Is Torture Ever Justifiable?

I’m curious how UF readers respond to the torture question, so here’s a poll.

I’m assuming this definition of torture: the act of inflicting pain on another person for the purposes of punishment, information, or pleasure of the inflicter.

Do you think the use of torture against suspected terrorists in order to gain important information can…

I’d like to say never, but I can imagine rare situations where I would grudgingly find it acceptable. For instance, if a bomb was going to go off and kill innocent people, and they had the person who knew the location of the bomb but wasn’t talking. These types of situations I’m sure are very rare, but I can’t in good conscience say torture is never acceptable.

What do you think?

Update: This has stirred up quite a bit of debate, which is very interesting.

If you answer “never,” I’d like you to give some alternatives — what should the authorities do instead when they quickly need information to save innocent lives?

People didn’t like my bomb example, so let me give a different example, which was a real scenario:

A man kidnapped a boy, held him for ransom, and was arrested when picking up the ransom money. The kidnapper refused to reveal the location of the boy, and the police knew his life was in danger  — if he was not already dead. So they began threatening the man and told him they were going to torture him if he didn’t give them the information they needed. He gave up the information. Unfortunately, the boy had already been murdered by the kidnapper.

I think it would have been acceptable to torture that man. He forfeited his rights to be treated nicely when he kidnapped a person. That boy should not be tortured further, or die, because we don’t want to hurt a very bad man. If necessary, I think the guilty man can be hurt to give the innocent a chance to live.

But if you think that would be wrong, then I want to know what you think should be done instead to protect the innocent.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Never.

    No exceptions.


  • Yoo

    Torture fails on all counts: moral, political, practical, …

    Even for the all-too-often mentioned ticking time bomb scenario, I’ve come to feel that torturing a source of information would be the last thing one would want to do: either you do the torture once, in which case the victim will say anything but the truth, or you keep on torturing repeatedly in the hope that the truth will eventually come out, in which case the victim knows that telling the truth will be useless anyways and just feed false information.

    • Gottschal

      This is spot on my opinion, which I am not eloquent enough to put in words myself.

    • You’re dodging the question.

      Why not say “executing completely random people on the street doesn’t work to reduce crime”? Well because no one is arguing that executing completely random people on the street is an effective measure for stooping crime.

      Thus it’s easy to say we shouldn’t torture because torture doesn’t work. The problem is that torture proponents don’t accept your prior belief otherwise they wouldn’t want torture either.

      I think that torture isn’t effective in many/most scenarios, but I also think there are cases where torture can be the most effective tool to get get accurate information, the infamous “ticking time bomb”.

      In these cases it becomes a much tougher decision.

      My current thinking is that torture is illegal. In the exceptionally rare ticking timebomb scenario where there are extreme costs to not getting the information (ie, a really big bomb), and you have a reasonable expectation that torture will be effective, than you can torture.

      But do so knowing that all those involved in making the decision will still be guilty of torturing, if it was a big enough issue to torture over it’s a big enough issue to sacrifice some freedom over and maybe even cause a mistrial (assuming the guilty party won’t remain an outstanding threat).

  • Ben

    I’d say it’s never justified. All of the false confessions of witches throughout the centuries, and the false conversions of Jews during the Inquisition prove that Torture is more adept at getting someone to say what you want them to say than the truth.

    How can the information from the “bomb going off” scenario ever be accurate? If they have allies who aren’t captured the plans will instantly change. If the event is so close that nothing can be changed how can you be sure they aren’t telling you false information?

    More importantly, if someone’s actually innocent but you’re convinced they have information, how long do they have to be tortured before you’ll believe them?

    Other people in other places have covered these ideas in more depth, but the entire “Jack Bauer moment” relies on a) perfect knowledge of everything except where the bomb is, and b) perfect ability to tell if the information you’re told is the truth. Anything less than perfect knowledge and torture becomes less and less useful as an interrogation technique, while becoming more and more morally reprehensible.

    What if the terrorist said “The bomb code was etched on the inside of my infant daughter’s skull. To get them you must smash her head open with a hammer.”?

    The unreliability of torture puts it outside even the cold moral arithmetic of the “fat man and the trolly” problems. You’re not being asked to throw the fat man off the ledge to save 5 lives on the trolly. You’re asked to waterboard the man until he maybe tells you where the break lever for the trolly is, when he could be an innocent bystander and could be the mastermind of the whole operation and willing to undergo torture to see his will carried out.

    Where did we, as a culture, get the impression that people under great duress are somehow more truthful, anyway? Don’t we have entire sets of laws against forced confessions and testimony under duress for the exact reason that it’s unreliable?

    • Iron Rooster


    • Other than the fact that torture is a crime, it doesn’t work, it’s morally vile, it causes employees of the US to behave like sadists and destroys the way of life we are supposed to be defending I don’t see a downside–do you?

      The ticking time bomb scenario assumes that torture works. It doesn’t. It just makes the terrorist (or whoever) scream their lies louder. Since a lie told quietly and rationally is about the same use as a lie screamed in panic there’s no point to torture unless you simply enjoy it.

  • Tim Lamb


    There is no moral, ethical, or practical reason for torture. It has been shown, time and time again, that torture to elicit information is precisely the wrong tactic. The victim will say anything at all to make the torture stop. Using your hypothetical, the victim would have a double incentive to give you wrong information: he can send you chasing off in a false direction, therby ensuring his objective, as well as making the pain stop. By the time it’s realised that the information was deliberately misleading, the bomb has gone off.

    It can be further be said “but let’s say that the terrorist… blah blah blah” and the situation elaborated upon to make it more “tempting” to say “okay then, I guess I have to use torture”. The more the hypothetical is refined, the clearer it becomes that the use of torture is completely antogonistic to any desireable outcome, let alone being able to live with yourself afterwards. You’ve sold your soul (or your ability to sleep at night) for the exact opposite of what you were trying to achieve. You’ve not only become everything you hate, you’ve been unutterably stupid into the bargain.

    Ben is 100% spot on.

    • I dunno…. if you take the kidnapping situation that Daniel mentioned above, and if my son was kidnapped, and they had the kidnapper but hadn’t retrieved my child- I think I’d personally and gladly torture the info of my son’s whereabouts out of the guy. And I’d have no problems sleeping well at night because of it.
      The terrorism scenario may not really elicit a realistic response from people because it’s not close enough to their hearts.
      But as a mother, I would be pretty amazed to find that another parent had enough “moral self control” to be able to say “I know that guy you have in custody kidnapped my son and isn’t saying where he is… but let’s keep talking civilly and justly to him and MAYBE he’ll give us the information we need to get our child back.” Really? Come on folks- let’s be honest with ourselves.
      I’m not ashamed to say I’d be the first one marching into the interrogation room with a baseball bat. And I wouldn’t feel one shred of guilt.

      • Elemenope

        But the point is such torture will most likely not even be effective. So you torture the guy and it might manage to make yo feel a little better, but it won’t help you retrieve your child.

      • The “my son” scenario illustrates the nature of the “yes torture” argument: vengeance.

        You would feel okay torturing someone because of the emotional state that was induced by your son being captured and brutalized.

        2009…what a sad state of affairs that we practice and debate such a barbaric practice.

        Here’s to hoping for ethical-social-cultural evolution. Humanity is more valuable than this.

        PS – the “info” that the previous administration used to connect Sept. 11th to Iraq was “gained” by torturing an innocent man. The information was false, like the other information torturers get from their victims.

        • yes, vengeance is the only reason to torture because you will NOT successfully get accurate information from the person you are torturing.

        • In 2009, we have people setting off bombs in public places. We have people kidnapping, torturing, sexually assaulting and killing children. We have acts of brutality and sickness that seem to keep getting more horrific as time goes on and technology grows. Humanity cannot evolve out of being human… and as long as humans exist, monstrous acts towards others will exist. The fact that it’s 2009 doesn’t mean anything. It’s been going on since people crawled out of the primordial ooze, and it will continue to go on. This isn’t pessimism, it’s reality.
          And, yes- torture is a terrible thing. It’s not something that should be taken lightly or used in common situations. But there have been cases where correct information was obtained from it. And if it is used, it should be in the most extreme of cases.
          In the brutal, violent and unreasonable world that we live in, it’s ignorant to think that all situations can be handled through talking and reason. It’s idealistic and fully unrealistic to say that there would NEVER be a situation or reason for the use of torture. And “humanity” is valuable- but some humans aren’t. That may sound callous- but it’s the truth. Stand a murdering pedophile up against an 8 year old child- and is their value the same? Just because they both happen to be human? That’s nuts.
          Maybe I’m barbaric because I don’t care what happens to murders, rapists, or people who set out to destroy the lives of the innocent. Or maybe I’m just not afraid of being honest or losing “P.C. Points”.

      • How guilty would you feel if you were wrong. If you’d taken that baseball bat to the wrong guy.

        How guilty would you feel if that wrong guy confessessed and the kidnapping took longer to solve?

        How guilty would you feel if that wrong being “tuned up” by you caused the investigation to chase false leads and your kid was never found?

        Your scenario requires perfect knowledge, and perfect perception.

        I was an Army interrogator for 16 years. I’ve been across the table from people who were interested in killing me. Who might have known where IEDs were placed, or when mortar attacks were going to happen, or RPG attacks.

        Torturing them wouldn’t reliably get the info. It would, in fact, have made it harder to find that information. The “buried baby” is a myth.

  • Alice

    I would question the way that this issue has been framed; the ticking-time-bomb situation is so vanishingly unlikely as to resemble a big straw-man justification for torture. Like kids saying “Would you eat a poo if you were really really hungry and it was covered in chocolate and a man with a gun was going to kill you if you didn’t?”, followed by “Urr, Johnny eats poo!” when the inevitable Yes is given. I don’t think anyone should feel the need to use the “torture one to save a million!” excuse when the chances of that ever being relevant are so miniscule, and the dangers of abuse are so great.

  • Foos84

    Torture does not glean reliable information, so it is never justified. Even if it were effective, it would only be justifiable under the most extreme circumstances, and then only if it were kept super-duper secret. This is because when we torture our captives, it makes it pretty difficult to look down on anyone else doing the same thing when they capture Americans.

    As Nietzsche wrote: “He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster.”

  • You watch too much “24”. Torture is never justified.

  • Viridid

    Ben has pretty much expressed my feelings on the subject. Leaving ethical and moral issues with inflicting suffering aside, at the very core torture is an irrational and unreliable method of extracting information. How can you trust the confession or information of someone who’s only motive at that point in time is to make the suffering stop, or to suffer as a martyr? Torture is, and always has been, more about punishment than confession, is notoriously unreliable as a source of information, and does nothing to endear you to the enemy; only ensuring that a culture who indulges in it (for what other word can describe investment in such a bloodthirsty activity?) comes across as much more interested in retribution than defending itself.

    I vaguely remember reading a study about reliability of information gathered under ‘duress’ but I cannot for the life of me remember where it was published or who by. Unfortunately I’m on my way to a funeral and can’t look for it now, but I promise I’ll have a root around when I get back and try to find it. Since I don’t have it to hand, I’ll forbear from using it to back up the idea that torture is ineffective, but I seem to remember the general conclusion could best have been summed up as “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.”

    • Francesco Orsenigo

      No you don’t! =)

      • Viridid

        Ah, I stand corrected :P And I suppose you catch more flies with sh*t than either, so the analogy is thoroughly broken.

  • Francesco Orsenigo

    The cost of allowing even -some- torture is greater than the benefit you would likely get in a ticking-bomb scenario.

    Especially because a “some cases” can be eventually circled around and turned in a “many cases”, for example by screaming “think of the children”, “terror” or other standard fear-mongering techniques.

    I don’t have too many problems having few bad people suffer if this can spare suffering to other people, but since the definition of “bad” is pretty loose, the efficacy questionable, the control of the media reduced and in general, as Alice puts it, the risk for abuse is just too big, I think torture is never justifiable, without even entering moral grounds.

  • Tim Lamb

    Isn’t it interesting how we’re all focussing upon the practical – i.e. “aside from moral and ethical reasons, it just doesn’t work”?

    I’d hazard a guess that most of us are far more skilled, simply by life experience, at swinging an argument based upon the practical implications. We don’t often have to sway our boss/spouse/President by a purely ethical and moral argument.

    Anyone like to take a stab at the question, confining themselves to a rational supportable argument that is solely on ethics/morals? (I wouldn’t know how to start – “Torture is wrong, mkay?” Thanks, next contestant please!)

    • Viridid

      I think the problem for me is less one of experience, and more one of pragmatism – there isn’t much point arguing the ethical issues if the technique in question doesn’t actually work. We could back and forth all day about whether it was ever morally justifiable, but it’s as worthwhile as arguing whether tis better to be Pisces or Scorpio – at the end of the day, astrology has never been proven to work and neither has torture.

      Of course, all of this is just a smokescreen to hide the fact that I don’t have the first idea where to start a purely ethical discussion of torture : ) But I’d be interested to see one nevertheless as, like I said, it’s hard for me to separate the issue of “Is it right?” from the issue of “Yes, but does it actually work?”

    • Francesco Orsenigo

      Making suffer people is bad.
      That’s all I want for ethical implications.

      Making few bad people suffer in order to spare suffering to many (good or bad) people is not too much at debate, I expect most people would agree with this at different degrees.

      The problem is that this is not the practical case.
      Making a few bad people suffer doesn’t spare suffering to many others.
      While exceptions may indeed exist, safely and correctly evaluating what constitutes a valid one (or a bad person) is beyond our collective capabilities.

    • I’ve been having this argument for 16 years (a lot more in the past 6): The reason we end up arguing the practical is you can make absolute statements of it being wrong (I do), and the response: What about, at which point the ticking bomb/buried baby/envelopes of anthrax in a postbox/movie plot of choice gets introduced, and you have to defend it anyway.

      Just look at this thread.

  • Flea

    Often moral problems do not have good solutions, and I think this is one of them. It is the price that freethinkers have to pay. Believers do not have this problem because they “know” the answer, God tells them (via the Pope, the imam, etc) what is right and what is wrong so they do not need to think and face the, a lot of times, troublesome and complicated reality.

    This is my (very imperfect and subject to revision) point of view: Torture has to be 100% ILLEGAL, always, no exceptions at all. But note the emphasis on “ILLEGAL”: Sometimes it could be moral for you to torture another human being but knowing that the legal penalty will be applied to you. No exceptions again.

    • Frank

      I should have read this comment before adding mine downthread. Then I could have just said “Yeah, what Flea said!”

    • Baconsbud

      I would have to say this is the best view of it I have seen. Would I break the law if I knew it would save many lives/ I like to think I would. I was going to say you hit it on the mark Frank but since flea beat you to the punch have to give him the support. LOL

    • Daniel Florien

      Hmm. So should it always be illegal for police to shoot people?

      If it is sometimes right, why make all cases illegal?

      • Elemenope

        Violence != Torture, for starters. Police, generally, when they shoot people are not shooting people who are already in custody, but rather shooting a person who is armed and able to act against either them or some third party. What makes torture particularly heinous in part is that is an act against a person who is not a free agent because they are already in the custody of the torturer.

        As to why make a thing illegal when it is sometimes right? The primary concern there is mission creep. If something becomes legally legitimated in a set of circumstances, it rarely as a matter of history remains confined to that set for long. If torture is acceptable for national security reasons, say, it becomes easy for it to bleed into law enforcement as a measure “for extreme circumstances”, like, say, a child kidnapping. It doesn’t take it long to be routine.

        There are many real world cases where this exact progression has occurred; two come particularly to mind. France during the Algerian War OK’d torture in military contexts. After that war was over, torture methods immediately bled into and corrupted regular law enforcement procedures. Likewise in Israel after the ’67 war. In both cases torture had unintentionally creeped from what was though to be a highly constrained military context into the prosecution of regular law enforcement, and was difficult to root out.

      • Frank

        Yeah, what LMNOP said!

        Got more to say on this, but, yeah…

  • Dr. Karl E. Taylor

    No, it is never justified. But the bigger question is:

    Does torture ever work?

    Evidence to date indicates that people will say whatever the aggressor wants to hear when under duress. There is no actual proof that anything learned through torture is factual or relevant. So, since it obviously does not work, the next question is:

    Why torture?

    Answer? We are sadistic creatures that get some perverse satisfaction from seeing our “enemies” suffer. As a species, we have done this throughout our history and to deny it is to doom ourselves to repeat it.

    Can we rise above it? Sure we can.

    Have we? Apparently not.

    • Daniel Florien

      When someone has information you absolutely need to save innocent lives, what alternative would you recommend?

      • tony

        i’d tell you everything you want to know for 10,000,000 dollars

        • LRA

          Ha! Reward bad behavior- I don’t think so.

          • tony

            even if it was the only way to save innocent lives?

            • LRA

              This is why the US doesn’t pay for hostages… you end up with MORE hostage situations.

            • LRA

              (not that I’m making a moral claim here… if individual families pay, then who am I to judge?)

      • Elemenope

        None. Sometimes you just can’t get what you want, regardless of how much you might want it.

      • If they won’t talk, you are simply screwed. Torture won’t improve matters. You are still laboring under the impression that torture works.

    • Dr. Karl E. Taylor

      Suspend all rights over search and seizure. Grab all the intelligence you can. Interview, not threaten, associates and others involved with the person.

      Understand however, when dealing with the truly psychotic and fanatical, no method actually works. They … don’t … care. The best you can hope for is after long periods of interviews, they slip up and drop some tidbit of information that can be used. Despite Hollywood and the last administration, terrorists do not respond to either the usual or extreme methods of interrogation. They are fanatics and we did exactly what they wanted.

      We sank down to their level. We allowed ourselves to become just like them.

  • ColonelFazackerley

    I come down somewhere between rarely and never. (I mostly agree with Ben).

    I take issue with your definition. For example;
    – Sleep deprivation, and,
    – playing on fear (eg being put in a box with an insect you are told is deadly),
    may not induce pain in the obvious physical sense. They can be, however, torture.

    • Baconsbud

      I have to agree that both of those can be torture. When I was in the military there were many times sleep was very limited and the things you do to yourself to stay awake can get pretty rough. I have slapped myself thrown cold water on myself all to stay awake.

    • professoryackle

      Schrödinger’s caterpillar.

    • Daniel Florien

      I assume “inflicting pain” to mean physical and psychological pain.

      • ColonelFazackerley

        Fair enough “pain and suffering” would have been clearer.

  • Never!

    It is wrong and pulls us off the moral high ground.

    John McCain wrote a wonderful article on the topic:

  • Baconsbud

    I have to say anyone saying anything besides never has no moral legs to stand on. Of course I understand the desire of those that think it can be used in rare situations but as with anything else who sets the standard as to when it can be used? When you look at how it was used against the people it has been used, it wasn’t for information. To waterbroad someone 183 times is just a form of revenge.

    • Francesco Orsenigo

      > To waterbroad someone 183 times is just a form of revenge.
      No, it’s just because you have to show your boss that you are doing your work and producing ‘results’, ie: A4 papers filled with whatever screaming garbage the tortured guy tells you.

  • Yes. It is justifiable depending on the circumstances, just as other ugly things can also sometimes be justified,

    “There is no actual proof that anything learned through torture is factual or relevant.”

    This is complete nonsense and contradicted by numerous documented crmiinal cases were torture extracted correct information from victims. There is also signficant historical evidence regarding military, judicial, police & other official use of torture which obtained correct information. Some information can be confirmed by other means, and nformation does not automatically turn bad because it is extracted by torture. Torture is just another method of interrogation. It can produce good or bad information, depending on the interrogator, the interrogatee, and the information in question.

    Claiming that torture doesn’t work is not only illogical but a outright denial of reality. There are very good arguments against using torture — pretending that it can’t work isn’t one of them.

    • professoryackle

      You’re a troll, right?

      …numerous documented crmiinal cases…
      …signficant historical evidence…
      …Claiming that torture doesn’t work is not only illogical but a outright denial of reality…

      [Citation needed].

      • No. All the information I mentioned is readily available to anyone who cares to look.

        • Custador

          Er, sorry UNRR, but torture doesn’t work. Read that John McCain article somebody posted for illustrations of why.

