Thursday, July 08, 2010

Why torture is wrong

Why is torture wrong? I would like to think that “torture” itself connotes wrongness, like “murder” and “rape,” but evidently not. Most people seem to think that torture is okay some of the time. Let’s try to show why they are mistaken. Premise:

Causing gratuitous pain and suffering is evil.

– This seems easy to accept. I’m not addressing sadism, = causing pain for one’s own pleasure. Just causing pain to someone for no good reason. Prisoners of course suffer from being incarcerated, but that is not gratuitous suffering, and I think it’s widely believed that even prisoners should not be hurt beyond what their sentence requires.

Torture causes extreme pain and suffering.

– Or else we couldn’t call it “torture.” People have tried to argue that sleep deprivation, forced standing, waterboarding, etc. aren’t really “torture,” but that arises from ignorance about how miserable these make people. And that argument makes no sense – how are these supposed to be so awful that they make people confess to things they otherwise wouldn’t confess to, but not awful enough to constitute suffering?

So, then: if torture is not evil, then it must not be gratuitous. It must have a practical benefit.

If torture is preferable to another method of interrogation, then torture is not gratuitous.

- But we know from professionals who do interrogation for a living that torture is not the best way to interrogate someone. It’s not even close. People can be subjected to atrocious tortures and not confess. People can be tortured and say whatever they think the torturer wants to hear. And the “ticking bomb” scenario is refuted up and down the internet – most obviously because, on the premise that time is of the essence, the victim can frustrate the torturer by giving false information that makes the time run out. In real life, interrogators work by tricking their subjects (short-term) or building up a rapport that plays upon a captive’s ego and loneliness.

It also bears repeating that the methods we used in the Cheney Era were expressly patterned on NKVD/Chinese methods of extracting false confessions (such as the North Koreans used on our “brainwashed” POWs), which SERE was founded to help our troops deal with; our tortures were reverse-engineered from SERE training, with the limits removed of course.


Non-torture methods of interrogation are superior to torture.


Torture is gratuitous infliction of pain and suffering. Which gives us:

Torture is evil. Q.E.D.

... I think that's tight enough that someone has to deny one of the premises to deny the conclusion, though I assume that the only valid purpose of torture is interrogation.

Interestingly, the idea that there are separate "moral" and "practical" arguments against torture seems to collapse. If torture were, pragmatically, a good way to arrive at the truth, then it wouldn't be evil. It wouldn't even be illegal. We would torture suspects to find out the truth, like people did for centuries, the same way they believed in witches and astrology.


  1. First of all, I did not say torture was morally acceptable. I said that torture was not morally unacceptable in EVERY circumstance. There is a difference.

    I do agree with you that non-torture interrogation is usually far more effective than torture in gathering information. I am just not prepared to join you in stating that there is never, any possible circumstance whatsoever, where torture might not be useful in gaining information that might be needed to save human lives that have been put in danger by the torture "victim." With the "ticking time bomb" scenario, it is quite possible to instantly know whether the terrorist has provided false information or not.

    What I will say is that we as a nation took an activity that should have occurred only in the rarest and most exigent of circumstances and instead used it almost routinely. We gained little and lost much.

  2. SURELY we can frigging agree that there are some things that are so wrong we won't engage in them as a society?? PLEASE???

    Ok, lets start here: Should we set out to eliminate by mass murder all Muslims who live among us? No, that would be genocide. Clearly wrong. Would certainly cut back on our exposure to terrorism, but we aren't going to do that sort of thing.

    Now. Between genocide and normal police procedures, there's a border, right? Where is it?

    My personal line is this: We don't do torture. More about this perhaps if I feel about dealing with the word-choice comment filters...

  3. With the "ticking time bomb" scenario, it is quite possible to instantly know whether the terrorist has provided false information or not.

    How is that?

    Re: the remote chance of torture's being not-evil in some unique circumstance, we don't normally set that kind of hurdle for right/wrong. We can think of SOME instance when murder might be the less bad alternative, but we don't deny that murder is wrong and illegal.

    Laws against torture should be enforced, and if some torturer wants to tell a jury, or a court-martial, why he's the exception to the rule, let him have at it.

  4. "Gained little"? What exactly? Something that doesn't melt away when subjected to reasonable scrutiny?

    On the ticking time bomb scenario, no one has done better than John Felton, when he was himself threatened with torture by Edward Sackville, Earl of Dorset: My lord, I do not believe that it is the king’s pleasure, for he is a just and a gracious prince, and will not have his subjects tortured against law. I do affirm upon my salvation that my purpose was not known to any man living; but if it be his majesty’s pleasure, I am ready to suffer whatever his majesty will have inflicted upon me. Yet this I must tell you, by the way, that if I be put upon the rack, I will accuse you, my Lord of Dorset, and none but yourself. Harl. MSS. 7000. J. Mead to Sir Matt. Stuteville, Sept. 27, 1628.

    (For those of you who haven't heard of Felton, here's an excerpt from a 2005 decision of the Law Lords:

    81. On 23 August 1628 George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham and Lord High Admiral of England, was stabbed to death by John Felton, a naval officer, in a house in Portsmouth. The 35-year-old Duke had been the favourite of King James I and was the intimate friend of the new King Charles I, who asked the judges whether Felton could be put to the rack to discover his accomplices. All the judges met in Serjeants' Inn. Many years later Blackstone recorded their historic decision:

    "The judges, being consulted, declared unanimously, to their own honour and the honour of the English law, that no such proceeding was allowable by the laws of England".

    82. That word honour, the deep note which Blackstone strikes twice in one sentence, is what underlies the legal technicalities of this appeal. The use of torture is dishonourable. It corrupts and degrades the state which uses it and the legal system which accepts it. When judicial torture was routine all over Europe, its rejection by the common law was a source of national pride and the admiration of enlightened foreign writers such as Voltaire and Beccaria.)