Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The Ethics of Torture

Last night I listened to a CSPAN presentation by Jan Goldman, author of “The Ethics of Spying.”

The presentation began with a description of the paradigm case used to examine the moral legitimacy of torture; “the ticking bomb scenario”. A bomb has been placed in a school, and you have a person in custody who knows where the bomb is and how to disarm it. Do you torture this person to get this information?

The Effectiveness Argument

Mr. Goldman reported that, among laymen, the standard response is to do “whatever it takes” to get the information. However, Goldman says, “The overwhelming response I get from professional interrogators is that extreme methods of acquiring information does not work. You will get information, but you will not get information that may be reliable or valid.”

I want to point out that this response from professional interrogators says nothing about the ethics of torture. Claiming that an action will not produce the desired results is not the same as saying that it is wrong.

Imagine somebody coming to you claiming that he wants some money and he plans on robbing a local convenience store. Perhaps you can talk him out of it by saying that he will probably get caught and that convenience stores do not have much money. However, this is not the same as arguing that robbing convenience stores is wrong. The practical argument implies that it is permissible to rob the convenience store if one can get away with it and the store has a lot of money. The moral argument would imply that it would still be wrong to rob the liquor store even if one could get away with it and the store had a lot of money.

Similarly, if the argument against torture is, “it does not work,” this is not an argument that says that torture is wrong. This argument still implies that it would be permissible to torture if torture was an effective means of getting quantities of useful information.

The ineffectiveness of torture tells us as little about the wrongness of torture as the ineffectiveness of robbing convenience stores tells us about the wrongness of robbing convenience stores.

The Rehabilitation and Alliance Arguments

We can get better and more reliable information from a prisoner by converting that prisoner than we can by torturing him. This can be called a ‘rehabilitation’ argument against torture. Torture a prisoner, and the prisoner will still provide you with as little information as possible with that information being as unreliable as possible. It can easily include fictions meant to muddy the water.

However, convince the prisoner that you should win and that he should become a partner in that victory, and you are going to get a lot of information that is much more highly accurate.

I am not saying that this is easy. Certainly, torture is the easier option. However, this is a question of measuring the ease of the action with the quality of the results (the value of the return on investment).

The main points of the rehabilitation argument can be applied to people who are not directly involved in the conflict – at least not yet. From this, we get an “Alliance Argument.”

One of the best sources of useful information comes from the eyes and ears of ordinary people. The recent CBS News show, “Five Years Post-9/11: How Safe Are We?” mentions the case of a Muslim who found out about a fellow mosque member planning to detonate a bomb in New York. He reported this to authorities. He also volunteers to help the authorities find out more about the plot. This illustrates the point that the greater the number of people in the world who are loyal to the American cause and willing to put effort into ensuring its success, the better off we are.

It is possible to criticize Bush’s policies in part on the ground that it has weakened support for the American cause. This, in turn, is likely to have cost us information that we might have otherwise gotten through these sources.

Consider, for example, the Bush Administration’s policy on torture. One of the effects of this policy is that those have an aversion to torture and a dislike of those countries and leaders who practice and promote the use of torture have less of an incentive to being on our side in this conflict.

The Bush Administration’s policy on secret prisons alienates those who have an aversion to secret prisons and an affection for the idea of fair trials. Its policy on blowing up houses where families are gathered in the hopes of killing a suspected terrorist that might be present alienates those who have an aversion to blowing up civilians.

People in the Bush Administration have been claiming recently that they have gotten useful information from these prisoners by their use of “aggressive interrogation techniques” (a.k.a. torture). They are asking for legislation that will permit them to continue the practice.

However, the quality of whatever information they did receive has to be weighed against the quality that the Bush Administration did not receive from people who have an aversion and a contempt for those who endorse doctrines of torture, unjust imprisonment, and insufficient regard for protecting civilian lives.

Once again, it is important to add that the information that we get through torture is from people whose interest is in giving us as little information as possible and information that is as unreliable as possible. The information we get from those who view us as people who deserve to win this conflict because of our moral character is as much information as possible and as reliable as possible.

How many informants are we turning away because they are disgusted by the moral tone that this President and his administration are setting?