        • So it ought to be just as easy for you to supply.

          I did this for a living. It doesn’t work. There is the possibiltity of a single instance working, but there is 1: no way to know in advance, and 2: no way to verify it. As a system of collecting information it doesn’t work.

          As a means of solving a specific problem it requires so many special pleadings (he knows, we know he knows, the timeline is too short for other means, none of the things which made it possible for us to know were somehow inadequate to solve the problem, he tells the truth when tortured, etc.) that it’s not practical.

          And it’s a slippery slope; look at Israel, which made it legal; in exigent circumstances. They outlawed it because the definition of exigent grew to cover anyone, who might know something.

          But, since you know so much, and it’s easy to prove; and you asserted it, go forth and find those numerous examples.

    • If i were to plant something nasty in a population group, in order to exterminate them (bomb, poison, virus.. whatever).

      and they would catch me and try to find out what i did before it “goes off”, if i reall went through all that crap to actually plant something, no amount of pain or anguish would make me tell what i had done because i would want it to happen more than i would want to life.

      So ergo.. torture is useless.

      • Daniel Florien

        Except it does work, like in the example I gave. People do give up information under pain. Now it doesn’t work very well for subjective things “admit you did it or we’ll keep torturing you!” (duh, they’ll eventually say they did it even if they didn’t, because torture is quite effective).

        But when you know they did something and you have information you can verify, they do give up that information. In the example I gave, the guy gave up the right information just on the THREAT of being tortured.

        • professoryackle

          See, I don’t see how giving answers after merely being threatened with torture proves anything – it remained to be seen whether actual torture would have worked on that particular guy. Threat of torture and torture are two different things.

          Also, even if it proved anything, he was just one guy. Who can say what the guy they had in the cell next week would have done.

    • It’s not that it CAN’T work. It’s that it is unreliable. You don’t have any idea if the words coming out of the torturee’s mouth are true or not which means you turned yourself into a sadist for no particular gain. Torture is only reliable at getting FALSE confessions. That’s always been its main use.

  • Frank

    I, Like the Colonel, come down between “Never Justified” and “Very Rarely Justified”.

    However, a much clearer answer is available for the answer “Should it ever be legal, or condoned?” That answer is an unambiguous “NO.”

    Yes, It is theoretically possible that an interrogator or group of interrogators might, in a set of unusual circumstances, be faced with a set of probabilities in which an almost certain horror can almost certainly be averted by means of torture. However in a case like that, each interrogator must still be willing to BREAK the law, in order to do what he knows is the right thing. This helps insure that we don’t get people torturing for the “pleasure of the inflicter”.

    You torture, you go to jail. Period. If you are convinced, utterly, that you can save lives, you’ll do it anyway.

  • xian-x


  • Daniel Florien

    Okay, I like how people say never. I sympathize. But let’s say they have a person who knows the location of a bomb that will kill 10,000 people. Assume the interrogators know of torture tactics that would probably illicit correct information.

    You would let those 10,000 innocent people die, because you didn’t want to harm one very, very bad person?

    If hurting them to make them talk isn’t right, what would you recommend? And why is hurting them wrong? They are in the process of hurting many people, and have probably already hurt many others.

    Also if you don’t think it would be right to harm people at all, do you also disagree that police should carry guns? Because they shoot bad people when they shoot. That would be harming them, sometimes killing them.

    Or, if you think police should still carry guns, why is it appropriate to hurt people when they are endangering a police officer’s life, but not appropriate to hurt people when information they are not giving up will kill thousands of innocent people?

    It just seems like it is so easy to say “never” and sound so humanitarian, but that the stance could hurt and kill even more people when taken to extremes.

    I believe the morality of this is situational. It is usually wrong. But there are some situations where it seems the best worst option.

    • Francesco Orsenigo

      Assume you have a big criminal, like a big mafia boss or something.
      Assume that he bought the juries and the processes, so even if everyone knows he’s a horrible serial murderer he’s set free and clean.

      Would you take a gun and kill him?

      The problem is that this scenario is good for movies and comics.
      (Have you seen the second Punisher movie? It has some for Atheists too..)

      Unless you are presenting it as a thought experiment, then I agree, no problem with torturing this obviously evil guy for the benefit of the many he has personally endangered.

      • the problem with that is it’s not about him. It’s about you. He’s a horrible person. If you shoot him, how are you different? He did it for money or jollies and you did it because . . . you’re a good person? Big whoop. It doesn’t wash.

    • Baconsbud

      It is that word probably that causes me to say never. I am not saying I wouldn’t do it if i knew some of the people that would die but if I did do the torture I should be punished for it. How do you know that he will give the truth and what about after the torture has been done. Would it then be ok for his group or groups like his to torture to get the info to take revenge. Let’s say you were able to save the 10000 lives. Why stop there, if you torture the drug dealers you can probably save more then 10000 lives. How about we torture the people of the extreme religious groups to find out their real plans, This is why I say never, it is to easy to go beyond your example as a reason to use it. Humans are extremely weak when it comes to sticking to morals without oking torture in anyway.

    • Roger

      Daniel, your hypothetical assumes that the “very, very bad” person would tell you the truth. Also, you assume that the person in custody is the guilty party. Let’s look at our real-life examples of waterboarding: what did it actually accomplish and were those who were waterboarded guilty of anything? And look at the frequency of the waterboarding–it crossed from “seeking to protect innocents” straight into “bloodthirsty sadism.” What information have we gleaned from the waterboarding of people at Guantanamo Bay? What did we learn from the disgraceful actions at Abu Ghraib?

      Also, your attempt to analogize torture via police officers and guns shows amazingly poor logic. Clearly, there are rules that govern how police officers use their guns–they’re not to use them in order to terrorize individuals and they’re to use them when there’s a clear and present danger. Notice that, when a police officer fires his weapon and harms another individual, there’s a review to see if what he/she did was justified.

      I think we need to get at the core of the argument: torture feeds into the need of humans to punish the wicked. Yes, we have the nice cover of saying we’re protecting innocents–and coming up with a perverse justification straight out of “24” makes it all warm and fuzzy, but really, we’re feeding our baser instincts to make the wrongdoer suffer and suffer badly.

      • Daniel Florien

        It’s not about baser insticts, Roger. That’s clearly not my argument. It’s “how do we save that little boy’s life when the only way to save him is information that a guilty person has.”

        What would you do instead? I’ve said I don’t like torture. It’s horrible. But I don’t know of another way to quickly get that information. Do you?

        • LRA

          Daniel, I’m with you. I tend to be pragmatic in these sorts of issues. My question is: “What works?” What works to get information? If psychological methods (“befriending” the bad guy) works then do that. If it doesn’t go to the next tactic (or have multiple agents using multiple tactics at one time– good cop bad cop routine). Have the tactics go from least aggressive to most aggressive and go up the scale. Most importantly, as the tactics get more aggressive, get permission from the higher ups. I think that if it has to go to torture (and I think this should be a very very last resort used in extremely rare circumstances), then make sure the President has signed a document of permission that can be released at some point to the public to make him responsible. Extreme measures require extreme accountability.

          • LRA

            (Also a scenario like this would allow for a President to refuse that tactic– like Obama has.)

          • Daniel Florien

            Agreed. If there are ways to get it without torture, I’m all for it. But if they don’t work, are we really going to protect the guilty and hurt the innocent?

            • Custador

              You play devil’s advocate frighteningly well, Daniel!

            • If is a very big word. If they don’t work what have you done?

              “What shall it profit a man if he sells his soul to gain the world”

          • Baconsbud

            Ok LRA if Hitler had signed such statements as you say then the war trials wouldn’t have been needed? That is what I get from this. If the president tells you it is ok then you can do it. Doesn’t that go against what this country was set up to be. That no one is above the law?

            • rodneyAnonymous

              Given that Hitler was at war with the Allies, this is an incongruent comparison. Maybe the US President authorizes an instance of torture, maybe the UN (or some other international body of which the US is a member) decides this is unacceptable and takes action of some kind. Something being against US law and something being against “international law” are two different questions.

              (Also, I’d imagine that to the UN, a transparent decision with a signature would be preferable to a secret offshore “detention facility” no one is willing to discuss.)

        • professoryackle

          See, I don’t see how giving answers after merely being threatened with torture proves anything – it remained to be seen whether actual torture would have worked on that particular guy. Threat of torture and torture are two different things.

          Also, even if it proved anything, he was just one guy. Who can say what the guy they had in the cell next week would have done.

          I’d like to concede though, that whilst I believe I would not encourage torture of a criminal even if it were my kid, I can totally understand how another parent might.

        • Darby


          I’m with those who say never justified.
          I think your second example isn’t actually very good either.

          That’s clearly not my argument. It’s “how do we save that little boy’s life when the only way to save him is information that a guilty person has.”

          But the boys life wasn’t saved. He was dead already. Example completely worthless.

          Everything else you’ve come up with is also a very far fetched stretch. There are far too many assumptions in each of your examples, most of which assumptions will never come to pass, and all of them at once? More likely that a magical being with the ability to create a universe would spontaneously pop into existence.

          And even beyond your examples, we can look at the real world situations that have caused this whole issue to become part of the public debate.

          You have a cabal of deeply disturbed criminals who started a war for their personal profit with no legitimate justification whatsoever, and as part of that criminal action have kidnapped a bunch of innocent people (think they aren’t innocent? Prove it. Provide some justification even), and sent them off to concentration camps to be tortured, sometimes to death.

          These are the people whose specious arguments you are running with. They never manged to find any reasonable justification for it, so why are you so interested in promoting their arguments? Their actions have done nothing to help anybody except themselves, if that. Their arguments, or your arguments, now if you prefer don’t even really have much of a relation to anything in reality. I mean, I’m all for abstract reasoning, in general, but it just seems pretty sleazy to promote arguments put forward by criminals as justification for completely amoral actions when they’ve been so thoroughly destroyed so many times already that you’re forced into creating completely far out, unrealistic scenarios to even provide justification for a single such act let alone standard government policy which it has been allowed to become through exactly such support.

        • Roger

          Just because we don’t “know” of any other way to get information from a terrorist or suspected terrorist or all-around bad guy does not in any way excuse or legitimize torture. Further, you keep writing as though torture would produce the desired results–and as everyone else has already said, torture is notoriously unreliable in procuring reliable information.

      • professoryackle

        I agree with you on the waterboarding, Roger. In the UK, they lock people with brown skin up if they suspect they might be terrorists, sometimes for months, with no trial. They place their families under house arrest. Later, some of those so-called terrorists are released without charge, when they are absolutely certain that they pose no threat. (Read: there was no evidence in the first place, only hearsay). Families lives are devastated. That’s bad enough.

        Add waterboarding into the mix? Note: they don’t release suspected terrorists until they’re absolutely sure they’re not. How do they know? By talking to them repeatedly over a period of months. Why would they need to use torture?

        If they did use torture, what would they say, what could they say, when it turned out these guys were innocent?

        We are in serious danger of losing our humanity.

    • Gordon

      On what level are you talking? Is this an argument about morality or an argument about what is permissible in law?

      Your examples are all based on a there-is-no-other-option situation. This may or may not be true but you keep asking for an action that is not torture but solves the problem. It is likely that you can refute any proposed alternative. Then our discussion path becomes an exchange of what-if scenarios.

      I agree with Frank and others that torture should be illegal in all cases, and therefore, I answered your poll…Never be justified. The human species is just not ready to manage torture as one of our tools in the arsenal. Torture is presently too easy to abuse for it to be a legal method.

      I agree with you that “the morality of this is situational.” I just think the description of the ticking time bomb situation has too many unseen variables to allow a valid answer to the question of the morality of torture.

      A more fundamental answer is in your last sentence which implies “the best worst option” is always moral.

  • It’s disappointing that you’d even consider the non-existent tickig time bomb scenario, Daniel. As others have said, you’ve been watching too much 24. It is never acceptable, and even making some sort of exception to the rule degrades our humanity.

    • Daniel Florien

      If those situations NEVER happen, then I’m against it. And I’ve only seen a couple episodes of 24, none of which involved a ticking bomb. I’m surprised you would think I base my moral opinions of a television show.

      Let me give two more examples, since you don’t like that one.

      How about they catch a known terrorist on 9/11, 2AM, who knows what planes were hijacked, who was one them, and where they are going.

      Should they just all sit down to tea and cookies and ask him nicely if he’ll kindly tell them that information right away?

      Or a man kidnaps a girl and holds her at ransom. They find him and he knows her location, but they have to finder her quickly lest she die of dehydration. You don’t think they have a right to hurt that horrible man to save a little girl’s life?

      Seriously, what is your suggestion about what they do in these situations?

      • Baconsbud

        With this info you have given I would say that they knew well beforehand something was going on and didn’t act on it. I say the government agents should be punished for not doing their job. If the guy just give it up to them when he was picked up doubt you would need to torture him to get the rest of it.

      • Francesco Orsenigo

        Daniel, you have been assuming all the way that torture -does- work and it is the fastest and most reliable method to extract information from a suspect.
        Can you back up your claim that torture is more effective than standard interrogation?

        • Daniel Florien

          Standard interrogation should ALWAYS be done first. I don’t think anyone disagrees there! I’m talking about when standard interrogation doesn’t work. And again, I’m talking about very rare situations.

          • Elemenope

            Think about this:

            During WWII, Britain rejected all torture methods for interrogation (Hitchens had a good article on this). And they were facing the bomb scenario literally every damn day.

            • As Francesco has pointed out, it seems like your underlying assumption is that torture works and the only reason we don’t use it is because it’s immoral. Therefore if something trumps the immorality of torture (saving thousands of lives or something) then it’s ok to go ahead and do it. I think it’s pretty clear that it is NOT more effective than regular interrogation. The reason interrogators give Really Bad People(TM) tea and cookies and make nice is because it is MORE likely to elicit ACCURATE information–which is the goal . . . isn’t it?

              Don’t think “24.” Think “The Closer.”

      • Ground all planes.

  • “Yes, It is theoretically possible that an interrogator or group of interrogators might, in a set of unusual circumstances, be faced with a set of probabilities in which an almost certain horror can almost certainly be averted by means of torture.”

    It’s not just theoretical. That can and does happen. See for example, this casePolice had a known kidnapper in custody. He refused to tell where he had hidden his victim. Police threatened to torture him, and under that threat he gave correct information. Unfortunately it was too late. The victim was already dead.

    • professoryackle

      All that happened in this case was that the police threatened to torture him, such that he believed that torture would shortly occur, and decided to give up the information. I don’t think that proves anything since actual torture did not occur.

      • It proves that the mere threat of torture can extract correct information. In other words it proves coercion can work. Torture is a form of coercive interrogation. It works on the basis of fear. If the fear of torture fails, torture itself induces more fear — fear that the torture will continue, or that it will be repeated.

        If you want more criminal case evidence. Go to my site and use key word “torture.” I have a couple of them there. It is indisputable fact that torture can & has produced correct information. If you don’t believe this you can start by going and reading the Nizkor project. Literally thousands of Jews were tortured in order to force them to reveal the hiding place of their valuables. Amazingly enough, the torturers succeeded in finding plenty of valuables.

        Torture to reveal the location of valuables — a type of specific information that can be confirmed — has been used countless times throughout history with significant success.

        • professoryackle

          I dislike the way some people use the terms “torture”, “coercion” and “coercive interrogation” interchangeably. Make no mistake, waterboarding is torture. Other forms of torture are torture. Calling them by the lesser terms in no way mitigates the pain and suffering caused to prisoners; it merely sweetens the pill given to the general public by politicians. If it quacks like a duck…

          Secondly, if by your statement, “It proves coercion can work” you mean “It proves torture can work”, I disagree with that also. All the Gäfgen case proves is that one man decided to reveal the location of his victim – knowing the victim was dead already anyway – when told he would, later on, be tortured. Aside from the fact that one case does not prove the rule in the larger population, so what? The words “We’re gonna hurt you if you don’t tell us” are not, in themselves, torture, no matter how nastily they’re said.

        • Francesco Orsenigo

          “Torture to reveal the location of valuables” just means that a good person is willing to lose material goods to end suffering, not that a highly motivated evil person is going to give the correct information before the ticking bomb explodes.
          There’s quite a difference.
          You have to prove that those very same persons would not give that very information due to different types of information extraction.

          • “Secondly, if by your statement, “It proves coercion can work” you mean “It proves torture can work”, I disagree with that also. ”

            Then you disagree with reality. Try this caseTell Mr. Nixon torture doesn’t work.

  • How many of the moral absolutists who claim that torture is always wrong would make an exception if one of their loved ones was kidnapped and still missing, with the kidnapper in custody and refusing to talk? If you admit to any exception, it is logical to assume there might be other situations where torture might also be justifiable.

    • professoryackle

      Despite that hyperthetical, I don’t admit to any exception.

      • professoryackle


    • Baconsbud

      I like to believe I wouldn’t torture anyone for any reason but if I did I should be punished for it. I think you are reading into this. The answer never justified doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t do it in an extreme case such as my child being kidnapped. I don’t have a child but know I would be willing to torture to get one back. I just say that if I do torture it isn’t justified.

      • Question-I-thority

        Since kidnappers are bad people and since we don’t know what the circumstances are for the victim(s), shouldn’t there be discretion to torture every arrested kidnapper? Since terrorists accept and work for a system that explodes bombs to kill thousands of lives and could at this very moment be hiding crucial info, why not torture all apprehended terrorists? Since ‘illegal combatants’ can and do harbor suicide bombers and since suicide bombings are taking place, shouldn’t we torture these bad ‘illegal combatants’?

        Perhaps 180 times?

        In the hands of rulers, torture is like taxes.

    • Been there, done that: no torture took place. Next.

  • professoryackle

    For the same reason the death penalty is wrong, and was outlawed in Britain way back in 1965. Killing people is barbaric, period. In your hyperthetical situation, as with the death penalty, what happens if there’s a miscarriage of justice? Whoops, never mind? There HAVE been mistakes made with the death penalty, doubtless with torture too.

    At least the death penalty is applied after a fully jury trial and a long period of imprisonment. With torture, these guys have not even been tried much less sentenced. What if their accusers are simply wrong?

    I think it’s absolutely disgusting. If I torture someone, even if he is guilty that makes me barbaric and subhuman like him. Waterboarding is an atrocity, period.

    • professoryackle

      /hypothetical, dammit!

    • professoryackle

      ..and that should be a reply to Daniel, sorry. Bastard insomnia!

  • The best way to get information from someone who did something bad (wether it’s in a kidnapping or the bomb scenario) is to appeal on their sense of right and wrong.

    If you can’t appeal to that sense (which can be done with words only), than torture will have no effect anyway.

    • What if they refuse to say anything? In many cases torture will force someone to talk. Once that happens, it’s a matter of evaluating the information (admittedly this is often very difficult). If you are tortured you have three options:

      1) say nothing
      2) lie
      3) tell the truth

      Option 1 brings more torture. Option 2 only works if the information in question is not subject to independent confirmation. If it is and it proves false, lying brings more torture.

      • Francesco Orsenigo

        “What if they refuse to say anything? In many cases torture will force someone to talk.”
        Can you back up this statement with data?

        • It is common knowledge that torture can often force people to say something. That’s why it is so effective a producing false confessions.

          • Francesco Orsenigo

            It is common knowledge that God exists.

          • Dr. Karl E. Taylor

            I take it, you don’t see the irony in the statement “producing false confessions”?

            Cold, hard, objective evidence points to the fact that torture does NOT work, you just admitted as much. If the information retrieved though torture is false, what good is it? Why do it?

            Falsify the data. And don’t bother trying to quote from the last administration. Dick Cheney is a liar and his claims have already been shown to be false. NO attacks were stopped because of information gathered by harsh interrogation at GITMO and other black ops locations.

  • professoryackle,

    There’s no way to argue with a moral absolutist position that says that torture is inherently wrong in all cases, If you believe that the mere act of torture is an absolute evil, then no utilitarian or relativistic argument is going to sway you.

    • LRA

      Yes– this morally absolute stance from many of the people on this thread surprises me. I thought most of us non-believers were empiricists!

