Ethics of torture


Osama bin Laden’s death reignited a dormant moral debate: is torture ever justifiable? The sides were rapidly drawn up. Those who favored “enhanced interrogation techniques” felt vindicated. Waterboarding and other forms of torture, it is claimed, provided essential clues in tracking down the terrorist mastermind.

Those who opposed torture reach the opposite conclusion: the clues that led to the successful hunt weren’t gleaned from tortured captives but through other, more legitimate means.

Each side marshals its experts. CIA insiders offer up their testimony. Yes, torture saved us from future attacks. No, torture provided no useful information.

The argument is a reminder of the dichotomous views over the death penalty. One study showed that the death penalty was a deterrent and reduced violent crime, while another side showed just the opposite. Those favoring state executions favored one set of studies while opponents touted other research.

Who was right? Where did the evidence point? Some studies were flawed, some studies weren’t statistically significant, others were solid but asked as many questions as they answered.

At some point, the serious and impartial advocates on both sides agreed that no study would prove conclusive. So many factors play into the effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) of the death penalty that all studies must necessarily be partial. No one study or even an agglomeration of studies could definitively and finally say whether capital punishment served as a deterrent.

No one knows whether capital punishment works. So whether capital punishment should be part of the arsenal of crime control turned on other considerations. The consequentialist argument (whether it works) was replaced with questions of fairness and other principled concerns.

The debate over using torture to get useful information has the same contours as that of the death penalty debate. In fact, it is even less susceptible to objective study than capital punishment. Executions are public events; torture takes place secretly. Executions become official events; seldom does the government admit using torture. A person is executed one time; a person who is tortured is subject to many rounds of torture. The desired result of an execution is death, a one-time event; the desired result of torture is information, a fickle and slippery thing.

We’ll never know with certainty whether torture led to disclosing bin Laden’s hideout. Whether torture should be permissible or prohibited, tolerated or punished needs to turn on other grounds.

The debate about the use of torture to obtain information from terrorists was raised during the last presidential campaign and both candidates deplored its use. The main arguments against it haven’t changed with bin Laden’s death.

As with many moral questions, there are three ethical approaches that can be used. The first is the one discussed above. It is the utilitarian argument, the one that looks to the greatest good for the greatest number. This is often a useful way to think about ethical issues—what good comes from doing or refraining from doing this? In regards to torture, discussing outcomes doesn’t get us very far.

The second approach asks, What kind of person am I and what do I need to do to be that person and what do I need to avoid doing in order to maintain my integrity? It mainly on this basis that McCain rejected the US use of torture. He didn’t want to become like the people who had tortured him. His moral values gave him the strength to resist torture because it gave him the sense that he was better than his captors. To torture another is to become a torturer oneself. This would violate the moral values that McCain said were the values America stood for.

The third ethical approach is one that establishes a principle. The ethical thing to do is to adhere to that principle. Torture is a violation of the ethical standard that maintains respect for all people. The ultimate ethical principle is that people should never be used as a means only. To torture someone is to use them as a means towards another end, such as getting information.

Once the argument about the effectiveness of torture is set aside (as I think it must be since it will always be inconclusive), the other moral arguments conclude that it is wrong.

International and domestic law forbid torture. This squares with the moral arguments against it. It shouldn’t have been used and this and future administrations should make sure that it never is used again.

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2 thoughts on “Ethics of torture

  1. Pingback: Torture and American Exceptionalism

  2. Pingback: Ethics of torture « Arthurdobrin's Weblog « Death Penalty

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