At this point, I must add that this argument does not yet say anything about the wrongness of torture. The argument is still only talking about effects. So far, all I have said is that not torturing will generate the support (and get information from) those with an aversion to torture. But what is it that makes aversion to torture right? Racist attitudes will foster the cooperation of racists. A simple bribe will generate the cooperation of the corrupt. The fact that an act generates cooperation from some segment of people does not make the act right. We are still in need of a moral argument.

The Ethics of Spying

To get an actual argument on the ethics of spying, I would like to turn to the desire-utilitarian format that is the foundation of all of these posts.

In an example I have used elsewhere, morality is concerned with finding ways to keep people from taking money out of your purse or wallet (or bank account) – or robbing convenience stores, or committing rape or murder – from doing so even when they can profit from it and they can get away with it. Desire utilitarianism advocates doing this by giving a people aversions to these types of acts. An aversion to taking money would work like an aversion to the pain. The aversion to pain keeps a person from putting their hand in a hot fire even in private. An aversion to taking the property of others, rape, torture, and assassination prevents a person from engaging in these acts even when it would otherwise be profitable for them to do so.

Now, let me combine this with the point made in the previous section – that our actions will cause those with desires compatible with our actions to support us. Now, we are not only going to ask whether our actions will buy us support from a particular group of people. We are also going to ask whether those whose support we gain (or lose) are the type of people we are better off with (or without).

The question now becomes something more than, “Will our policy solicit the cooperation of others?” This is not a moral question – this is merely a prudential question. Our question now, on a desire-utilitarianism model, is, “Are we soliciting the cooperation of the type of people that it would be wise to have as members of one’s community?”

I mentioned above that the Bush Administration’s policy on torture alienates those who have an aversion to torture. Here, I add the fact that we have a lot of very good reasons for promoting a community of people adverse to torture. However, we cannot promote an aversion to torture while promoting a government that advocates its use. These two goals are incompatible. We promote an aversion to torture by promoting a government that expresses an aversion to torture.

The same argument applies to other Bush Administration policies – indefinite confinement without a fair trial, rendition, arbitrary and unchecked executive power. We are better off as a community if our neighbors have an aversion to injustice, rendition, and arbitrary unchecked power. We are safer surrounded by these type of people than we are surrounded by a community that values injustice, rendition, and unchecked power. To promote this type of community, we need leaders that express an aversion to injustice, rendition, and arbitrary unchecked power. We are not getting any benefits from an Administration that expresses a fondness for these qualities.

The Return of the Ticking Bomb

So, what do we do with the ticking bomb scenario?

Actually, my answer is that torture and other extreme questioning techniques should remain illegal. We should be seeking the cooperation of those who share an aversion to these types of actions.

The fact that an act is illegal does not imply that it should never be done. We may set a speed limit on private roads of 55 miles per hour. However, the parent whose child is in shock after being stung by a bee may violate the law to get his child to the hospital. In extraordinary circumstances, an individual weighs aversion to breaking the law with the desire to save his child’s life. In breaking the law, he takes his chances – he risks punishment. It would be absurd to argue for eliminating the speed limit because of the rare situation in which a person may be justified in violating it.

The fact that torture is illegal does not mean that the interrogator, faced with certain knowledge of a bomb and limited time to get this informant to talk, and good reason to believe that torture would be useful in this situation, cannot use torture. It means that he, like the person speeding to get his child to the hospital, has decided that the situation is important enough that he will take his chances with the system. He will suffer the consequences of breaking the law, if it comes to that. We keep the law as an expression of society’s attitudes – that we consider these types of actions to be wrong, and anybody who commits this type of act had better be able to come to us with a very good reason.

17 comments:

Another Athiest Ethicist said...

Hmmm. It seems to me that there is an easier way to get to the immorality of torture than through Desire Utilitarianism. The argument could run like this:

1. Human beings are selfish egoists who care only about themselves and their approved group and want first-and-foremost to promote their own interests.
Note that this statement is a verifiable fact of human psychology, even though it might not at first appear to be correct.

2. When two or more humans formulate and pursue their egoistic interests, the potential for conflict and interference with others' interests, including being harmed or causing harm, is extremely high.

3. Given (2), it is in the interests of every individual to find some method to minimize this problem. Doing so maximizes their opportunities to promote their interests with as little interference as possible.

4. Accepting a voluntary limitation on one's actions which allows for cooperative compromise can ensure that all involved get most of their interests met, which is the best outcome one can reasonbly expect in a competition of interests situation.