      I personally don’t believe in absolutes of any kind– moral or otherwise. I think there are beliefs that are more strongly held by some societies than by others. I agree that the death penalty is a bad idea (and I’m from Texas!) because you can’t take killing someone back, and, at the same time, you can’t be 100% sure they did it. If the state even takes one innocent life (and it has) then the practice needs to be abolished. However, I am not arguing this in an absolute sense, only for my society. Who knows, there may be another society in which the death penalty is actually a deterrent for murder??? Who am I to say?

      This is my feeling on torture. I’m no expert on information extracting matters… if I was then I could argue this more intelligently. I could give specific examples. But to say “Never!” is just way too absolutist. It’s almost commandment like.

      • Question-I-thority

        My opposition to torture laws is pragmatic and I hope empirical. Here are some reasons:

        1) Torture does nothing to change the underlying problem and probably motivates frustrated (we stopped you with torture) terrorists. It’s important to consider the fact that we are extremely vulnerable to on-going attacks.

        2) The line between actionable and non-actionable events is so fuzzy as to not be there. Politically, what happens to officials the second time when they don’t use torture (because the case is slightly more ambiguous)? Will bureaucrats, officers or pols risk “doing nothing”? How will officials react as the threat level goes down but the potential political risk does not? “Mr. Mayor, my children died while you hid in your office!” The underlying moral argument to use torture against various threat levels and against various “enemies” is extremely similar to the classic hypothetical.

        3) The policy increases the risks to our soldiers and clandestine personnel without solving the underlying problem.

        4) When has torture power not been abused? The ramification of abuse is dire. For instance, the snap judgments used in gray cases will be an acid eating away at due process.

        America has already lost the high ground on this issue. The ‘torture problem’ exists politically because we have become afraid. It is an example of how to lose asymmetric warfare.

      • Elemenope

        Then use an empirical metric. The variable is the probability that the person to be tortured is in fact innocent of wrongdoing. If it is always wrong to torture an innocent person, and the prior probability of the person to be tortured being innocent is always greater than zero (and it is; we have no magical methods for determining guilt, much less whether the person, even if guilty, actually has the information you’re looking for), then torture is always wrong.

      • Sunny Day

        “Yes– this morally absolute stance from many of the people on this thread surprises me. I thought most of us non-believers were empiricists!”

        Its called empathy.

        • rodneyAnonymous

          I think you missed LRA’s point by a mile if you’re accusing her of not being empathetic.

          • LRA

            Thank you– yes! I am totally empathetic! But if we have surveillance of a person who is actually planning an attack that would result in the deaths of many innocent people, then that person isn’t exactly innocent…

            Look, folks, I hate G. W. Bush. I hate him. I hate him so much that I can’t stand the thought of him being here in Texas. I think that if the Attorney General finds evidence of wrong doing in GW’s administration concerning Gitmo, then have at it. Pursue legal action, I’m all for it.

            But I think you all are being naive if you think that we live in a world where certain actions can never and will never happen because we don’t like it. Yes, it is the moral high ground not to torture, and I agree that if it doesn’t actually work, then don’t do it, and I agree that America has lost respect under G.W. for doing it.

            But I also understand that one can never really say never in this world of ours.

            • If all they are doing is plannig (and you have sure and certain knowledge) then you can stop them.

              The ticking bomb hypothetical requires the plot to be so far advanced only one person can inform the authorities of the needed details, the event is crititcally imminent, and that same sure and certain knowledge of the attack exists.

              There is no way to have that sure and certain knowledge. Nothing stops me from informing the authorities of someone who has no knowledge. I might even inform of an attack which isn’t going to take place.

              The FLN did this, a lot, in Algeria. They attacked the people who were loyal to the French, but informed on those who were in the middle. The French tortured them, et voila they (and their families) were no longer loyal.

              If torture is allowed (and as soon as one argues there is utility, then the question isn’t if, it’s when. Once you say, “it works” the dickering is basically one of price), then it will be gamed. It will spread. It will stop being only the innocent.

              So, even from a pragmatic point of view; and assuming it works, the costs aren’t worth the gains.

              And… it doesn’t really work.

    • professoryackle

      That may be so, but that isn’t my position. I’m not saying “torture is wrong, and that’s that.” I’m saying there are reasons why it’s wrong. Frankly, some of your claims beg the question. Aren’t you arguing from the stance that torture is justified? How is that different from any other moral absolute stance?

      • LRA

        It’s not an absolute to say that torture may sometimes (Rarely!) be justified. Also, I can only argue for my society. I don’t know about other societies and how they work. I like that President Obama has taken the stance not to torture. He is following his moral conscience. But to say “never” implies that people have considered ALL the cases that have ever been and will ever be and have come to this conclusion. It’s the old problem of induction.

      • “I’m not saying “torture is wrong, and that’s that.””

        That is exactly what you are saying if you say that it is wrong in all cases regardless of the circumstances. It doesn’t matter why you believe that, you already said you admit to no exceptions. That is a moral absolutist position that torture is inherently wrong, evil, unjust, whatever you want to call it.

  • elflocko

    Since the focus seems to be on terrorists, here’s a really nice article showing that torture isn’t needed with them, either:

  • MiddleO’Nowhere

    I think Jon Stewart made some good points in his extended interview with Cliff May ( when asked about the “ticking time bomb” scenario. It is never acceptable to torture, and the penalty for holding to those values is that some people may get hurt or die. Is it really a value if you can’t hold true to it in the tough times?

  • The problem with using any sort of situation where you have to get information in a set period of time (ticking timebomb, kidnapped kid, etc) is that both you and the torture victim are fighting the clock. The suspect may believe in their cause enough to endure torture and not give up information in this situation. Also, torture can get a lot of false information if the suspect wants the pain to stop. Or the suspect may provide false information to waste time and money of the investigators. How can the interrogators determine truth from lies?

    You may want to check out this man’s blog. He was a former interrogator for the Army.

    It is an ineffective tool that wastes time, provides false leads and does little to solve the problem faced — that of getting information.

    • No one claims that torture always works — just that it can and does work in certain situations. No interrogation technique always works.

      “How can the interrogators determine truth from lies?”

      It depends on the information. Some information can be confirmed independently. And that problem is not exclusive to torture. It’s a problem with all interrogations.

      • If it doesn’t always work and there are better methods, then why continue to use it?

        Your last paragraph hits the major point — you need to have outside information, control questions, a means to verify if your subject is being truthful.

        That seems to indicate that the subject is rather worthless in these situations, because the really valuable information is already in the hands of the authorities.

        • “If it doesn’t always work and there are better methods, then why continue to use it?”

          There may not be better methods depending on each individual case. It isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution.

          • but if there are better methods, why continue to torture? So far I haven’t seen an argument/case where torture was the best method.

  • I haven’t read all the previous comment yet, so forgive me if someone has pointed this out already, but…

    Isn’t this the very same bullshit tactic that Christians use to justify their religion? I mean, you create a fictitious scenario, defined by set of rules, describe that scenario as likely or probable, and then use it to justify some other complete nonsense?

    It’s kind of like the old “but what if there *IS* a god… wouldn’t it be better to know you’re going to heaven?” argument. A critical thinker sees through that, because even if there really *IS* a god, the odds are still immeasurable as to whether or not you chose to worship the right one. ;-)

    So, about torture… how, do you suppose, we ever reach this hypothetical situation? Under what set of circumstances would a person, or group of people, be completely ignorant about a bomb long enough for it to unnoticed and to have reach a point of imminent disaster, and then suddenly become so efficient and effective as to locate the person who armed the bomb, within the disastrous final moments of its ticking countdown?

    Really… let’s take 9/11, for example. There was information and chatter for years. Strong, actionable clues existed for many months prior to the attacks on that day. Only a perfectly orchestrated symphony of incompetence was able to make those attacks successful. So, on September 10th, 2001, if the FBI had captured one of the terrorists (uh, I think they DID have one in custody, didn’t they?) and tortured him, what good would have come of it? Even if he’d given them some information — maybe even all the information about the entire plan — they still couldn’t have organized the nationwide efforts to prevent it in less than a day. However, if a handful of people had taken their jobs more seriously months prior, the whole thing would have been prevented with very little stress or effort on the system that existed at the time.

    Yes. We’ve completely revamped the entire system of national security to operate in a panic, rather than encourage a handful of people to simply pay more attention and follow up on the information they receive. And it really hasn’t made us any safer.

    Torture is a last-minute technique. It’s not effective. It’s hurried, desperate, a day late, and a dollar short.

    • professoryackle


  • For every expert against torture, there are others who attest to its effectiveness, whether they call it torture, “enhanced interrogation” or something else. Don’t pretend there’s only one side among the experts. Even some opposed to it, such as current DNI Admiral Blair, admit that it produced “high value information.”

    • Elemenope

      Oddly enough, none of these “experts” were giving this expert opinion or would countenance it before torture became a policy of this government. Sometimes “expert” sounds strangely like “apologist”.

      Not one person–not one–who today says that torture is a justifiable tactic would say so if the situation was through the looking glass. If Iraqi intelligence had captured an American soldier, say, and wanted to know operational plans about bombing runs against their country, nobody would say it’s OK or morally justified or anything of the sort for Iraqi intelligence to torture the crap out of the American pilot.

      I personally relish the fact that it was Ronald Reagan who signed the US onto the UN Convention against Torture (a binding treaty, btw). Being against torture used to be the solidly conservative opinion, by which BTW all military officers stood because they know that the looking glass situation was not theoretical, but practical.

      • rodneyAnonymous

        It’s funny how what’s considered “conservative” and what’s considered “liberal” flip around from generation to generation. Republicans used to be considered liberal, Democrats conservative. I find myself at odds with “liberal” ideologies all the time.

      • “Not one person–not one–who today says that torture is a justifiable tactic would say so if the situation was through the looking glass. If Iraqi intelligence had captured an American soldier, say, and wanted to know operational plans about bombing runs against their country, nobody would say it’s OK or morally justified or anything of the sort for Iraqi intelligence to torture the crap out of the American pilot.”

        I do, and I have said so in writing, although with regard to the Iranians capturing a CIA spy. And no one is advocating torturing uniformed soldiers.

        • Elemenope

          Ah yes, the magical uniform argument. Funny how Common Article Three of the Geneva Conventions applies to all combatants, whether uniformed soldiers or not.

  • Custador

    A tortured person will tell you absolutely anything, true or otherwise, in order to stop you from torturing them. That’s the one and only reason why the British military don’t torture people – it’s got nothing to do with human rights, they just know it’s a pointless exercise.

    So no. Torture can never be justified.

    • “A tortured person will tell you absolutely anything, true or otherwise, in order to stop you from torturing them.”

      And that’s one argument in favor of torture, if you have a captive that will say nothing. You can’t work with nothing,

      • Custador


        I was an intelligence officer for 2 years.

        You can’t work with nothing. Fine. Then don’t. Develope sources of information other than the prisoner’s own mouth. If you’re holding him, you know who he is, where he’s from, who his people are and you have a fair idea of his recent movements. Any halfway decent investigator who can’t get a lot more out of all of that than they can out of torture isn’t halfway decent after all.

        You can work with a prisoner who tells you nothing. You can’t work with information that could be pie-in-the-sky, made up on the spot just to stop the pain. Really.

        • “You can’t work with information that could be pie-in-the-sky, made up on the spot just to stop the pain. Really.”

          Really? So you think accurate information automatically turns bad because it’s extracted under torture? That’s totally illogical. Information is information. The method of interrogation is just a tool.

          • Custador

            I think accurate information is not rendered under torture until it’s utterly, utterly irrelevant. Scratch that, I know it.

  • darlene

    Torture isn’t justified because the law is pretty clear about not being forced to testify against ones self, and on cruel and unusual punishment. So ixnay on the orturetay.

    To take your scenarios above–the time bomb, the kidnapped child–if a person is tortured and the bomb found/child saved, the “confession” is inadmissible in court. Unless there is other evidence, that person walks. Pretty nice for a mass murder or child kidnapper.

    Also, there is an assumption made that the person is guilty–that has to be made otherwise why even bother? And that goes against our justice system.

    Then, you have this issue: a regular person, tortured to find their valuables, is a bad example. First, when faced with death, my hidden gold becomes much less important. So there isn’t equal value in withstanding torture. Second, the extremist who plants a bomb, the kidnapper–these are people who, by definition, are outside the norm and therefore regular applications simply don’t work. And, in the case of military/terrorists groups, they can receive training on how to handle torture. Yes, anyone can be broken, eventually…but it’s the eventual that matters. In a high stakes situation where time is ticking–torture has limited value. Can it work? I’m sure that sheer probability would tell us that yes, it can occasionally work, but we don’t know what will work and if it will work this time, in time to stop whatever we are trying to stop.

    But how do you know? How do you know that this time, right now, it worked? How do you know, when the clocking is ticking and you can only follow one lead…how do you know if it’s the right one? You don’t, and it would be just as easy in that situation for the perp to tell a lie and achieve their aims and then get off in court because of excessive use of force…or for someone who is innocent to just make something up to make the pain stop.

    Ethically, doing something bad to someone because they may have done something bad to someone else is pretty shaky ground. Practically, it is an unlikely scenario, and one full of flaws. And since there is limited research (are you going to volunteer for this study?), and therefore limited real information on what is actually effective in gaining genuine confessions vs. what may only seem to be effective, it seems to be irrational to propose using torture to achieve any end. Especially since there is a preponderance of literature on the sheer ineffectiveness of torture as a genuine tool. (See the Inquisition for more detail on the effectiveness of torture in gaining false confessions.)

    And, as to the question of what I would do should a loved one be kidnapped…first, I would hope for more compelling evidence to their location then “Oh, I kicked him in the groin until he said they were in the warehouse”; second, what I might personally wish to do is meaningless. I might also wish to torture them AFTER they were found guilty in a court of law, and not for the benefit of information gathering; but that is also prohibited.

    • LRA

      “Torture isn’t justified because the law is pretty clear about not being forced to testify against ones self, and on cruel and unusual punishment. So ixnay on the orturetay.”

      I’m pretty sure that only applies to courts and judges. I’m pretty sure that those rules are not applied to police/ agents/ etc. Also, those rules only apply to Americans, not to foreigners.

      • Custador

        Wrong. Very wrong. The US constitution guarantees certain rights and freedoms, but nowhere in that document, or in all the passages of US law, does it say “But only if you’re American”, or “Except on foreign soil”.

        • Darby

          Re: Custador.

          There are a few places where it specifies citizens. For example voting, etc.
          It is very important to keep in mind, as you point out that “people” or “men” and “citizens” are used in different places and that was very much the explicit intent of the authors.
          Human rights are granted universal status in the Constitution whereas those rights particular to American citizens are laid out explicitly as such.

          It’s sad, but I hear this argument a lot and most often from the same people who claim we don’t have rights if they’re not explicitly spelled out in the constitution. People like that really piss me off. It’s only a few pages, Taking a few minutes and reading it could make them not seem like ignorant tools.

          • LRA

            So I’m an ignorant tool for assuming that American law applies ONLY to America/Americans? Really?


            • Custador

              Well, enough Americans were convinced that British law should apply to your American born president to stop him from being allowed to serve as CinC, so….

            • LRA

              What’s a CinC? Also, my point is that I’m not sure that foreigners detained in America have their Miranda rights read to them, etc. I’m not sure that they have the same protection under the law… but I could be wrong. Although I am sure that if you commit a crime here, you are under our jurisdiction. I don’t know if people who are foreigners get jail time or get deported… I think it depends on the crime.

              Also, the law about testifying against oneself pertains to a court of law, not necessarily talks with authorities– there the law would be that you have the right to remain silent and to have an attorney present.

            • Custador

              @ LRA: CinC = Commander in Chief.

              You kind of made my argument for me there. If the rights granted under the US constitution didn’t apply to visiting aliens, then there is no reason to assume that the laws of the US (which after all draw all of their authority from that one document) should apply to them either. But they obviously do. QED, foreigners have the same rights.

            • LRA

              I don’t know. Having lived in a border state most of my life (Texas) I’m pretty sure that people who enter Texas illegally from Mexico don’t have the same rights as citizens (btw– I’m not saying that is right or wrong, just the facts of the matter). The Catholic church here works very hard for illegal immigrants in Texas. It is their feeling that these people deserve equal rights because the state tax law is on sales tax, not income tax. In other words, people living here illegally pay sales tax but can’t get state services. I also know that when illegal immigrants commit crimes here, they may be detained or they may be exported. It depends on the crime. As I said, though, I don’t think that illegal immigrants have their Miranda rights read to them…

            • LRA

              Also, I still don’t get your comment about commander in chief… Our Constitution provides that the president is the commander in chief of the armed forces… what has that got to do with Britain?

            • LRA

              Sorry– but just to put a fine point on it… if I was visiting Singapore and committed a crime there, I’d be under their jurisdiction, but I don’t think I’d necessarily have the same rights as their citizens (or if Singapore doesn’t work, put Jakarta in that scenario– my husband lived in these places for a number of years). Anyhow, I get the feeling that this is how it works here… a bit of a double whammy. You can be punished the same, but I’m not sure that you have the same rights.

            • Darby

              I never said you were an ignorant tool. I have no idea whether or not you understand the fact that the constitution doesn’t grant rights, so unless you don’t get that, my statement couldn’t be applied to you.

              If you don’t get that, then, certainly it would be an appropriate description for somebody who discusses the contents of a document they’ve obviously never read.

              So I’m an ignorant tool for assuming that American law applies ONLY to America/Americans? Really?

              That isn’t at all what you said. You said that human rights are only for Americans. That’s a very serious flaw in your reasoning at pretty much any level.

              So, US law applies within America to citizen and non citizen alike. That should be obvious.
              Restrictions on what the US government is allowed to do have to apply to all people *Everywhere* If not, then it wouldn’t actually be a limitation of government power and therefore idiotic. The people who wrote it clearly weren’t idiots. You should take a few minutes and go read it, seriously. Talking about it when you quite obviously don’t even know what it says makes you look really silly.

            • LRA

              Who’s being the tool now? I have a college degree. That means I took American history and political science. Of course I’ve read the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

              Let me just repost what you said:
              “Torture isn’t justified because the law is pretty clear about not being forced to testify against ones self, and on cruel and unusual punishment. So ixnay on the orturetay.”

              You specifically used the word LAW, which includes BOTH the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. AMERICAN LAW APPLIES TO AMERICANS. That was my point.

              And you can talk all day long about human rights, but if they aren’t put into law, they are just nebulus…

          • Elemenope

            Not for nothing, but unenumerated rights are legally problematic (and about which there are reasonable opinions on both sides as to their existence and possible adjudication in the theoretical case of their existence).

            Either way, regardless of whether you are right or not on the wider issue of a distinction between person and citizen in the US Constitution (I happen to agree with you, though the case law is a great deal less clear), it is not appropriate to call someone an ignorant tool.

            • Darby

              Elemenope, I’m sorry, but there does not exist even the possibility of the existence of a reasonable opinion that unenumerated rights do not exist, at least within the context of the US constitution. This was intentional on the part of the framers and is quite obvious if you actually read the document.

              It is spelled out explicitly in the 9th amendment:

              “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”

              Do you understand that that is a direct contradiction of your statement?

              Also, in the case of the difference between person and citizen, it’s also explicitly spelled out by the use of the appropriate term in the appropriate place. Additionally, it’s implicit in the fact that it isn’t possible for it to even be feasible to restrict government powers in such a manner while allowing them to be completely unrestrained against non citizens. Say, I’m a scumbag president and I don’t like you. I state that you aren’t a citizen and that you have no recourse to the law. Well, that really sucks for you because you’d have to prove that you are a citizen before you were even granted the chance to prove you are a citizen. Catch 22. That’s a big part of why the Constitution was written the way it was. Case law is irrelevant to those facts, although pragmatically, it’s wise to keep it in mind as it demonstrates how far we’ve fallen.

              As far as “ignorant tool”, it’s a phrase that has a valid meaning. Although I never applied that to anybody here. Do you disagree that a person talking about a document which they’ve obviously never read would be reasonably described as such? Ignorant is obvious, tool, well their ignorance is being used to benefit the people getting away with passing unconstitutional, treasonous laws like the recent wiretapping scandals etc, ad nauseum, so they are a tool.

