead guilty and argue for the harshest possible sentence for myself. This is rather a moot point as I agree with dsquared that the odds of anyone being in a situation where they know everything *but* the location of the bomb are ridiculously low. But it does mean that in extreme situations I’d torture, even though I do not want it legally sanctioned in any way for the same reasons as Sebastian gives.

Indeed, I’d go further than Sebastian that I do think torture should be prosecuted, even in extreme situations. If a government-agent requires immunity from prosecution before they will torture, then the situation is not extreme enough. The only time someone should torture is if they think that the cost to them personally of spending 20 years in prison is less than the cost of living with themselves not having found that information out.


miuw 11.09.07 at 5:29 pm

Well, Tracy, yes, mining is necessary to the production of goods to which mining is necessary (slavery is also necessary to the lifestyles of slave owners. I don’t mean, though, to suggest that slavery and mining are equivalent). But one could ask whether the production of those goods is necessary.

But there’s surely a difference (as you suggest in parentheses above) between inflicting terrible suffering on people against their will for ones own ends, and allowing people to expose themselves to the risk of terrible suffering?

Anyway, I don’t mean to quibble. These parallels, analogies and hypotheticals seem mostly beside the point to me (which was sort of one of my points), but not surprisingly, and more importantly, we both agree that torture shouldn’t be institutionalized.

My main point, along with those of quite a few others here, was that utilitarian calculus seems to me to be itself morally inadequate as an approach to this problem.

Isn’t it perverse that this debate itself has become something other than an academic exercise (and of course, Mukasey was confirmed)?


geo 11.09.07 at 5:32 pm

bi (41): Slow down. I’m as far from a libertarian as can be and just as alarmed as you are by the dangers mentioned in your second paragraph. And no, consuming meat is not necessary for nourishment or survival: other sources of protein would be cheaper, healthier, and far less damaging to the environment and would not involve inflicting pain on billions of sentient creatures rather than, as in Dostoevsky’s scenario, on one and thereby ending all other suffering forever. Of course, finding Ivan’s question uninteresting, irrelevant, or even mischievous is a perfectly respectable position, but it does not entail regarding all those who don’t (ie, most people who’ve read Dostoevsky) as right-wing nutbars.

Miuw: You’ve urged several times now, very eloquently, that we consider the effects of torture on a society that sanctions it. This is an unanswerable argument against the practices of the Bush (or Giuliani) administration. I hope you don’t imagine I’m defending anything like that? Remember how restrictive the hypothetical is: a very good chance of avoiding an almost inconceivable horror by torturing one of the suspected perpetrators. This may be too improbable to serve as a useful guide to policy, but it’s surely too improbable to serve as a justification for a barbarous policy.

I agree with Sebastian and Tracy about how to guard against abuse of even an extremely limited power to torture.


Roy Belmont 11.09.07 at 9:13 pm

The logic behind primate research is the logic behind torturing prisoners, with exigencies and pertinence elaborated and made clear because of the subject matter. Refined, made precise, made so rare as to be like a jewel in a case, it is still the same logic. What it lacks is unlegislatable – the recognition that some actions strip away the human. Since what it means to be human is nice and nebulous, and subjective, the inhumans have the argument pretty well sewn up. As well as the go-ahead, because even their most adamant opponents have no way to stop them.
That same logic will lead, quite soon, to the clearly necessary consumption of human surplus meat, by humans. The supply is burgeoning, and most of it now is destroyed as waste, however sentimentally.
The prospect of mindlessly-gratifying overweight children scarfing down pizzas and burgers made from the newly-deceased may still seem absurd and tangential at present, but this entire conversation would have seemed exactly so thirty years ago.


Brett Bellmore 11.10.07 at 2:15 pm

What are we going to do for debates, when functional NMR and neuroscience give us the tools to compel truth without suffering? I’d give it another ten years before that happens, given current developments. At which point it will be impossible to pretend that the motivation for torture is merely sadism.


Brett Bellmore 11.10.07 at 2:19 pm

Isn’t merely sadism, I mean to say…


Jon H 11.11.07 at 2:59 am

“The logic behind primate research is the logic behind torturing prisoners”

Er, no, no it isn’t at all.


Jon H 11.11.07 at 3:07 am

Tim wrote: “Right, and the point is that if there was a technique that caused the French to give information to even the spawn of Satan, that technique might also be effective”

Ah, but this assumes that only knowledgeable people were tortured, and torture produced information only about actual persons involved in the resistance against Germany.

I don’t believe the Nazis were the kind to be so careful. I expect they tortured plenty of people who didn’t know, and that false accusations of resistance membership were made in order to halt the torture.

Maybe they got lucky sometimes and caught some Resistance members. But then again, they failed to catch many. Marcel Marceau just died recently, and he was in the Resistance.

So, when you consider their overall failure, and the prevalence of false positives, it’s pretty clear that the effectiveness of Nazi torture is very much in question.

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