              I’m not sure why you think using terms appropriately is inappropriate merely because the facts don’t paint a person in a good light.

            • Elemenope

              Do you understand that that is a direct contradiction of your statement?

              I am well aware of the existence of the 9th Amendment. What you seem to be unaware of is the actual jurisprudence involving the ninth, and unenumerated rights generally. Many judges have argued that it is impossible to create a ration jurisprudence that includes unenumerated rights (becuase it invites a judge to substitute his opinion or use some other arbitrary metric to find and describe such rights), and so have deferred the notion to legislatures to bound them (which is essentially throwing out the notion, since rights constrain the state; otherwise, they aren’t rights.)

            • Darby

              @ LRA,

              Congratulations of gaining a degree which you feel allows you an appeal to authority fallacy. Of course, you really should understand that that doesn’t mean that you took either American History or political science. But if you did read the constitution, then your reading comprehension skills are very lacking.

              Let me just repost what you said:

              Which you follow up with a repost of something I didn’t say. Congratulations.

              AMERICAN LAW APPLIES TO AMERICANS. That was my point.

              No, your point was that American law only applies to Americans, and not to non-Americans. That’s why your point is, quite obviously, *factually incorrect*.

              Let me give you a very simple. obvious example proving beyond any possibility of a doubt that your point is not only dead wrong, but deeply ignorant.

              According to you, if I am a foreign national in America and I rob a bank, kill everyone there and burn the place to the ground, then I can not be held accountable under US law. Hopefully you will be able to take a deep breath, think about this for a second and realize how far off the deep end you are with your stated position.

              And you can talk all day long about human rights, but if they aren’t put into law, they are just nebulus…

              How would that even be possible? Until a law is specifically put into place to restrict me from engaging in some activity then I clearly can do it if I’m capable.

              According to your reasoning, neither of us has the right to drunk a glass of water as it’s not specifically listed as a law. That’s a deep failure to understand even the basic reasoning behind the constitution, what constitutes a free society, and the actual text of the constitution itself.

              I accept your apology.

            • rodneyAnonymous

              Rudeness does not add strength to an argument.

          • Yes, but the fifth amendment (the one on self incrimination) says, “no person”, so it applies to everyone in the power of an arm of gov’t in the United States (because the 14th amendment makes all the rest specifically applicable to the States, which wasn’t so clear prior to that).

    • “Torture isn’t justified because the law”

      The law is irrelevant to that question. Something can be justified yet illegal. Legal does not equal moral.

      “Also, there is an assumption made that the person is guilty”

      Some people are clearly guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt. We know for example that Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri are leaders of Al Qaeda. We don’t need a court to tell us.

      “Then, you have this issue: a regular person, tortured to find their valuables, is a bad example”

      I disagree. It is an excellent example of how torture can produce correct information. And some “regular” people have died rather than reveal the location of their valuables. Different people have different levels of motivation and resistance, including terrorists. Some who are willing to die are not necessarily willing to suffer pain, humiliation, or certain types of psychological torment.

      “Ethically, doing something bad to someone because they may have done something bad to someone else is pretty shaky ground.”

      We do that all the time when we punish criminals.

      “I would hope for more compelling evidence to their location then “Oh, I kicked him in the groin until he said they were in the warehouse”

      If he gives a location it can be checked out. There is no more compelling evidence. He’s either lying or he isn’t.

      • Elemenope

        So you’re cool then with those who violated the law “for the greater good” (or whatever) being punished now, right?

  • I think the bigger problem here isn’t that you believe in torture, it’s just you don’t feel there are any other options. You keep asking, what else could we do in these situations?

    But there is no answer that is going to be 100% effective for each case. Even torture isn’t 100% effective. It’s been mentioned before, but worth repeating, the allure in torture isn’t that it works, but that it seems to make people feel better. That asshole may have killed that poor innocent kid, but I tortured the hell out of him so he got a little bit of what he deserves.

    You can’t get people to talk by using assembly-line methods. You have to be creative and intelligent and persistent and have outside sources to cross reference. It’s not glamorous, but it seems the most effective tool we have. Unfortunately, it takes effort which makes it easily dismissible, especially when you live in a culture that believes two things — to understand the enemy is to agree with them and shortcuts produce a higher quality product.

    • Daniel Florien

      Of course there are other initial options and those should be tried first. My question is, what do you do when being nice doesn’t work? Just let things go?

      • Elemenope

        Where did the dichotomy come from where it’s either you’re debriefing a guy over root beer floats or torturing the guy? Just because you aren’t torturing someone doesn’t mean you’re being nice to them in any sense of the word.

        And as to your question, yes. You just let it go. Either we have principles or we don’t. We don’t if we say we have them but we toss them when the going gets rough.

      • I thought we were on a time crunch in this scenario. So how long do you give the other options before you panic and torture? Five minutes? An hour?

        I never said you had to be nice to get information. As to what methods you use and how long it takes, I guess it depends on if you’re trying to get information, incrimination or prevention.

  • tony

    there seems to be a lot of what if’s.
    what if you torture someone to find the location of the “ticking bomb” and find out your information was wrong and there was no bomb?
    what if you torture someone to find a kidnapped child and find out he ran away to join the circus?
    can the torturer justify it?

  • I want to know what people consider “torture”. How do you define it? Do you think psycological “torture” is more acceptable than physical “torture” or vice versa?

  • Let me state the obvious too:

    Article 5.

    * No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

    • LRA

      I read the document. It kept saying “everyone has the right to…”

      then it gave instances like: own property, get married and establish a family, work, have leisure time, etc…

      So, do you think these rights are appropriate for Charles Manson? Ted Bundy? Osama bin Laden? I don’t know. If you can’t be a positive part of the social fabric, then I say some rights are forfeited. (This is not to say that the prison system– especially here in America– isn’t in big time need of reform! It is. But people who do very bad things don’t get to live normal lives after that IMO.)

      • Francesco Orsenigo

        George W Bush? Dick Cheney?
        Remember that who’s a murderous warmonger is just an issue of POV.
        So, yes, yes and again yes, they all have those rights, as well as the right to a fair trial and possibly a looooooooong time behind the bars.

        • LRA

          You really think it’s ok for a convicted serial murderer to own property, get married, and have kids? Really? Seriously?

          I find that shocking.

          • Elemenope

            Really. The point of rights is that human beings lack the wisdom to rightfully deprive a person of those things, and so are intentionally placed beyond the power of humans to deprive.

            I cannot think of a crime such that it deprives a person of the status of being human, and as such, certain things are right out. Like torture, or sterilization, or slavery, or enforced permanent perpetual impoverishment.

            The fact that you think an act (no matter how heinous) can deprive a person the status of deserving those things thought necessary for the dignity of being a human being is a bit shocking.

            • LRA

              Maybe we’re on a different wavelength here.

              We’re talking about Charles Manson. He is convicted and sitting in jail. He will never be paroled. He is there until he dies.

              This guy- who murdered a pregnant woman- has the right to have kids– while he’s in jail?

              How exactly do you propose that he provide for said kids?

              Do YOU want Charles Manson as a dad? I sure as HELL don’t.

            • Elemenope

              The rights are meant to be protected from direct intentional violation, not incidental violation due to incumbent circumstances. It would be tough (though not impossible) for Manson, given his incarcerated status, to get married, and absent conjugal visits (that he doesn’t get) actually impossible for him to have children. That is a *side-effect* of his incarceration and not the intended effect of the incarceration.

              It would be different if he were sentenced to be castrated, right? That’s the distinction.

            • rodneyAnonymous

              Do you think chemical castration is an appropriate punishment for repeat-offender rapists?

            • Elemenope

              Not as a court-mandated punishment, no. I do support it being offered as an option in lieu of whatever sentence would be applied had chemical castration not existed, with the prisoner being given the choice between them.

            • rodneyAnonymous

              Why not? Genuinely curious.

            • Elemenope

              I am not comfortable with altering a person (and dicking around with hormones comes very close to the most profound possible way of altering any creature short of removing physical parts) on the say-so of a court. I’m a big believer in physical bodily autonomy, and generally believe that the imperative to keep a person whole (in the systemic sense) absent the consent of the person themselves to make alterations, is insuperable.

            • LRA

              Ok- I am not advocating the alteration of a person’s body– I’m advocating the denial of conjugal visits for violent offenders… sorry, I didn’t realize that is what you were saying!

            • rodneyAnonymous

              Interesting. I suppose I disagree about the unbreachable sanctity of keeping a person whole. If you aren’t sick of this line of questioning, why are you a big believer in physical bodily autonomy? That is, why so big that your magnanimity extends to violent criminals?

            • rodneyAnonymous

              Also, LRA: he wasn’t saying that. I changed the subject. Sorry about that.

              (Also also, I understand that inmates of medium or maximum security prisons, and those on death row, are not allowed conjugal visits.)

            • LRA

              Yes, but apparently people feel that violent offenders like Manson have a right to marry, have children, and own property. I don’t agree with that.

            • LRA

              What I do think is that prisoners have a right to be alone (which our current system doesn’t provide), to be protected from the abuse of other prisoners (ditto), to have intensive therapy (even in the case of someone without possibility of parole), to have meaningful work (if that can possibly be had), to have adequate access to some space, hygiene, outside, exercise, books, and even tv (but not to internet… I don’t think prisoners should be able to chat with just anyone), and to the mail system.

      • Sunny Day

        “So, do you think these rights are appropriate for Charles Manson? Ted Bundy? Osama bin Laden?


        If its not a right for them, then It can’t be a right for me. You might as well get your morals from a Magic Book.

        • LRA

          Seriously, I think you are missing the point of my comment.

        • rodneyAnonymous

          If its not a right for them, then It can’t be a right for me. You might as well get your morals from a Magic Book.

          Hm, I disagree. This might be a good case if we were talking about rights you’re “born with”, but we’re talking about the rights you may or may not have as a result of actions you take. Someone who is imprisoned has explicitly lost their right to freedom, temporarily or permanently. Really, The Bill of Rights is a list of privileges. They are “rights” you automatically start with, not “rights” you are automatically entitled to no matter what you do. Privileges can be justifiably revoked.

          “Shocked” is too strong a word, but I am definitely perplexed.

  • ngl

    I saw this very discussion on reddit a little while ago. IrishJoe put it best, and I agree with him: “There are a lot of illegal activities that are ‘effective.’ If you don’t like someone, murder is very effective. If you want more money, stealing is very effective. If you want insurance money and don’t need your house anymore (or you want to deprive someone else of their house) arson is very effective. Torture is illegal. Whether or not torture is effective is a separate issue from the fact that it is illegal. That’s the point torture supporters are missing.”

    IrishJoe on whether torture is justifiable

    • ColonelFazackerley

      I think morality is more interesting than legality. Legislators can be wrong.

    • professoryackle

      One Bush Administration memo said that it would be acceptable to crush the testicles of children in custody if they thought they could get information.


      If we condone that, we are not humans any more but monsters. In the words of the Manic Street Preachers, “If you tolerate this, then YOUR children will be next.”

      What the fucking hell are we doing? We allow our government to drown people alive and crush our children’s gonads and that’s OK?

      Incidentally, in November 2003 – i.e. before 7/7/05 – I wrote a novel for NaNoWriMo which I published online. It contained the name ‘Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’ and concerned his capture and torture and revelations of potential future bomb attacks in London. It was fiction. Make of that what you will.

  • Japanther

    I am US Army Active Duty.

    Never ever torture.

    When the Abu Ghraib prison abuse story broke, terrorism, radicalism, extremism increased exponentially. The torture, and much of the abuse was CLEARLY torture, that these prisoners endured may or may not have yielded useful information. But the fallout from it may not ever go away. This seed of hate will surely be multi-generational, inspiring countless more terrorist plots than the original abuse uncovered, if any. Don’t blame the media for leaking this either. So many were abused that the stories would definitely gotten out. If you don’t torture in the first place, there is no ‘unpatriotic leak’.

    Not only did the torture create countless terrorists, it served to justify even more barbaric treatment towards kidnapped Americans (military and civilian). If I were ever MIA, I certainly wouldn’t want the enemy government/militia/group to torture me. They are much more likely to do so if we do it to them. My wife doesn’t need to worry about this. End of story.

    As for your kidnapping example, Daniel, I don’t see it. Once the (I assume he worked alone) kidnapper is under arrest, he can not harm or kill a victim. The child might be locked up without food or water, yes. But the game is over. Clearly the man is not going to ‘get away with it’. And I highly doubt a profit-motivated criminal is going to devise elaborate ‘Saw’-like death traps. Offer him Life without Parole if he gives the location. Death if he doesn’t. I’m sure any career interrogator can wrestle this information out of him without even offering the above plea bargain. Also, I tend to agree with other commenters about your example not actually being torture, rather the threat of. Respectfully, I’d ask you to post a better example.

    • “When the Abu Ghraib prison abuse story broke, terrorism, radicalism, extremism increased exponentially. The torture, and much of the abuse was CLEARLY torture, that these prisoners endured may or may not have yielded useful information. But the fallout from it may not ever go away. This seed of hate will surely be multi-generational, inspiring countless more terrorist plots than the original abuse uncovered, if any. Don’t blame the media for leaking this either. So many were abused that the stories would definitely gotten out. If you don’t torture in the first place, there is no ‘unpatriotic leak’.

      Not only did the torture create countless terrorists, it served to justify even more barbaric treatment towards kidnapped Americans (military and civilian). If I were ever MIA, I certainly wouldn’t want the enemy government/militia/group to torture me. They are much more likely to do so if we do it to them. My wife doesn’t need to worry about this. End of story.”

      Nicely said…

    • Custador

      I have yet to meet an individual to whom I couldn’t have said: “Tell me where the child is. If he is and we find him, we do you for kidnapping only. If you don’t tell us and he dies as a result, we’ll find him sooner or later anyway. Then we’ll do you for kidnapping and murder. If he’s already dead, you’ve got no reason not to tell us where he is, because you’ll be in jail for the next ten or fifteen years on a kidnapping beef anyway, and we’ll find the body by the time you get out, at which point we’ll charge you with murder. In fact, we don’t even really need the body to charge a murder. So you might as well get some goodwill from the judge either way and just tell us where he is.”

      • Daniel Florien

        Then you should be an interrogator. Obviously if it was so easy, there would be no need to threaten them.

      • “I have yet to meet an individual to whom I couldn’t have said: “Tell me where the child is. If he is and we find him, we do you for kidnapping only. If you don’t tell us and he dies as a result”

        That’s nice for you. For me, if it’s my child, I’d rather have him alive because the interrogator forced the location out of him through torture. I don’t really care about what his sentence is.

        Also, the scenario you are describing is a form of coercion. You agree that threatening a prisoner — with harsh punishment — can produce good information. Torture is just another form of coercion. It works on the same principle. Instead of threatening someone with incarceration or death, you are threatening them with pain, or the repetition of pain.

        • Custador

          It’s not coersion if I have no control over the outcome as the investigator. That’s the point. I’m not saying “Do this or I will do this”, I’m saying “Do this and THIS will be the consequence, do this and THAT will be the consequence, regardless of whatever else happens, YOU have the control, not me”. Shifting to an external locus of control is an extremely valuable tool for anybody conducting that kind of interview. You have to make the person see that they have the power to do what’s best for themselves by doing what you want.

          PS, Daniel: I was. And I was good, too.

          • Daniel Florien

            Well if that’s true then we just need good interrogators. Problem solved. If that’s the case, great! I’m all for it.

            • Custador

              That is the case. Really. Good investigators, though. Not interrigators, because that suggests one-dimensional (and very poor) methods.

            • Japanther

              I wasn’t sure where you were going with your first response, but now that I have re read all of yours more carefully, I *think* we agree 100% :)

            • Custador

              @ Japanther: I think we agree completely.

  • I just read your edit (hadn’t read it before) about the scenario with the boy.

    I guess i have pretty strict morals, because i still find it disgusting.
    I stand with my former point.

    If you can’t get someone to tell you want you want to know by apealing on his sense of right and wrong, you won’t get any info out of him anyway.

    There are ways to make people talk without illegal threads (of torture), sleep deprivation (which is torture too actually) or playing on their anxiety.

    Torture is just wrong. Always.
    Even in this scenario, it makes you just as bad as the guy himself.
    Actually.. it makes you worse.
    It’s that “rightious” thought behind torture that makes it much much worse.

    • Daniel Florien

      I’m a little confused about “appealing to their sense of right and wrong”. We’re talking about people that kidnap and kill people. Their sense of right and wrong doesn’t seem to be working very well.

      • “If you can’t get someone to tell you want you want to know by apealing on his sense of right and wrong, you won’t get any info out of him anyway.”

        Her statement still stands…

        • Daniel Florien

          I don’t agree. When appealing to the nobler causes doesn’t work, that doesn’t mean pain won’t. Again, the example I gave. He wouldn’t give them the location. They asked. I’m sure they have methods of attempting to get information without threats. It didn’t work. They threatened pain, and, what do you know, he gave the info.

          • So a person who is capable of kidnapping, murder, rape, etc. is going to tell the truth?…

            • Sometimes yes. Fear is a powerful motivating factor. It can produce lies, but it can also produce truth. It all depends on the individual and the overall circumstances.

          • Sunny Day

            “I don’t agree. When appealing to the nobler causes doesn’t work, that doesn’t mean pain won’t. Again, the example I gave. He wouldn’t give them the location. They asked. I’m sure they have methods of attempting to get information without threats. It didn’t work. They threatened pain, and, what do you know, he gave the info.”

            I’m ok with this. Lying, blustering, ect are all ok, right up to the point where the hot pincers come out.

          • Japanther

            Yes but threatening torture is not torture. You could threaten to kill his mom. You could threaten to frame him with this ‘big bag of heroin that we might just find in your pocket’. You could threaten to tattoo ‘child molestor’ on his forehead, which would make him unpopular in prison. All of these are empty threats, but so was the torture threat. You could deliver any of these threats convincingly enough to fuck someone’s shit right up.

            Well the tattoo one might be a little bit of a stretch, but maybe that should actually be a legitimate punishment for sick bastards like him.

            • According to the Inquisition threats are torture (the Inquisition had a very carefully designed system). The first torture was, “the showing of the instruments.” The acccused was shown them, had their use explained, and then sent to a cell, to ponder their fate until the next day.

              A surprising number of confessions were gotten this way.

              It’s also a torture, per Geneva.

            • rodneyAnonymous

              Most ethical systems with which I am familiar consider the use of force and the threat of force to be equivalent forms of aggression.

            • rodneyAnonymous

              (That is, I agree, and the Inquisition and Geneva examples are solid, just pointing out that the attitude “threat of torture is torture” is not confined to specific cases.)

            • Japanther

              Ok good point. I was against the idea anyway.

          • You are missing a point. The issue isn’t appealing to an external constant of “right”, and “wrong”, it’s appealing to the internal values of right and wrong.

            Good interrogation is a trick of empathy, and identification (which are not to be confused with sympathy, I can be really empathetic with people I detest, especially if it’s only for a little while). Once you have some idea of what motives can be exploited, the rest is easy to get.

            The only way a source doesn’t give me something is to give me absolutely nothing. If they start to engage in “harmless” chit-chat, I’ll get a little something, and that little something will become something else, and I will, if I have the time, eventually get it all.

            Move to harsher methods (a really heavy handed “bad-cop”, what we call “Fear-up Harsh”) have big downsides. Yes, the do sometimes work, but if they fail that interrogator is useless with that source, and it will take the next one longer to get the source to break.

            Torture, just makes it worse. All the rapport building is wasted. Even if I am planning a Fear-up, I will work on some rapport. I won’t just start screaming at him and tossing things around the room. I’ll work it into a plausible bit of play-acting, something which makes it clear the problem (if he doesn’t break) isn’t with the US Army (since that was who I worked for), but with me.

            If it fails, I leave. I brief the Chief on what I did, how it went, what seemed to be working, where it failed, and what I got. Then someone else goes in, and picks up where I left off.

            Add torture, and that can’t happen. The nicest of interrogators will have a black cloud, because it will be impossible for the source to be sure that some answer, be it honest, or not, won’t fail to meet expectations, and cause more torture.

            So the source starts trying to figure out what the interrogator wants to hear, and giving that answer.

            Which corrupts the information stream. Which gets people killed. My people, your people. Because it wastes time and energy in the collection process. It might cause new plans and operations to be launched. It might move forces from a critical part of the battlespace (or investigation) to someplace the enemy isn’t.

            Then, when the real attack comes, the plans are all wrong.

    • “It’s that “rightious” thought behind torture that makes it much much worse.”

      Bingo! And fighting fire with fire only makes more fire.

      • Question-I-thority

        Yes. One of the grave problems with torture is that it ramps up the cycle of violence. We are in danger of becoming Fortress America fighting a never ending war on terror while bankrupting ourselves morally much like is happening in Israel today.

      • rodneyAnonymous

        …although literally fighting fire with fire is a perfectly effective strategy. Picture burning a “containment ring” around a raging forest fire.

  • Nelly


    never do something to someone you don’t want to happen to you

    • Hence the golden rule :)

      • Elemenope

        “Do not do unto others as you would expect they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same.” (George Bernard Shaw)


  • ThisGodlessEndeavor

    Just to chime in with my two cents…Torture is unrealiable for eliciting good info, and morally wrong. I think every scenerio thats been talked about is unfortunate and sad but the bottom line is torture is ineffective even if one believes it could save a child’s life or 15 of em.

    If I’m ever suspected of something I would like to think that I won’t be tortured under any circumstances. I also don’t want our troops tortured under any circumstances.

    I am ok with a kidnapping victim dying while we didn’t torture the accused kidnapper and instead exhausted every reasonable and effective means of locating the child and interrogating the accused. If we can’t solve these crimes without resorting to barbarism…the world really has a long way to go.

  • Sunny Day

    “If you answer “never,” I’d like you to give some alternatives — what should the authorities do instead when they quickly need information to save innocent lives?”

    Torture is never justifiable.

    The world is full of the pain and suffering. Adding two or more people to the total will not change anything.
    What two or more people? The “Bad Guy”, the “Torturer” and the “Witnesses”.

    All the alternatives are fine, right up to the point where you start torturing somebody.

  • rodneyAnonymous

    Sam Harris makes an interesting point in The End of Faith that it is inconsistent to support war but not torture: there is no “perfect weapon”, there are always innocent civilian casualties that result from military action. A terrorist suspect has at least a high likelihood of not being innocent. War guarantees innocent suffering, torture has the possibility of innocent suffering. As Stalin put it, “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.” Something about torture being up-close-and-personal while war is distant and impersonal changes how people feel about it.

    I took this not as support of torture, but opposition to war, and to inconsistency.

    • rodneyAnonymous

      Although he does make a pretty strong case that torture is less evil than a war of invasion.

  • Sock

    For me, it’s a simple matter. Not only of principle, but of standards. I chose never, and I will defend that statement now.

    When you say “Never”, that’s an absolute. If you allow for extreme examples–such as the issue in your edit, with the man and the kidnapped child–then that only opens the door for other similar situations, which may then open the door for less extreme circumstances, and then “never” or in “rare circumstances” quickly spreads and becomes a viable and allowed option for many situations. Take, for example, the situation with “terrorists” and “waterboarding”. By all reports, we got everything we were going to get from these guys BEFORE the torture. However, the people in charge wanted more or maybe a very specific answer. In this particular case, I feel that the Bush administration were seeking a specific answer to a specific question and they were willing to do anything to get it in order to justify their actions. When this answer wasn’t forthcoming from the tried and tested and approved methods that have worked ever since they’ve been established… they cheated. They cheated in the worst possible way.

    I am a man who’s very concerned with the rule of law, and the spirit of law. And the problem with this whole torture deal is that some people INTENTIONALLY and KNOWINGLY broke the spirit of the law when they conceived of “enhanced interrogation”. While they may have found a loophole in the wording, the INTENT OF THE LAW was absolutely, 100% clear. Everyone, absolutely everyone, knows this to be the truth. The INTENT OF THE LAW was 100% clear. This kind of word lawyering and loophole bullshit is ridiculous. It’s why people get awarded huge cash settlements for hot coffee.

    For me, torture is wrong no matter the circumstance. I would rather beat someone to death for being a scumbag than to beat them to death for being a scumbag with information I want. That’s a weird situation, I know. It’s not even entirely logical. If I have to defend that, then I’d just say that it’s because the information you get from torture isn’t reliable. As we’ve seen, as we knew before the Bush administration proved it by torturing.

  • Francesco Orsenigo

    Daniel, let’s turn the table.
    Let’s allow torture in some strict cases.
    Human beings being what they are, the torture option will be abused.

    What is the maximum ratio between tortured innocents and expected saved lives that you are willing to accept?

    • Daniel Florien

      Good question. I would not want it to be an option in any cases except where the person is obviously guilty and in extreme circumstances where normal interrogation methods have been unsuccessful. So I would hope that no innocent people would ever be tortured, because if there was any reasonable doubt, it wouldn’t be an option.

      • Francesco Orsenigo

        So we have two options:
        1) Do torture and hope that no innocent gets tortured.
        2) Don’t torture and hope that we won’t be in a situation to need it.

        I’d personally feel safer in a society implementing option 2.

        • I prefer option 3 We consider resorting to torture only when we have someone that is clearly not innocent. For example, if we capture Ayman al-Zawahiri, there is no question about his status as a leader of Al Qaeda. Were he to be tortured, there is no chance that we are torturing an innocent.

          • But what are you torturing him for? What’s the goal?

            If we found Ayman al-Zawahiri right now, would you have him tortured? For what purpose? We have no “ticking time bomb” scenario…

            Perhaps his capture would loosen the lips of his subordinates. Perhaps humane incarceration & interrogation would change his thinking about America, like it has many others.

            If we resort to torture we cut corners and give up on the possibility of any humane method working. Regardless of guilt or effectiveness…there is no justification for torture. Period.

            • “But what are you torturing him for? What’s the goal?”

              Depends on the situation. I’m not in favor of torture in all cases, even with someone who falls into that category. I just want it as a possible option, depending on the overall circumstances.

            • Francesc

              You are all speaking about a “time ticking bomb scenario” as the more justifiable use of torture. But that scenario is precisely when torture is easily -i think- beared. You know you have only to resist a definite time. You may lie so you will win some more time for the bomb to explode. Most of the torture methods -like being keep awaken, or deny food and water- aren’t effective then, because of the lack of time. Any fundi can stand pain for some time.

              “I would hope that no innocent people would ever be tortured, because if there was any reasonable doubt, it wouldn’t be an option”
              Agree, but then you are qualifying the policemen -or the soldiers- as judges, before a true trial

          • Francesco Orsenigo

            On a practical level, option 3) becomes identical to option 1).
            You can’t realistically ensure that only the bad guys gets tortured, especially in the time-frame allowed by the ticking-bomb scenario.

    • Sock

      Innocent until proven guilty, though…! Obviously guilty is a matter of opinion, unless you’re talking about torturing people who’re in jail/on death row? And then, ticking time bomb cases aren’t really an excuse anymore, with how slow the legal system moves.

  • The whole ticking time bomb scenario seems like a game we used to play as kids: “what would it take for you to lick a stranger’s weiner.”

    $1 ?
    $100 ?
    $1,000,000 ?

    After this goes on for a while, the contestant invariably breaks down and says “fuck it, sure.”

    I think the torture debate is the same: there comes a point when everyone will agree that torture is justifiable–even the staunchest opponents of torture, despite what they say.

    “If there was a guy who knew the combination to a safe that had the medicine to save every child on earth from a deadly disease, would you torture him?” for example.

    Any intelligent person who wasn’t just being a stubborn ideologue to stop the conversation would probably say torture is justifiable in this case.

    What we’re really trying to establish is where you draw the line. If you lick the weiner for a dollar, you’re pro-torture. If you lick it for $1,000, you are probably in the middle. But if you refuse to lick it unless you get a google-trillion-gigazillion dollars, then you’re anti-torture. Because there’s no such thing as a google-trillion-gigazillion dollars, your price can never be met. Therefore for all intents and purposes, you’re against torture in all circumstances. However, the whole point of the timebomb argument is to establish some common moral ground. That’s the Gricean motivation for the hypothetical. So, when the anti-torture people say “never, never, never,” they are using the same juvenile tactic as the anti-abortionists: they won’t even admit the analogy, because they refuse to establish common ground. This is totally counterproductive.

    Now, an intelligent torture opposer would say the ticking timebomb is merely a ‘google-trillion-gigazillion’ type argument, it rarely if ever happens, so he/she is pragmatically against torture in all circumstances. But not in principle.

    So, Daniel, I think you could say in good conscience that torture is never acceptable, if you wanted to.

    • Daniel Florien

      Those are great points Elliot.

    • rodneyAnonymous

      Excellent comment, Elliott, but I disagree with part of your conclusion. I think the “‘google-trillion-gigazillion’ type argument” means “rarely justified”. You can make a case that some of the people who say “never justified” really mean “only justified in an extreme and improbable situation”, but many (most?) of them really do mean “never”. Whereas a vote for “rarely justified” almost certainly means “only justified in an extreme and improbable situation”.

      • Jabster

        That’s certainly the view I took when voting for “rarely justified” … I find it very difficult to agree that you could say never to many what could be termed immoral acts under normal circumstances.

    • Custador

      Yes, but you’re dealing in hypotheticals. There’s a hypothetical point at which anybody can justify just about anything, but in the real world that shit just isn’t going to happen.

    • Sunny Day

      “What we’re really trying to establish is where you draw the line. If you lick the weiner for a dollar, you’re pro-torture. If you lick it for $1,000, you are probably in the middle. But if you refuse to lick it unless you get a google-trillion-gigazillion dollars, then you’re anti-torture. Because there’s no such thing as a google-trillion-gigazillion dollars, your price can never be met. Therefore for all intents and purposes, you’re against torture in all circumstances. However, the whole point of the timebomb argument is to establish some common moral ground. That’s the Gricean motivation for the hypothetical. So, when the anti-torture people say “never, never, never,” they are using the same juvenile tactic as the anti-abortionists: they won’t even admit the analogy, because they refuse to establish common ground. This is totally counterproductive.”


      What you are trying to establish is in some cases people will use torture anyway, and I agree. Torture is absolutely wrong in all cases. Would I torture someone for the right price/cause?
      I would also expect to suffer the consequences of my actions because Torture is always, always, always, wrong.

    • LRA

      Thank you Elliot– this is what I’ve been arguing the whole time.

  • Francesco Orsenigo

    If I were in a (extreme, hypothetical) situation where torture was the (why?) only left option to obtain information vital to the life of someone I hold dear, I’d personally do the torture and submit to the legal consequences.
    For my own safety, I don’t want anyone to torture anymore than I want anyone to murder.

    You want torture? Find someone that’s willing to go to jail for it.

  • Baconsbud

    Here is a simple solution to the debate. All those that believe torture is ok in some situations, volunteer to be tortured and then tell us it isn’t that bad. If you feel that it is ok then go for it and have it done to you. Hell you wouldn’t even need an expert at it. Those that are married can have the spouse and close friends use some of the torture technics on you. Hell how hard would it be to make a room where you can barely move and completely dark. They could easily keep you awake for 11 days and in uncomfortable positions. I would say leave the water boarding to the experts but they can still use some phobia you have against you.

    • Daniel Florien

      Who said it isn’t bad? It’s absolutely, terrifyingly horrible.

      • Elemenope

        Now imagine not having the information that would cause your torturers to stop. Let’s say, hypothetically, you were just too low in the criminal organization to have the information they’re looking for, but your torturers don’t know that (or don’t believe you when you say that).

        That’s absolutely terrifyingly horrible.

        • That has happened many times. The records of Amnesty International and other human rights organizations are full of incidents where people were tortured for information they didn’t have.

          But that’s not necessarily an argument against torture. That’s an argument against torturing the wrong person for the wrong information.

          • Elemenope

            Unless you have an amazing mind reading device, you can never know prior to torture whether a given human being will have the information you’re looking for. So, yes, it is in fact a powerful argument against torture.

          • Custador

            Are you kidding?! That’s a fantastic argument against torture! Hell, it’s one of the best I’ve ever heard!

            • rodneyAnonymous

              I think this thread has changed my mind from “rarely” to “never”.

            • Daniel Florien

              But by the same logic, we shouldn’t put people in jail, because innocent people are jailed.

              Is that an argument against jail, or an argument against putting the innocent people in jail?

            • rodneyAnonymous

              I am not equipped to exactly quantify the difference, but I think it involves torture being vastly more cruel than jail.

              Supporting the death penalty but not torture, on the other hand, is definitely incongruent.

            • Elemenope

              rodney got it. It is generally considered a tolerable evil that somewhere, somehow, someone went to jail that was innocent, because the systems of finding truth in justice are imperfect, and detention (wrongful or otherwise) is a superable evil, one whose harm can be recovered from.

              However, it is *not* a tolerable evil for a person somewhere, somehow, to be tortured though they are innocent. This is compounded by the fact that an innocent person can never tell the torturer anything to satisfy their inquiries.

            • LRA

              Oh– ok cause getting butt raped in jail over and over for years isn’t torture…

            • Elemenope

              LRA –

              As you yourself argued somewhere on this thread, there are severe problems with the state of the prison system, including I would imagine the rampant and basically ignored sexual assault that occurs.

              But the point of incarcerating someone is not to get them raped; that is not the implicit or explicit intent of the state when they lock someone up. It is a consequence of the incarceration system being poorly implemented such that a side-effect of being incarcerated is a significant probability of getting raped.

              Unlike, say, torture, where pain and suffering is the point of the activity, rather than an accidental consequence.

            • LRA

              Maybe I’m missing something, but you seem to be ok with an innocent person going to prison but not ok with an innocent person being tortured. I believe that this is your reason for instituting an absolute rule of no torture.

              I am trying (and failing apparently) to state that I do NOT believe in moral absolutes, no matter the issue. I believe that if the paradigm of torture for information retrieval is ineffective, then chuck it! Don’t do it! I’m for pragmatic approaches to theses things! (That means that if it does, in fact, work, then use it sparingly, in extreme circumstances, and with the authority of people who can actually be held accountable for implementing it).

              Yet, I’ve been called a tool, insensitive, and have been compared with GW Bush (who I hate). I’m sorry folks, but do you not remember that this is ME you’re talking to? ME who is almost always on YOUR side when fundies come a knocking? ME who vigorously defends excellence in science (which pursues knowledge whatever the uncomfortable implications may be?)

              Please remember that many of you have argued AGAINST universal morality… especially in light of the Bible, but on this issue, your dedication to that fine endeavor seems to have flagged.

              Call me what you will, but I will continue to argue against universals. I don’t care if it’s popular. It’s my belief given the lack of evidence for universals (the problem of induction).

            • LRA

              And I would like to add that I don’t care about the intentions of an action so much as I care about the actual outcome of an action. You can’t convince me that prison is less evil than torture just because butt rape is a side effect.

              I think prisons need to be reformed big time. And I also think there MAY be some circumstances where torture is POSSIBLY justified (it may not be in our time or our culture, but we don’t have a GOD’S eye view of the world).

              To put it another way, I am FOR existential quantifiers and AGAINST universal quantifiers.

            • Elemenope

              I am trying (and failing apparently) to state that I do NOT believe in moral absolutes, no matter the issue.

              No, you expressed that effectively. I, on the other hand, do believe in moral absolutes, so on that we disagree. ;)

              I believe that if the paradigm of torture for information retrieval is ineffective, then chuck it! Don’t do it! I’m for pragmatic approaches to theses things! (That means that if it does, in fact, work, then use it sparingly, in extreme circumstances, and with the authority of people who can actually be held accountable for implementing it).

              If you are to be pragmatic and empirical, then you must take prior experience with this line of thought and its prior consequences, in places such as France, Israel, and Spain, where it was thought (as you do) that if torture is efficacious, it can be used sparingly and controlled. It turns out in every case that it is beyond the capacity of institutions to constrain this tool once it is allowed into the domain of legally permissible in some class of cases (regardless of how remote.) That the history of this has repeated itself *at least* three times, two of which in nations with robust democratic institutions and strong systems of due process, is further evidence if needed that any hope that such a tool would be constrained to special or extreme cases is severely misplaced.

              You can’t convince me that prison is less evil than torture just because butt rape is a side effect.

              You are substituting incarceration as it is currently practiced in the US for incarceration generally. Rape is not a necessary definitional component of incarceration, and one could easily imagine or even construct in reality systems of incarceration that do not include it as a byproduct. (That the US does not care to says something else about the moral sense of our society, but that’s another conversation). Incarceration as a general notion does not include the notions that cause you to call it torture. This is one of the reasons why prison reform is, IMO, such an important movement; it has the capacity to make something that is currently inhumane, but does not necessarily have to be so, more humane.

              On the other hand, torture cannot be made humane by its very nature. Period. It’s object is to be inhumane: To place a person who is completely under the complete power of another under so much pain and/or suffering that they are willing to say or do anything to make it cease.

              No cosequentialist rubric can make inhumanity “OK”.

            • Question-I-thority

              This comment is for LRA (system won’t let me attach directly)

              Hi and I am engrossed in this discuss and appreciate your particular input. I have a two part question for you. Is there any category of crime that is condemnable through all of it’s permutations–for instance child rape? And, if not, should rare exceptions to heinous categories be enshrined in law?

            • LRA

              Well, Nope, if you believe in moral absolutes, can you please provide evidence for your stance? ;P

              Can you explain how you’ve managed to escape the problem of induction?

            • LRA

              To QIT-

              What do you consider child rape? People have married off their 14 year old daughters to 60 year old men in the past. Was it rape then?

              By today’s standards in Western culture, sure. But how what about in a tribe in Africa? Do you feel confident to inflict your moral code on that society? I don’t.

            • LRA

              Oh and QIT, I’m not sure what you’re asking me in the second part there… could you re-frame it?

            • LRA

              And, to Nope- no torture cannot be made humane, but it *may* *possibly* *somehow* be the lesser of two evils. You know, either get the information however possible or let bystanders suffer.

              Now, if it has been shown that torture is ineffective, then please understand that I don’t support it at all. I want a (somewhat) utilitarian approach in this matter (although that is not the whole picture of my ethics, I must say).

              I’m all for *what works*!!!!! Please understand that!

            • Elemenope

              Well, Nope, if you believe in moral absolutes, can you please provide evidence for your stance? ;P

              Can you explain how you’ve managed to escape the problem of induction?

              LOL. Believing in the existence of moral absolutes gives me no special power to access them. Valuations (and normative thought) is at best intersubjective, and so I can’t prove to another that I have such access, even partially, even if I believed I did.

              What I will say is that there are mountains of evidence which point to the notion that certain relationships and actions have an intrinsic and invariant moral dimension. If you like, for instance, several cultures applying their own different social heuristics have independently concluded that murder and theft are intrinsically immoral.

              Now, the PoI guarantees that there is always an out for the non-empirically minded, but yourself claimed to be a pragmatist and empiricist, so what is good for the goose… :) But if that does not suffice, I would merely say that while we can’t be sure of PUN, the presence of convergence amongst subjective agents applying differing alethic methodologies suggests that the truth being discovered is objectively invariant, and if it were to change tomorrow, we could expect a shift in the convergence that we have not detected.

            • Question-I-thority

              I wouldn’t inflict my moral code on people in other countries but I would have a civil duty to take a stand on child rape in my own country including the example you have given. The only exception I can think of is mental impairment and I’m not sure that counts as rape. I guess we could argue age of consent laws but would we have that argument if we limited the question to physically violent rape?

              The second question is an attempt to ferret out the subtleties of codifying exceptions to heinous categories. I’m with Elemenope that torture is so corrosive that we can’t give it any formal acceptance–that if someone commits torture ‘for the greater good’ we would have to approach that on a one off basis as a society. I guess I want to know how you would approach codification.

            • Elemenope

              And, to Nope- no torture cannot be made humane, but it *may* *possibly* *somehow* be the lesser of two evils. You know, either get the information however possible or let bystanders suffer.

              Would it be a lesser evil to kill two people in order to save three? That is to say, if the scenario is, if you don’t kill two people, someone else will kill three, but if you do kill two people, the three will be saved?

              Talk of “lesser evil” disguises the absolute measure of the evils we are talking about. Sometimes a smaller *measure* of evil is not sufficient to justify the undertaking of evil. When the stakes are as high as murder or torture, I personally believe that threshold cannot be crossed and still maintain even a semblance of moral integrity.

              What we are really talking about here is a teleological suspension of the ethical, which even Kierkegaard said if it was even possible was only possible in the power of God. I tend to agree that a moral agent cannot push itself that far outside the boundaries of the moral system and still make any claim whatever to moral value unless somehow that being were the author of the moral system. Whatever one believes of moral truth, the notion that any one human is sufficiently the author of morality to abrogate it at will is a hard position to defend.

            • LRA

              Gah! The double teaming of Nope and QIT is blowing my mind!!! ;P

              Ok so, Nope:
              “and if it were to change tomorrow, we could expect a shift in the convergence that we have not detected.”

              Sounds pretty empirical to me (despite your protestations of being quite universal)!

              “Would it be a lesser evil to kill two people in order to save three?”

              Yeah– you didn’t say if these people were innocent or guilty… plus you left out the possibility of war.

              To QIT:
              “if someone commits torture ‘for the greater good’ we would have to approach that on a one off basis as a society”

              Yet, we commit murder/killing (through war)… and it is supposedly for the greater good…

              Look, guys, I wish we lived in an ideal world, but we don’t. I am (perhaps) too cynical to believe that good people doing good things all the time can get good results. I choose to let experts on these matters (which I am certainly am not and perhaps don’t deserve to have an opinion on the matter as such)… I choose to let the experts do their thing. I believe that more knowledgeable people than me concern themselves with these matters… on BOTH sides (pro and con). I’m all for an investigation of the last administration on the problem of Gitmo…

            • Question-I-thority

              Thanks, LRA. Just so you know, I think we are in agreement on the ethical question since I can imagine some very unlikely hypothetical where I might possibly commit torture. But I would not expect to do so legally. So much of the broad thread is people talking past one another discussing these two separate aspects of the issue, i.e., the ethical and legal.

              I am appalled that Bushco effectively legalized torture. I believe firmly in a war crimes investigation of the highest quality with the chips falling where they may.

            • Elemenope

              Sounds pretty empirical to me (despite your protestations of being quite universal)!

              You’re confusing my ontological claim for an epistemological one.

              I am saying that *I believe* that *there exists* moral absolutes.

              I am also saying that, since we have no privileged or special access to absolutes even if they do exist, the best we can do to approach them is to infer their existence from conspicuous patterns of data, i.e. empirically.

              Yeah– you didn’t say if these people were innocent or guilty… plus you left out the possibility of war.

              Yeah, since when does that matter? Since when did a “guilty” person, whatever that means, become less of a *person* than an innocent one? And since we are in this unfortunate realm of objective uncertainty, when is it ever possible to be sure that a person, so designated, is actually “innocent” or “guilty”?

              As for war, I agree for the most part with MLK, jr. insofar as while a doctrine of just war theory could in the past justify warfare in strongly prescribed circumstances (esp. since nearly all the casualties of war in times when the doctrine was formulated were combatants), the subsequent advancements in the machinery of war has made the controlling condition no longer true: the prosecution of any modern war will kill far more non-combatants than combatants.

              I would only dissent from him in that I believe a truly existential struggle (where one is fighting for one’s own existence) can always be justified, as all actions that include sacrifice of life are morally supererogatory (it can never be a strictly moral standard to demand that a person fail to defend themselves when the lack of such a defense means that person’s death).

            • LRA

              “I am saying that *I believe* that *there exists* moral absolutes.

              I am also saying that, since we have no privileged or special access to absolutes even if they do exist, the best we can do to approach them is to infer their existence from conspicuous patterns of data, i.e. empirically.”

              What… like a moral asymptote?

            • LRA

              I’m into Quine’s web of beliefs on this matter, which means that I’m not fully convinced of analyticity:

              (reference here is more for me than for you… just backing up what I’m saying)


              “You’re confusing my ontological claim for an epistemological one.”

              Actually, I think the two are related and intertwined:


            • LRA

              To QIT:

              “I guess I want to know how you would approach codification.”

              Honestly, I don’t know. I only know that laws/mores/morals need to evolve as societies do (as paradigms shift if you will).

  • Hi Dan,
    Even the child in danger scenario doesn’t hold up. What if the guy was confessing to the kidnapping but wasn’t the right guy, what if the real kidnapper used an unknowing accomplice to pick up the money. And then there is the fact that if torture IS used, that fact might help the man evade harsh sentencing or have his case thrown. The officers DIDN’T have information about the boy in question, whether he was in danger or not. If he hadn’t been killed already, there is nothing to lead me to believe that an eleven year old boy would die quickly from just being held captive somewhere. Investigation would likely have led to the discovery of where he was being held, before the boy would have starved to death…for one thing he was lured on his way home from school, which would leave a narrow search radius and lots of potential witnesses…

    • “Even the child in danger scenario doesn’t hold up.”

      It has actually happened, probably multiple times. I linked one such instance above. The threat of torture produced an accurate location from the kidnapper. Police found the boy but he was already dead.

      • I think you are missing the point. If the suspect refused to talk, the investigators had two assumptions available: the boy is dead already or the boy is alive and they need to find him as soon as possible. In both cases torture or the threat of torture was/is not justifiable, regardless of whether it would (or did) work. The quest is always one of time. One could assume that if the boy was still alive when they captured the suspect that he would remain alive (given anything less than extraordinary circumstances) long enough to be found due to prudent investigative work. In this case particularly and in almost all torture cases (when we are referring to law abiding entities using these techniques), the authorities took the short-cut; they actively chose to cut corners and torture instead of relying on tried and true methods of investigation (and further interrogation) to discover the whereabouts of the missing child.

  • Baconsbud

    As I continue to read the comments I think you aren’t really paying attention to the answers giving for the question. The final selection says never be justified. It doesn’t say it can never be done or that those selecting it would never use torture. All that I am saying when I selected never be justified is that when it is done a price must be paid by the one doing it. In the scenarios that have been given I would say that the ones torturing should be punished but with like some community service and probation for a time. They wouldn’t lose their job nor would they be fined.

  • xy

    Torture is something that should, under no circumstances, happen. It is the price that we pay to have the type of society that we do. There will always be some very bad people, even if torture is a regular occurance. I would rather see people die, myself or my family included, than to do something so horrible as torture another person. But that’s just me, I would die for any of my deeply held beliefs.

  • This might shed some light on the argument about scenarios in which torture might be justifiable, aka the Jack Bauer scenario:

    If such situations almost never actually occur, what’s the point of using them as a defense for torture?

  • Also, to Daniel’s update:

    His original poll was about “suspected” terrorists. His example is about a man who admitted his own guilt.

    The poll and example are different scenarios.

    I still think “Innocent until proven guilty,” which means I don’t accept torturing suspected terrorists — because they are innocent until proven otherwise.

    • Daniel Florien

      Good point about the differing ideas. I should have been clearer.

      • For the record, I might agree with you in that there may be an incredible scenario which might justify torture. But in the same breath I would argue that such an occurrence would be an extremely rare situation in which all other avenues had been exhausted — and the extremeness of the situation would make morality very, very grey about all sorts of issues, not just torture.

  • flo

    Never. For two reasons mainly: 1. You never can be sure that it’s actually true, and not just said to stop the pain.
    2. If you allow it once or for “special circumstances” it is very likely to become more common, simply because I think police would feel more at ease using it. If only because if it is “somewhat” allowed, they’d be punished less if found out.

    3. Also, there is a reason you don’t chop off a thieves hands, or put all muderers into a mass grave even after they’re convicted. That is why torture is and should be forbidden.

    Basically, I think it boils down to that as long as the state has the monopoly on force/violence, it has to be responsible with it. That means no torture or the lines between good and bad use of that monopoly get blurred too much.

    • “: 1. You never can be sure that it’s actually true, and not just said to stop the pain”

      Yes, you can. Some information can be verified independently. If you have a terrorist in custody and you ask, “where is the arms cache”? He says, “123 main st.” You can go to 123 Main and see for yourself. If you ask, “who are your associates”? When/if he names names, you can then investigate those individuals to see if there is any corroborating evidence.

      Again, information is information. Torture is just one of many tools that might possibly be able to get it.

      • Custador

        No, no, no. Information is NOT always information. It can be deceptive – Misinformation planted to mislead and misinform. Torture is an excellent way of making misinformation more convincing.

  • Devysciple

    For the first time on this blog I am going to write a comment without having read the other comments, as I am rather short on time. So if I say something that has already been said, please forgive me. Yet I feel a strong urge to throw in my two cents:

    I live in Germany, therefore I am very familiar with the incident in question. My answer on whether torture is acceptable is a clear “No, it is never acceptable!” That’s for a simple reason, the same reason there is In Dubio, Pro Reo in criminal proceeding. It’s a base principle of the modern constitutional state that it is better to let 1,000 murderers go free than to imprison one innocent, which follows one simple question: “What if you are wrong?” What if the person you are threatening (and willing) to torture is just a copycat, a poser, a close relative to the actual perpetrator that wants to protect him or her? Since you cannot have certainty whether the person in question really is the sought after criminal (unless you have the smoking gun, or in this case, the kidnapped person and enough traces to make the case watertight), there will always be reasonable doubt. Therefore, torture (a crime) simply cannot be used as a means to prevent another crime.

    Besides, torture is known to produce unreliable intelligence, since the person who’s being tortured will eventually confess anything to make it stop.

    And for threatening someone with torture, I can only say that it if the person in question knows that you are not allowed to deliver, it’s just an empty threat.

    One last thing:

    He forfeited his rights to be treated nicely when he kidnapped a person.

    I hope this is not what you are actually thinking, because that’s just plain old “Eye for an Eye”. Being interrogated by professionals for hours surely is not my understanding of being “treated nicely”, but torture, that’s a totally different story.
    We are tempted to feel along those lines. After all, we are a vengeful (and compassionate) species. But I don’t think along these lines, but rather let my ratio control my emotions.

    • Question-I-thority

      Think about the pressure that would be on officials if they have “good information” that a major act of terrorism was coming and they just took in a guy that many think is involved. The political and social pressure to go ahead and torture is going to be very strong is this situation. Mistakes will be made. Innocent people will have their lives destroyed. Once the cat is out of the bag group dynamics will eat away at our freedoms. It’s the nature of the beast.

      And we will be doing this while playing directly into the plans of the terrorist organizations because their goal is not to simply mass kill Americans but to undermine our political, financial and moral authority through the treat of and acts of violence.

  • Daniel – and a few others – there seems to be an “Unreasonable Faith” that torture – in the desperate, hypothetical, and fantastic circumstances offered – works. Daniel, you continue to question us in way similar to “yeah, but, if all those proven methods aren’t working, wouldn’t you torture them?”


    Daniel, if you were bleeding out – severe, fatally wounding, internal injuries – and in your lightheaded daze flashed back to fundamentalist assertions that you could be with Jesus if you just prayed that special prayer. And if you felt a warm feeling of the Lord coming over your now dying body – would you interpret that as God saving you and bring you “home”? In those circumstances, when you were going to die and had those thoughts and feelings, why wouldn’t you believe in the imaginary space friend?

    Is this close to the NEVER you are contemplating with the barbarism of torture? That in a horrible, desperate, nearly psychotic state, you could do it?

    • Daniel Florien

      Of course I wouldn’t want to be tortured. I also wouldn’t want to be put in jail. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think guilty people should be put in jail.

      I also realize torture makes people say anything. I’m not talking about using it for answers that cannot be verified, like “did you do this?? CRUNCH”. That’s stupid and everyone knows that’s ineffective. I’m talking about concrete information that can be verified.

      Of course it’s barbaric. Of course it’s horrible. And so are many other things that we must do. If someone has a gun and is about to shoot me, and I have the chance to shoot them first, guess what? I’m shooting them. Is it barbaric and horrible? Absolutely. But it’s a lesser evil from my perspective.

      In the end, I think most of us can agree on most things — in almost all situations, torture should NEVER be used. Standard integration practices should be used.

      But in some rare situations — and perhaps entirely hypothetical — I think it can be morally justifed. I still hate it and wish it wasn’t used. But I’d rather the guilty suffer than the innocent.

      And yes, I know we can never know 100% whether someone is guilty. But that doesn’t stop us from locking people up, does it?

      • @Daniel

        Okay, your comment raises a great question for me. I think I am currently having trouble understanding what this “verifiable information” could possibly be. The following is my take, which I assume (and hope) is ignorant, so I need help with a better example.

        I have information that I know is true, verifiable -> but I think this guy can confirm it -> torture -> he says something that confirms what I hoped he would say -> victory!

        Like I said, I expect this is way off of the though process, but I’m hoping I can get a word from your perspective. I love that you can lay out these thoughts without anger/frustration, etc… you know, like an adult conversion. So often when folks disagree they go on the attack rather than try to get to a greater understanding of the person’s position.

        • Daniel Florien

          I’m thinking along this line, to someone they 99.9% know is the kidnapper of a child:

          a. Where is the boy you kidnapped?
          b. “Fuck you, copper.”
          c. Standard interrogation techniques
          d. “I don’t know and wouldn’t tell you if I did, fuck you!”
          e. Whatever else there is that isn’t considered torture / threaten torture
          f. “I still won’t tell you!”
          g. Mild Torture
          h. “2444 Fake Street!”
          i. If right, be happy, put creep in prison
          j. If not, then go back to “g” but increase pain

          That is, the verifiable information isn’t something they already know, it’s something tha can be checked. As opposed to something that cannot be confirmed, like a confession. A confession under torture is worthless.

          • Elemenope

            Why just child kidnapping? Why not all kidnapping?

            Why just kidnapping? What if we also want a murderer to tell us where the bodies are buried? A drug lord’s heroin stash? Why not torture a guy until he admits he beats his wife? After all, that might save his wife and children. Isn’t that the standard we’re using?

            The line of “child kidnapping” is no line at all, and the history of law enforcement bears that out sharply. Any technique will eventually permeate the entire system, because some case will always be “close enough” to the paradigmatic case to justify an “exception”, which over time with enough such exceptions becomes the expanded rule.

            • Daniel Florien

              I certainly wouldn’t restrict it to just child kidnapping, it was just an example.

              I’d tentatively say torture might be appropriate whenever an innocent person’s life is in danger because of a person in custody, and that person is not giving up information they have to help the victim, even though all usual methods of interrogation have been used.

              I know, I know. It’s all so tricky. Slippery slope and all that. I’m with you. I’m not saying I like it, I’m just trying to work out the grey area and not be dogmatic.

            • Elemenope

              Um, no offense, but that’s flat-out terrifying.

            • Question-I-thority

              If you were to ever try implementing this as policy you would have me as an implacable enemy.

              If this were policy there would be thousands of cases every year, maybe more. And that’s before mission creep which is inevitable. We would have to ramp up a whole “information extraction” industry. On the up-side, it would give gainful employment to those school bullies from whom I hid.

              Consider the concept that underlies due process. In any society there will always be moral categories that will be in some conflict with one another. Our founding fathers were right to limit the powers of the executive. It was in fact, almost the whole point of the revolution.

            • Daniel Florien

              What we’re talking about, I’m not sure there are any good solutions. If there were, we wouldn’t be having this discussion at all.

            • Quite a reasonable set of rules, indeed. Your restraint fulfills my expectations of your compassion.

              However, the following is devil’s advocate/annoying zinger/too true and seriously important to not say: How do we determine if this potential torture victim is really the person that we can justify torturing?

              In the US and any other Liberal Democratic State the answer is due process. Allow him to fairly defend himself in a court of law to determine that he is who we suspect him to be. Once that is finished, we can legally and ethically enforce a sanction to restrict his liberty, etc.

              Without due process and equality under the law, we are ephed. There will be innocent victims tortured and houses searched (yadda yadda) all while that poor little hypothetical child is continuing to be tortured/ raped/whatever.

              This is a lot of the trouble with what we are doing in our Wars right now (not a kidnapping scenario, I know, but it involves the actual torture that our Nation is perpetrating). Soldiers and Mercenaries have been raiding homes and taking people away – those people are not given due process – those people are sometimes tortured. Those people are sometimes killed.

              Torture has not been rare in these Wars, they are routine. According to the International Law established more than 50 years ago, THIS IS SOMETHING THAT IS CRIMINAL ON OUR PLANET.

              We get to say that. We have power and freedom as human beings to set the bar high and enforce the rules to push our socio-ethical-cultural evolution.

  • Audrey

    This is a moral absolute with which I’m in agreement. Torture should never be allowed.

  • rodneyAnonymous

    I think this thread has changed my mind from “rarely” to “never”.

    Consequentialist defense of the statement that “torture is never justified”: even if you could guarantee that the torture of one bad man will prevent the suffering or death of a thousand good men, the consequences of using torture for any reason are dire. For example, if your country uses torture in any situation, it weakens its stance against another country using torture in any situation, even one that is entirely different. Thus, while the “local” consequences might be good, the “global” consequences of torture are always bad under any circumstance.

    This only applies to a country’s government or other official institutions. I might feel differently about any number of things (say, murder) if the situation involved only (say) me, my wife, and an attacker.

    Does that sound right?

    • rodneyAnonymous

      I think I changed my mind again. Only “never” in the sense that I use words like “impossible” when actually I mean “tremendously improbable”, or “certainly” to mean “overwhelmingly supported by evidence”. In general, the highly probable negative consequences of using torture immensely outweigh the somewhat probable (at best) positive consequences. But strictly speaking, never say never.

      • rodneyAnonymous

        …and actually, my opinion hasn’t really changed, just my answer :)

        • Japanther

          change it again. ‘never, except in a situation that has near-impossibly low chances of ever happening, and also the downsides of disclosure aren’t overwhelmed (Abu Ghraib)’

  • J. Allen

    Why I say Never.

    Torture is not guaranteed to give you information.

    Any information given not trustworthy, they may tell false stories but impressive to get you simply to stop with the pain.

    Torturing someone who knows nothing is like executing an innocent man. There’s no way to know if the man has information you need anyway. I’d rather torture nobody than risk inflicting torment on someone who couldn’t tell you what you want to know because he does not know himself.

    There are ways to interrogate that do not involve sadistic pain, and therefore are much more reliable in terms of information (chemicals, treating with respect).

    We can not morally condone terror, and then use terror(torture) to our advantage when it is convenient. It undermines the greater cause.

    • J. Allen

      to add:

      your example is extreme. You assume things that are not rational to assume. It’s like saying ‘man doesn’t pray, his son dies of cancer, so it’s murder not to pray’

  • Baconsbud Here is an interesting blog entry about this subject. I notice in it that before they were killed they were tortured but that was after they they had given up their pin number. They got the pin numbers but it wasn’t clear that torture was used to get them. It only said they must have been tortured. There is a big difference between they were tortured and must have been tortured. I know if someone threatened to kill me if I didn’t give up my pin, I would give it up without them needing to torture me. If that is the writers reason for claiming torture works it is weak in my opinion.

    I did a search on goggle and that is the only thing I have found that claims torture is effective. If someone has other sites that show it is effective let me know.

    • That is the blog of the above poster named UNRR…his attempts to find correlation between situations like armed thugs getting pin numbers from scared citizens, suspects being tortured by our government agencies for information they may or may not have and assumably guilty detainees who are hardened against the idea of giving up any information to authorities is at the same time laughable & frightening.

      Torture should never be an option, not even under these fantastical & extraordinarily fictional circumstances that keep being offered up as “ticking time bomb” scenarios. There is always going to be another way, another route, a more humane path. And if the day comes, the unlikely happens and we are left with no other options; then at least we will be able to hold our heads high and say we did all we could short of betraying our own principles. Even when…nay, especially when…it means the lives of our children, our families or our countrymen are on the line.

  • My point of view is primarily pragmatic. “We” must hold the moral high ground, and not become that which we abhor. Much less should we do it for gains that are unclear and uncertain at best.

    I confess to not having read all 200-plus comments here, but one problem that practicioners of torture face is the moral hazard.

    First, and possibly worst, we may get to enjoy it–either as a society (see also Rome, decline and fall of), or as individuals.

    Second: Scope creep. If we are willing to torture a kidnapper or murderer, then why not an arsonist? And if an arsonist, should we torture someone who’s cruel to animals? Then how about a school bully? Shouldn’t we televise executions too? Pour encourager les autres and all that?

    Finally, there’s the impracticality. The classic “ticking bomb” scenario must assume that a) your captive will give good information, b) your victim also can’t or won’t simply hold out until the bomb goes off.

    In your kidnapping scenario, Daniel, if the kidnap victim is already dead then there’s nothing to be gained and much to be given up by stooping to torture. If he isn’t, then there’s certainly more to be gained by building rapport. Which is what the FBI, Mi6, and the US military intelligence services used to teach their agents to do.

    But to me it comes back to this: We are not them, and must never be.

  • I don’t get why I never hear about the drug angle. As a longtime burner, I can tell you that while I would never, ever ingest a non-mandated substance, I have seen people happily narrate their every random neural firing when under the influence of this or that. If a bunch of faux fur wearing hippies, stuck in the middle of the desert, can find chemicals that loosen their tongues so ably, then don’t you think the govt, staffed by the smartest & most morally elastic scientists money can buy, doesn’t have something WAAAAY better? So the question may be moved a bit from – it torture worthless or useful, to – why are we still doing it at all? Especially in situations like gitmo which are not particularly time sensitive (they’ve had these people for YEARS!).

    • rodneyAnonymous

      Sodium thiopental and other forms of “truth serum” are widely used and have been for a very long time. They are not foolproof. You already described part of the problem: they tend to generally increase talking, but not necessarily truthfulness; subjects freely mix fact and fantasy.

      Ostensibly we are talking about using torture to get information that can’t be had through known chemicals.

  • Clyde

    We buy automobiles because they enhance our lives in so many ways. Yet, generally, we understand that when we drive into traffic, the risk of accidental death or injury increases dramatically from when we are sitting at home watching TV.

    Similarly, we choose to live within our society because doing so affords us far greater advantage and safety than living alone in the wilds. Yet, again, we understand that living in society is not without its dangers. We institute governments and the rule of law to protect innocent lives but realize that governments are not omnipotent; they cannot protect every innocent life in every possible situation. Indeed, there are situations in which law enforcement agencies will not undertake certain actions even though those actions would save innocent lives. In hostage situations, for example, the hostages should know that their captors’ demands will not be met beyond pizza and donuts and as a last resort, their captors will be stormed by military or S.W.A.T. teams even at the peril of innocent lives.

    If, then, it is written into law that torture, under any circumstances, is illegal—and it is so written—that law must be upheld. Just as the innocent lives lost in my hostage example, so the lives lost in Daniel’s examples are part of the price we all must pay to live in a fair and sane society.

  • Holy comments explosion. I see you hit a hot button with this one.

    I’m with Daniel on this one. Torture should very rarely be used, but I would not say never. In extreme circumstances, sometimes extreme tactics are necessary. Especially when many lives are at stake. The judgement on when torture is justified is where the gray area happens.

  • MakeTheMostOfLife

    @ Daniel

    Oooo Interesting post, and one worth getting back out of bed for to throw in 2 cents. I’m a regular reader here and I have to say I’m very surprised Daniel for your post. When you read here long enough you feel like you think you know someone, but I guess not ;)

    It’s not that I flatly disagree with your posts and your logic BUT, there is NO circumstance where it is not the start of a slippery slope. Under what circumstances will torture be aloud, and who decides where the line is. You can give 100 hypothetical or real cases where torture is incredibly justified in the moral sense, and could save any number of lives, but it doesn’t matter. (Officially) Government agencies MUST be the ultimate moral example or modern western society and democracy can’t work. Therefore the answer has to be never.

    You can NEVER be sure it will get you the information that you need.
    You can NEVER be sure the you know all the implications before you commit torture on a suspect that would make it justified.

    The person you are torturing could be part of a bigger plot, or being blackmailed themselves etc.

    If a Cop/Agent has the opportunity to torture a suspect that could revel information that would save the lives of millions but he has only a limited time to get the information, before everyone dies.

    If he is certain of this, he SHOULD do it.

    BUT he HAS to be held accountable for the outcome, which can only be assessed afterwards. Maybe he will be a hero…. Maybe he will go to jail. It has to be like this.

    A Government can NEVER afford to officially get it wrong.

    This is why the world needs a Jack Bauer:

    There is a great Episode where he needs information from someone and no matter what he does he is not able to torture the guy, as amnesty international gets involved blah blah…… Sooo he gets CTU to drop all the charges…. And release the suspect. Then he immediately quits/get fired (cant remember) and brutally tortures the guy in the car park AS A CIVILIAN getting the info he needs!!!!!!

    This is a great example and an important one as the distinction between someone acting on behalf of the government and someone doing what may well be morally correct.

    • Daniel Florien

      Thanks for your thoughts, sorry to get you out of bed though! ;)

    • murrowcronkite

      The real world never operates like “24”. Much of the publics mis understanding of this subject is that they believe we live in Jack Bauers’ world. It’s TV “entertainment” folks.

      • Question-I-thority

        But the question still remains: If something is so corrosive that we can only imagine it being good in very rare circumstances, should it be legal? The political and hierarchical pressures to abuse torture laws of whatever strip are going to be enormous. Think about how gray the actionable line is in the hypothetical ticking time bomb. Is it actionable to save 100,000 or 10,000 or 1,000 or 100 or 10 or 2 or 1? Now put yourself in the seat of a bureaucrat and make the decision where the cut off is. And imagine making this decision under heavy political pressure. Since the moral arguments for saving several innocents is so close or the same for saving a hundred thousand, any law trying to make an arbitrary distinction will cry out for abuse.

        There are differences between what is good for the individual (ethics) and what is good for society (the law). As an example, (non)religious choice is an ethical virtue and a legal nightmare.

        The law already has built in ways to respond to the ‘rare scenario’. Since these response paths are not perfect the Jack Bauer Hypothetical is just as relevant as the Ticking Time Bomb.

  • J.R.

    I take a moral stance against torture. I was in the U.S. military. There, I learned that we don’t torture people. Funny thing though, when I was in the field, higher ranked enlisted men (sargents and above. These men are traditionally charged with teaching young men in the field how to stay alive and do the job) would “show” us how to effectively “extract enemy intelligence”. I used the word “shows”, because the U.S. military doesn’t teach torture techniques.

    • LRA

      What? Bootcamp wasn’t torture???? ;P

      • J.R.

        It sure as hell was, but I put myself there. What I always found funny(once I figured it out) is that in order to perserve freedom, you have to have yours taken away. I almost got jail time for a sunburn. They called it destruction of government property!?! Yes! Once you sign the papers, your ass belongs to them!

        Good to hear from you LRA.

  • Dan L.

    I voted never, but I would like to explain because I think Daniel’s counterexample is good, and I can imagine other similar scenarios.

    When you ask whether it can be justified, you’re asking me to make a judgment on whether or not it would be moral to in this case torture a man who kidnapped a child. Personally, I think that would be a perfectly moral thing to do. But I think it is dangerous to institutionalize torture as part of the authority wielded by any government institution — the local police or the CIA. In any particular case, those responsible for torture must know that they are acting outside the law and they must be held accountable to it.

    In other words, I don’t believe that a government institution is ever justified in torturing someone. However, I do think individuals can sometimes be justified in torturing, providing they are willing to face the legal consequences of their actions. In all likelihood, these cases would be rare and the sentence would be mitigated as a result of the circumstances behind the torture — perhaps in extreme cases by a presidential pardon.

    Of course, this means that torture would only ever be undertaken by individuals who were so committed to the moral necessity of saving innocent lives that they would be willing to face time in jail to do the right thing in the cases where torture is necessary. Is that too much to ask?

    • Daniel Florien

      Good thoughts, Dan. Others have made that distinction and I find it interesting, though I’m a bit unsure about it, because:

      If something is moral, shouldn’t be legal? If something is the right thing to do, why should someone go to jail?

      Isn’t it better to write the laws in such a way where when it is right, it is legal, and when it is not, it is illegal?

      Of course I realize that’s much easier said than done…

      • Yoo

        The right way to handle a case where torture was indeed the only way to obtain information that was used to save lives should be a pardon, not legalizing it beforehand. However, if someone tried to use torture to get such critical information, I feel it would be far more likely that it will just result in a lot of dead people, a tainted case against the perpetuator, and a public clamor to lynch the torturer …

      • Dan L.

        The whole problem is the result of the fact that not everyone agrees on what is moral. This blog routinely displays the gaping disparities in what different human beings consider moral. Just because a particular individual considers something moral — even if they can make a pretty good case for it — does not mean it should be legal. This cuts the other way. I don’t necessarily think that polygamy is immoral (though the misogyny that accompanied it through most of history certainly was). Yet apparently it’s been decided that it should be illegal, presumably on the same grounds the gay marriage is being fought today. What is moral cannot determine what is legal or vice versa because the former is ultimately subjective.

        To the extent that there have to be laws, they are there to protect us from each other. To that end, I think laws against torture across the board are the way to go.

        • Daniel Florien

          Agreed. The only question in my mind is whether there should be exceptions. Just like it is illegal to shoot other people, except in rare circumstances. I suppose we could just pardon people afterwards when it is done in those rare circumstances… but if that’s the case, it seems better to me it seems better make those exceptions legal.

          It is tricky, because we want to protect people, but we don’t want to go to the extent that protecting bad people hurts the innocent.

          • rodneyAnonymous

            …we want to protect people, but we don’t want to go to the extent that protecting bad people hurts the innocent.

            I’m not sure that’s true. At least, it’s not universally true. A person who is completely against torture would probably prefer to let a thousand good men be killed than to torture one bad man. Both choices are evil, but this person finds the former to be less evil.

            Also, note that the choice is not between killing a thousand men and torturing one. It is an important distinction that the thousand deaths are the action of someone else, but the torture is not.

          • MakeTheMostOfLife


            “Just like it is illegal to shoot other people, except in rare circumstances.”

            I don’t like the logic these constant comparisons. 2 wrongs doesn’t make a right & I don’t think that helps your argument. You live in America where gun crime is out of control, and even though I’m sure you would rather live in a country where it is just illegal to shoot someone, you are instead using it as an argument to justify torture.

            Do you not think its the start of the slippery slope?

            It’s almost like a man in an Islam state using logic like……

            Because its legal to stone someone to death

            We should therefore allow…….

            If you really believe that torture can be justified, would you also now be in favour of the government opening up a new Guantanamo Bay on US soil?

            You would have to explain to me the difference, if you think there is one. All your pro torture arguments echo the politicians’ arguments for the need for a Guantanamo Bay.

            Just what do you think will be the real life application for torture being aloud? You examples focus on a cop or an individual being given the authority to make a judgement call and torture someone because THEY believe its justified. The margin for error here is massive.

            Even though the justice process in the courts is a best effort to reduce the margin of error, impartial judge and 12 jury, with both sides of the case being heard, people have been executed and spent lives in jail for crimes they didn’t commit.

            Weigh that against an individual in the field make a judgement based on one persons side of the story.

            Again….. I agree, there are circumstances where torture might appear to be the right thing to, but the state can never be responsible for pre authorising torture.

            If an individual decides to torture someone they MUST be held accountable afterwards. They can never be given the freedom by the state to have the chance of getting it wrong.

    • J.R.

      I also voted never. I feel there is no exceptable reason to do so. With drugs out there like sodium pentithol, and many more of the kind, why would anyone want to torture an other human being? The military should plan better so drugs could be used instead of torture. Maybe, torture if one of those instincts that’s left over from our more primative ancestors. When one decides to torture, our whole race takes an evolutionary step backwards.

      • Daniel Florien

        Nobody wants to. It’s only if the usual techniques/drugs don’t work. Again, we’re talking about extreme and rare situations.

        • J.R.


          I hate to disagree with you, but…. There are sickos out there that get off on inflicting pain on others. Some of those people infiltrate all parts of life. Even the military. So, I think, there are people out there that want to, but, I take your piont.

          • Elemenope

            And there is something to be said about such sadistic personalities naturally gravitating towards positions of authority and power where they can easily carry out their desires.

            • LRA

              True. True.

            • Question-I-thority

              The interplay between authoritarian minded bureaucrats, politicians and citizen groups and legally sanctioned torture is an absolute nightmare.

  • Sock

    Also, here’s a question for anyone who thinks that torture is “sometimes” okay…

    Could -you- do the torturing?
    If not, then how can you support someone else doing that? Would you want someone who can do it easily, or would you want them to have some regrets? If you want them to have regrets, then why would you want to have someone who has a problem with torturing (but is willing to do it) have to live with themselves afterward?

    I could never torture it, I wouldn’t want to know anyone who could do it easily, and I wouldn’t want someone who’s not comfortable with it to have to live with themselves afterward.

    • LRA

      Well, I apply the same reasoning to killing. I am not a soldier, but I respect the hell outta what they do. I personally don’t want to shoot someone, but we live in a time when killing people in war seems to be a bad reality. A very very bad reality.

      Don’t get me wrong, I am very against war. I’d rather live in a peaceful world, but I’m not going to disrespect the men and women who are putting their lives on the line for me (no matter how much I disagree with the politicians who send these fine men and women off to war).

      • Sock

        I don’t speak against our troops, however.

        In war, killing people is inevitable. That’s kinda what makes it a war (cold war excluded, though I’m sure there were SOME deaths there, just not 100% on that). However, torture is NOT comparable to killing in times of war. When you kill someone, they’re -dead-. It’s an absolute. They’re not left almost alive, or partly dead, when you KILL someone, that’s final. When you torture someone (presumably for information), there IS no absolute, beyond that the person who’s being tortured will say whatever you want to make the pain stop. That kind of absolute is not conductive, and it can be extremely destructive if you rely on false information.

        Everything has a price, but in return you get something. To me, what you get back from torture is not worth what it would cost your humanity. If, however, you were to always get back 100% accurate information as a result of torture, and it was proven to work a vast majority of the time… then my opinion might change, but that’s not the case.

        • LRA

          Good point, Sock!

          If torture doesn’t work, chuck it I say. If the cost is greater than the benefit, chuck it. I’m interested in what works.

  • I voted no.


    After reading the discussion (well, most of it) I could almost be persuaded to allow this. I would only think it was acceptable in extreme cases, and also only if there was a structure of transparency to some other non-biased entity (a sort of checks and balances) that provided for follow up and possible punishment if the person or persons who ordered the torture were acting on their own volition or prerogative rather than with good intel. There must be accountability.

    None of this, “Well… we THOUGHT there were WMD’s… I swear, they told me so.”

    No loopholes so the Marines or whoever can just get their sick kicks and then say, “Well, we must have had bad information. Oh well.”

  • Elemenope

    @ rodneyAnonymous, from above

    …why are you a big believer in physical bodily autonomy? That is, why so big that your magnanimity extends to violent criminals?

    The human body is a normative dyad.

    1. The body is the only thing that a person can use to affect their environment; literally, it is necessary to take any actions whatsoever; also, consequently, it is the only tool a person can use to create meaning out of existence through doing.

    2. Conversely, the body is an insuperable personal prison; a person cannot escape from their body, and so whatever happens to the body happens to them, and there can be no retreat from this reality.

    Because of this dyad (power/prison), the body is the single most important normative construct, since any and everything that could possibly matter to a human being interacts at some point causally with their body, either because they use it to do something (power) or because something is done to it (prison).

    In my humble opinion, one does not fuck unnecessarily with most important normative construct in existence to human beings. When it becomes generally OK to screw with that without consent or at impunity, we are unrighteously screwed in a way that Orwell and Huxley could scarcely possibly dream.

    • rodneyAnonymous

      Mmm, okay. Totally. But the question at hand is whether chemical castration is an appropriate punishment for repeat-offender rapists. The “punishment” part seems to take care of “unnecessarily”, and “repeat-offender” with “impunity”.

      Just for the sake of discussion, let’s define “repeat-offender” as “three times” (because civil law should be just like baseball). It is possible that an innocent man would be convicted of rape once, but improbable that they’d be convicted twice, and extraordinarily improbable that they’d be convicted thrice. So the odds of this punishment being administered to an innocent are vanishingly small.

      …and it would be completely effective. It would probably be effective merely as a deterrent: I’d imagine a man twice convicted of rape would be reluctant to even talk to a woman. That aside, it would certainly be effective in practice: a man who has lost his ability to have an erection has lost his ability to rape. Perhaps they would channel their aggression into other violent behaviors, but many of those are illegal too, and also have associated punishments.

      I do not disagree that such a punishment would be dire. But so is the crime. And it would only be applied to criminals who have demonstrated their inability to avoid committing this crime. I feel that you did not sufficiently answer my question: why does your respect for the sanctity of the human body extend to violent criminals?

      • LRA

        I was sexually assaulted (not a full rape) when I was 20 (a stranger broke into my apartment at 3am– I’d never seen him before but apparently he was stalking me– he lived in my apartments at the time), and despite the guilt of the guy, there wasn’t enough evidence to convict him. This is the reality of sexual assault. So actually convicting someone three times means that this person is beyond doubt of being guilty!

      • rodneyAnonymous

        PS: I didn’t mean to imply you didn’t answer at all, just that I think “chemical castration is a slippery slope to 1984″ bears some elaboration :)

      • Elemenope

        why does your respect for the sanctity of the human body extend to violent criminals?

        Because I believe humans to be insufficiently wise to determine when such an act would be justified.

        Look, I’m a virtue ethicist, which means that I believe the capacity for moral action is determined primarily by the training of the moral agent to do what is right; moral experience, in short (i.e. phronesis). This is in part because I believe that it is only possible to know the moral dimensions of a case by having personal experience interacting with it or one sufficiently like it that a heuristic of extrapolation would work without problems.

        Normal cases are cases which, due to their commonality, we can have reasonable confidence that there exist many moral agents sufficiently experienced to deal with them effectively. As the moral cases become less common, and involve more exotic circumstances, our confidence that there exist moral agents capable of dealing with them drops, concomitantly with the likelihood that such an agent has dealt with a sufficiently similar case enough times that they know the dimensions of the situation. Limit experiences (such as our hypotheticals about torture) are nearly insuperable ethical problems precisely because they are outside the experience set of any given moral agent.

        Now, for such limit cases, if we cannot have any confidence that any given moral agent, no matter how carefully selected, would have the capacity to find the moral solution to the case, we cannot very well create a system (necessarily, as it is, either executed by people or designed by people or both) and have any confidence that it will probably execute the moral course.

        Because of the stakes involved in issues like torture, or involuntary body modification, I personally see the risks involved in creating a system dealing with them too great in light of the lack of confidence that agents exist which have the capacity to execute it.

        • rodneyAnonymous

          Thank you.

        • LRA

          Nope– seriously that surprises me about you, given the description of virtue ethics here:

          You’re really a Platonist on matters ethical?

          I guess I fall more into the consequentialist camp, but that is not the whole picture of my ethics. I just don’t understand how someone who doesn’t believe in god can possibly support unprovable Platonic ideals like benevolence.

          Seriously, I think human the study of history demonstrates that ideals aren’t idealistic– they’re imagined. Now… if you just called ideals tropes…

          • Elemenope

            Aristotle is a better framework for virtue ethics than Plato, I think, and my view of the ontology of moral absolutes would put me far, far away from both. To me, like identifying truth, identifying a moral absolute is a task of determining necessary relations, rather than situating any sort of object (like, say, a Platonic Form). For example, the moral absolute that murder is wrong lives in the necessary connection that is emergent from the set of possible interactions of two given human beings, and does not exist apart from that possible set. It is some aspect of the nature of human beings that causes this relation to emerge reliably given any set or combination of humans (don’t ask me what aspect of nature; I ain’t that crafty). I tend to believe that set of normative relationships that always emerge from such sets is at least finite and probably quite small in number. These would be the moral absolutes as apply to humans.

            So, what a moral agent engaging in obtaining phronesis is really studying in situ these relations in order to learn experientially (that is, empirically) first what normative relationships are necessary and second what relevant contingent relationships occur in specific situations atop these necessary ones, and how they interact. They aren’t studying the object of morality (because there is no such object to study) but rather the relations that always obtain given humans acting upon one another.

            I think the study of human history overall suggests that the conceptions of the identity and dimensions of moral interaction tends to converge rather than diverge over time, thus lending support to the notion that there are some relations that if not necessary are at least highly probably to obtain in every human interaction.

            • Elemenope

              To follow up, my view of the ontology of morality is most heavily influenced by Nietzsche, who I would (with controversy) place in the category of virtue ethicist as well, since his concern was primarily with the agents of moral action, though he cared far more about what effect the possession of virtue had upon the moral agent as a person, rather than what effect the the possession of virtue had upon the moral agent as an agent. It is telling that he concluded in part that pursuing moral perfection was destructive to other valuable things, specifically destructive to the agent himself and the society he or she lives in. (A conclusion I am not persuaded by, for sure, but I do find at the least disquieting and thought-provoking).

              I do not think it necessary to postulate absolute moral entities in order to talk about ethics because I believe ethics to be matter of studying predictable relations between particulars, an emergent consequence of agents coming into active proximity, much the same way that graphite or diamond are predictable emergent consequences of carbon atoms coming into proximity given environmental conditions. The moral absolutes in this metaphor would be the bond angles of the carbon atoms and the moral consequences would be the physical properties of the resulting material.

            • LRA

              “I do not think it necessary to postulate absolute moral entities in order to talk about ethics because I believe ethics to be matter of studying predictable relations between particulars,”

              I dunno, Nope, I think you are confusing universals (which you claimed earlier) with paradigms, or at best nominal tropes. Either way, Neitzsche may be concerned with virtue contained in agents, but he made it clear in Zarathrustra that those with the will to power will rise up and overthrow tradition over and over again. That makes him, like me, a believer in moral paradigms and not moral universals.

  • murrowcronkite

    My biggest concern is that it makes it alright for other nations to torture our soldiers/journalists/civilians.
    Shoe’s on the other foot and all that.

  • Baconsbud

    First, Daniel were you expecting these types of responses?

    LRA I think you are stretching things by trying to make jail the same as torture. Yes our prison system is screwed up but I see that as being because of the people who are appointed and hired into the system. If they want to stop much of what is wrong with the prison system they can. They like the way it is it seems to me.

    This has been an interesting read and hope it continues.

    • Daniel Florien

      I wasn’t sure what to expect. But I’m happy with the result, as it’s been interesting and informative.

    • LRA

      Bacon- I’m willing to concede to your point. I was trying to counter another argument by discussing the intent of the action versus the outcome of the action.

  • We put people in jail to protect people from those we put in jail. We torture people to protect people from those we…

    oh wait…

    Analogy fail.

    While Daniel questions religious “faith” (respect to him on that), that doesn’t mean he hasn’t carried with him superficial approaches to other matters.

    I think it would have been acceptable to torture that man.

    Unreasonable Faith indeed.

    • LRA

      Peter- I’m afraid it is you who may have things reversed, here. I (and probably Daniel too although I can’t speak for him) am advocating AGAINST dogmatic, universal claims. I am arguing FOR evolving paradigms of morality. In this case, I believe torture and what goes on in our prison systems are wrong. However, I’m willing to admit that there is a possible scenario in which torture may possibly, somehow, whatever small the chance, not be wrong (and I’m not even saying that this is in our time and our culture).

      No dogma here.

      • may possibly, somehow“…”No dogma here.


        • LRA

          do you understand the difference between existential quantifiers and universal quantifiers?

          some= existential
          all= universal

          Torture is ALWAYS wrong= universal, dogmatic
          Torture is almost always wrong (may in some rare instance be right) = existential, not dogmatic

          do you get it now?

          • The post is about the “justification” of torture. That is, should torture be allowed under the law in certain circumstances.

            Do you get it now? Or would you like to bend the post’s title to fit your argument?

            • LRA

              The title of the post is: “Is Torture Ever Justifiable”

              The word is EVER. And no, I’m not bending it. I’m trying to point out the fact that you all are as unthinking and dogmatic as Christian fundamentalists on this matter.

              You are a fundamentalist if you believe in universals. That what fundamentalist means. It means that you believe in foundations.

              I am not a fundamentalist. Period.

            • rodneyAnonymous

              Is slavery ever justifiable?

            • rodneyAnonymous

              To answer my own question: maybe, hypothetically, there might be some situation… but in this universe, on this planet, I think the answer might be “no, never”… at least, as close to a true “never” as I am going to get.

              Not certain, also thinking it through. I haven’t been able to come up with an argument that is airtight even to me, let alone to a detractor.

            • Sock

              You’re right. The “never” answer has a fundamentally flawed approach from the view point of (most) atheists. I get your point, however torture is something that I don’t see us, as a species, going back on a social evolution we’ve already had. We’ve tortured before in our history, the middle ages are full of torture and agony. We’ve seen the heart-wrenching effects (think Braveheart), and we’ve also seen the way it can be a very effective tool of oppression (think the Spanish Inquisition).

              We’ve seen it, but we already agreed that it (like public executions, in most places in the world) isn’t something that we can do anymore. With our humanism efforts ALWAYS improving over time, torture is something that I do not ever see becoming something that will turn out like religion. I don’t see us ever taking a step back on the ladder and becoming less humane.

            • LRA

              Slavery is not justifiable in the US (or the West in general) in this century. But do you really have the confidence to enforce your point of view on…. say…. a primitive tribe in South America, Africa, or Indonesia? Do you? I don’t.

            • LRA

              Same question applies for torture…

            • rodneyAnonymous

              Yes, that is precisely the conclusion I’ve reached: torture is not justifiable in the West in this century.

            • rodneyAnonymous

              (“in this universe on this planet” was perhaps a little too expansive… but I think that some things are so evil that no amount of good consequences can balance them… in this country at this time :) that is, if the choice is between torturing one bad man or letting a thousand good men die, letting the thousand die is in fact the lesser evil)

            • LRA

              Also, justification is an epistemic word. So, no, the post isn’t necessarily about law. It is necessarily about morals.

              Get it?

            • LRA

              (Specifically, how we *know* something is moral or not.)

            • I don’t get why we can’t say that slavery (or torture) is a bad thing in Africa / Indonesia / South America.

              These are still human beings we are talking about.

              Also could be a decent discussion point in the future – the US participates in and employs slavery still today. Women and children chained to work stations, forced to defecate and eat there, no breaks, 12+ hours straight…etc etc…cheaper goods for our stores. Giving them $1.00 a week does make this a job – it is still slavery. Perhaps it is even torture, just not for information.

            • LRA

              Because the culture of primitive peoples is destroyed when it is westernized. This is what missionaries do. It is anthropologically more sound to leave primitive peoples to develop and progress on their own. Christianized primitive people have high rates of alcoholism and other problems as a result of being culturally devastated. To say that their cultural practices (which often involve things that we would find barbaric) are wrong is quite arbitrary. If a moral was so truly universal, then everyone would believe it. But obviously individual people and larger cultures disagree on what is right and what is wrong.

            • Daniel Florien

              I probably should made the title “Is Torture Ever Morally Justifiable” — I’m really thinking morality, with the assumption that things that are moral (or not immoral) should be legal.

            • Knock yourself out. I disagree with both arguments (legal or moral).

            • LRA

              Disagree if you like. You’re still a fundamentalist.

            • LRA
            • Gordon

              I ask forgiveness for inserting myself into what might be a private debate but the fundamental (yes, universal) question in the discussion is whether you believe there is always a moral action available in every situation at every moment in time or whether you believe there can be a situation for which there is no moral action available (which means that in this case every action or inaction is immoral).

              If you believe a moral option is always available, a hypothetical scenario can be developed to morally justify any action. If torture of a terrorist is the very best of all possible actions, then by definition it must be at least one of the moral options available. If a moral option is always available it becomes possible to invent a hypothetical situation where cannibalizing your grandmother while she is still alive so the meat does not get cold becomes the best of all available options and therefore it is moral, terrible but moral.

              If you believe there can be a situation and moment in time where there is no moral option available, it is still possible that torture is the best of all available options even though you consider it immoral in all cases.

              I hear Daniel arguing that a moral option is always available. Thus his scenario building always will produce at least one moral option. For myself, I am still arguing on which side I fall, but I am leaning to the belief that there are situations where no moral action is available.

            • Dan L.

              The answer to that question is obviously yes. There are probably millions of incidents of it throughout history, and presumably at least a few of the perpetrators felt morally justified in doing it.

              So it is morally justifiable — if you’re a Spanish cardinal in the twelth century, or possibly if you’re a CIA agent in Cuba in 2003.

              Now, personally, I can think of some deeds that are so heinous that I think torture would be a better sentence than prison time. The problem is, of course, what if law enforcement gets it wrong? Apparently, this is enough of a concern that nowhere in the United States of America is it legal for the judiciary system to allow torture as a punishment for a crime.

              However, in your examples we have people who have been accused of crimes, not convicted. No court of law has recognized the fact that these are criminals. They are suspects. Perhaps the policeman is sure that the man is a kidnapper, and maybe the CIA knows he can get the whereabouts of the bomb, but those are observational and moral judgments made by individuals. Are you telling me that you think it would be moral to allow the government to torture people who have merely been accused of crimes, when it is apparently immoral to torture those who have been convicted in a court of law?

            • LRA

              To Gordon: As long as there’s a choice, there’s a moral attached. Morals are questions of what we *ought* to do.

            • Gordon

              To LRA, I agree with you and add that we ought to do the very best thing possible in every situation. My question raised the issue about whether the very best thing possible is always moral. Daniel is proposing the very best thing possible is to torture to find the ticking time bomb and that since it is the very best thing possible, it is moral. I am questioning the assumption that the very best thing possible, the thing we ought to do, is always moral.

            • LRA

              That’s a good question Gordon. I suppose it depends on what kind of moral approach you take… virtue ethics? Utilitarianism? Kantian ethics? Feminist ethics?

              Here’s a great article on moral epistemology:


  • Baconsbud

    I believe one of the reasons I say never is I have been though a form of torture but it wasn’t it was something I volunteered for. It involved 48 hours with a few 5 minute naps here and there, extreme physical activity. Within the first 24 hours I was seriously thinking of ways to hurt myself so I could get out of this. I didn’t but it really surprised me that over half of the people with me had the same thoughts. I know what I was doing was no where near as bad as what torture would really be like and that is where I see it as wrong. If any of you have been in the US Army and know what Bad Toelz is, then you know what I am talking about.

  • Question-I-thority

    By the way, the parallel argument during the cold war was whether assassination of evil dictators and their minions was moral or should be legal.

    And come to think of it, in a more recent era we didn’t want the ticking time bomb to turn into a mushroom cloud, did we?

  • The problem i think with this is that when torturer is allowed “governments” start using this has a means to get what they want and not whats good for their people. The start chasing their own agendas by any means necessary. If this could be used “wisely” and only in needed situation it would be agreeable but sadly it cant because the shape of the human race is so sad that all people want to do is use it for themselfs.

  • SF

    I will precede my comment by saying that I have no citations to give on the information stated below. I am simply stating an opinion, my own, derived from personal experiences and feelings.

    I can understand the statements made by those of you who use the scenario of someone kidnapping your own child and refusing to give information to his/her location. It would be naive to expect anyone to believe that torturing this person would be solely a matter of extracting information. It would most definitely be a way to get revenge for the pain that has been caused. Is it human nature to react this way? It pains me to say that I believe it is.

    In the scenario of someone having information regarding a bomb that may kill thousands of innocent people, would torture be justifiable? Who knows. Can I say that I would be able to participate in the process of torturing the people in either scenario? No, I can’t honestly say that I would.

    The portrayal of violence and torture that exists in so many different facets of today’s media, both factual and fictional, is something that I find trouble dealing with on a daily basis. It bothers me that people can even watch movies that have scenes where people are being tortured, can hear the screams of terror and pain, and watch the horrific things that are done to them without sympathy, or empathy. To expect a society that has been subjected to such to the point of becoming desensitized would be to set oneself up for major disappointment. People are addicted to violence, they will even pay to watch it, and the result is a society that is more violent than many are willing to admit to. Are Americans any less violent than those of other cultures? Personally, I don’t think so. The difference, again in MY opinion, is that Americans are not willing to admit to their societal violent tendencies. So accusing another country, culture, or religion of being more savage and violent than our own is quite simply a form of denial.

    My vote is rarely. Despite my inability to deal with the violent nature of people as a whole, I too am a person and am not immune to that which makes me human. As a survivor of a violent crime, I have learned that one cannot honestly say that he or she is incapable of a violent act themselves. The people (or groups) that you don’t like/trust/agree with are no more capable of committing a violent act than you yourself are. Everyone has a breaking point at which they lose their ability to control their own actions. When put into certain situations, any person will inevitably “snap”. It is a matter of what that particular person can withstand. That person that you think loves you more than anyone in the world and would NEVER hurt you in any way, given the right circumstances, can, and will hurt you just as given the right situation, you yourself are quite capable of hurting them. Most people may never discover what that breaking point is, what situation may make them ‘snap’. Unfortunately, not everyone will be so lucky. Because of this, I cannot honestly say that I would NEVER be able to participate in such an act, even though the very thought of committing the act of torture is something I could not ever imagine myself doing.

  • Dan L.

    I just wanted to follow up on my last to present an argument for why, whatever one thinks of its morality, torture in the examples you present should never be legal.

    I mentioned before that I think morally, torture would be a fine sentence for criminals convicted of particularly heinous crimes. Apparently, the UN doesn’t disagree with me:

    Torture, according to the United Nations Convention Against Torture, is: “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him, or a third person, information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in, or incidental to, lawful sanctions.

    Emphasis mine, clearly.

    But we are talking about torturing people who are merely accused of crimes; they are not criminals in the eyes of the law. We are empowering law enforcement officials to torture people regardless of their legal status.

    Consider then that torture has historically been used not only to extract information but to extract false confessions. This has been done in times of war to score propaganda victories. But more relevantly, it has been used to obtain convictions. If we allow law enforcement officials to torture prisoners in their custody, we turn our legal system into the greatest tool of political oppression that our country has ever seen.

  • Wolter

    Sorry, but even in the ticking time bomb case or the child-captive case, torture is the wrong move.
    In both cases, you’d just be wasting time that could have been saved with a proper, professional interrogation.

    This is not just my opinion, but the opinion of professional interrogators spanning the past century.

    Even Hanns Joachim Scharff, master interrogator of the Luftwaffe, whose legendary success is still studied today, spurned all abusive techniques. A book about him is available here:

    Do yourselves a favor and stop acting like Chicken Little for a minute. Stop and think about what the experts in the field are saying before you spout off your own, uninformed opinion.

  • arguri

    Fact: The CIA does know (and did know shortly after they started torturing people in Guantanamo), that the one tortured does not necesserily tell the truth.

    Because of the equality principle when you agree to torture someone to find out information how to stop certain bad things to happen, where do you stop? So for every possible case you can imagine it would follow that you would allow torture. This is the same with any special law, created for certain special cases: it is used under different circumstances which undermines your intention. In short: If you allow someone to be tortured you must have in mind, that you might be the next one tortured.

    Another fact is that in the rule of law you do not emphasize on prevention but on justice and law. You cannot torture someone because you would be prosecutor, judge and hangman in one person, that is the reason we have law, and that is the reason so many things are written in a constitution to prevent such mishappenings.

    If you allow someone to be tortured you allow that your state will definitely become a authoritarian state. Imagine the situation: the FBI places a bomb somewhere which explodes and kills many people, they then interrogate someone who may be called a dissident and torture him until he “voluntarily” states he put the bomb there. How can you find out?

    The less power the state has concerning taking away your freedoms, especially in order to prevent something, the better for everyone. Another interesting thing to think about is the question, would you kill 20 people so 400 more people could survive? Do you think the live of the twenty are less important than the lives of the 400? Do you think you could and should judge?

    In a mathematican way, I belive every live is infinity, so 20 times infinity still ist infinity, which would equal the 400 and them. A collectivist necessarily sees the greater good, which might be an excuse for everything, and surely would just count.

    As you lived with collectivist propaganda (and every religion is a collectivist one) a long time, I see a reason why you say, that torture might be good in certain cases, which is the authoritarian part of a collectivist system.

    Never forget, if you want harder punishments, death penalty or torture you definetly have to agree that they might pick you for that and nobody is perfect, you could have sent to death just because someone was wrong or misinterpreted something.


  • Mau de Katt

    The trouble with the “ticking time bomb” scenario is that it doesn’t play out the way all the pro-torture advocates say it will, except on the show 24. I am still trying to hunt down the source again (I read it a couple years back), but a former CIA or Fed interrogator pointed out the logical fallacy in that scenario. You have a very limited amount of time in which to gain the information before the bomb goes off (or before the kid dies, it works for that scenario too), and the suspected terrorist knows it. In order to get the accurate information, you already have to know it’s true or false, in which case torture is irrelevant except for vengeance purposes.

    Otherwise, all the suspected terrorist has to do is give you false information. You then have to check it out, because you’re looking for that bomb that’s about to explode. He can keep you chasing your tail until the bomb explodes, because you have to hunt down whatever information he gives you, to find that ticking bomb, so he can come up with as many fake locations as it takes until that bomb goes off. Far better to go with extablished (non-torturous) interrogation techniques that actually work — that produce accurate and verifiable information.

    All this is, of course, putting aside the whole moral acceptability question in the first place.

  • Wolter

    The fact that people in a supposedly civilized country are even having this discussion speaks volumes.

    • Elemenope

      What, that civilization is only as deep as the rhetoric? History screams that to anyone who reads.

      But, one can either aspire to be better than one is, or one can accept one’s baser instincts. It says a lot about a culture that it states values and then attempts to live up to them. Arguments like this indicate whether those values are still being pursued or are shifting in another direction.

  • Since I’ve been referenced, I’ll chime in with some detail.

    There is a problem in the question you ask in follow-up: “If you answer “never,” I’d like you to give some alternatives — what should the authorities do instead when they quickly need information to save innocent lives?”

    It is the logical fallacy of “begging the question”. As presented you posit 1: Torture will quickly gain information. 2: Save lives. 3: Is the only option.

    None of these is true.

    The “ticking bomb” is a flawed hypothetical. It requires a host of things to work, and the things required to make it work (i.e. justify the use of torture in limited, and specific circumstances) invalidate it. Not to be insulting, but the real purpose of the ticking bomb scenario is to make those who accept torture feel good about themselves.

    Here’s why it doesn’t work:

    1: The source has to know.
    2: The interrogator has to know the source knows.
    3: The information has to be time critical (not just time sensitive)
    4: There is no other way to get the infomation, before the value of it expires

    Those are pretty high hurdles. How is it we know (not suspect, know. Because this is so critical that it doesn’t allow for error. That’s why we are willing to torture)? How is it we know the source knows?

    If we have that much information, we have enough to not need to torture this suspect/source.

    That deals with the primary hurdles. Now come the secondary hurdles.

    1: How do we corroborate the information?
    2: How do we keep the source from lying?

    Pain doesn’t make for honesty. The motivation isn’t telling the truth, it’s making the pain stop. The only way to even come close to having some sort of motivation to tell the truth is to have the subject lie about things for which you have the correct answer to the question. At that point, however, the system still breaks down. The subject has to make one of two decisions: There are things you don’t know, or this is all being done because you enjoy it.

    If the former, he will lie.

    Which brings us back to the question of time.

    When the subject tells you what you want to know/hear what happens? Does the abuse stop?

    It probably does. How much time? How long can he buy with a reasonable fabrication? Can he give plausible half-truths? How long does he have to hold out to win?

    Because at this point, in this scenario, it runs the risk of becoming a test of will. Is his desire to see his plan succeed greater than your abiity to inflict harm?

    When he gives an asnwer, how is it checked? If we have people who can verify what he says, why couldn’t they be asked in the first place?

    When all is said and done, to have enough information to make it “justifiable” to torture, (and keep it clean enough in motive/result to have it be the lesser evil) there is more than enough information available to make honest interrogation just as effective.