5. The most important interest most individuals have is the interest not to be unjustly harmed or killed by others, in large part because harm or death limits the other interests one can formulate and pursue.

6. Harming X via torture so that Y can pursue his own or his group's interests in having information or stopping harm to him- or themselves seriously interferes with X's interests just as much as if Y had beaten up X to steal her wallet.

7. If (6) is true, then this will remain the case whether Y is one person with interests or his group has 1000 members with these interests or 10 million.

8. Therefore, it is wrong to torture anyone in order to promote another's or 10 million others' interests unless we have strong justification to do so.

What justification could override this except for the massive number of people affected and harm created that the Utilitarians point to? I can't think of any. Until one can come up with that, torture must remain immoral.

Of course we could also discuss the immorality of torture from a Deontological (duty-based) perspective, or from Virtue Ethics (this isn't the type of people we want to be), but these take more time and space than the above.

Brittany said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brittany said...

A metaphor for torture is when my stomach hurts and I can’t do anything about it because it’s a natural cycle. I toss, turn, and do all I can but the situation is to get wait.

For Torture:
Argument #1 – Here’s one of a hundred reasons why physical torture is sufficient at this time. Lives, innocent lives, are at stake and there are no other options left to take because the clock is ticking. Plus physical might be more effective.

Argument # 2 – This man is already a criminal for attempting to bomb a building so why not add a little punishment along with getting information out of him? When they throw him in jail, he will receive it anyway.

Argument # 3 – According to Wikipedia, torture means 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. [So, your intentions are not to kill him, since killing is wrong, but get information.]

Arguments #4 – Just think for a minute. If you didn’t do anything I’m sure your conscience will catch up with you. Innocent children’s blood will be on your hands for not trying to stop the bomber.

Against Torture:
Argument #1 – Instead of physical torture, try mental because the mind is a powerful thing. For example threaten him, threaten his family or put a chainsaw to his head, swinging it back and forth. That way you won’t cause any blood shed.

Argument #2 – If this is reality, it’s possible for you to go get charged for attempted murder or assault. Even though this might seem like the right thing to do, criminal laws still apply.

Conclusion – Well this might be a gruesome thing to do, but I decided that I might have to cut a few fingers off to save these kids. Mentally, it will be torture for me but it’s a sacrifice.

mesha said...

Being thrown in a pool over and over can result in whip lash, a little water in your lungs, and maybe a little burning in the nose....but out of all this negativity, something positive DOES come out of it as well. After being tossed into 12 ft. depths of water, you really have no other choice but to learn how to swim....Hey, its either that or the alternative....So even in the end, sometimes torture can have its benefits.

Max said...

I agree with the Alliance Argument because I feel like with this scenario, nobody loses out and it's a win-win situation in the end while gaining trust from those who help you.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the alliance Argument gaining the trust of others in order to get reliable information is very smart. Not only do you get what you want but you could potentially get more.

Lynerd said...

I agree with the alliance Argument gaining the trust of others in order to get reliable information is very smart. Not only do you get what you want but you could potentially get more.

Jocelyn said...

I totally agree with comment 8 because you just can't sit there and let something happen when it could've be prevented. The bomb in the school is a justified reason to torture someone that is causing harm to someone else especially innocent kids or students. Torture is illegal but I think this law should be shut down in this case to save lives. The maniac should be tortured mentally before the time gets close and should change to physical torture when the time is close.

Lakeya said...

I really agree with the Alliance arguement because you're getting so much more than if you decided to torture them. By creating an alliance you gain trust, and thats where getting information comes in at.

Dr. Clarke said...

I am concerned that both the blogger and the first comment writer gave strong arguments supporting the immorality of torture but when it came right down to it...when a decision was at hand....they said it was OK as long as you were willing to take the consequences. The arguments hold up well until the situation is real. What's with that??? If we are to have moral courage it needs to be not just in the theoretical realm but in practice as well.

Zach and Kayla said...

Zach and Kayla say that the conclusion does not match what the authors opinion says in the rest of his writing. We also believe that the author is not capable of choosing which side of the fence he wants to fall on.

Eneasz said...

Well... that was interesting... how many of those came from the same IP address?

Emu Sam said...

LOL - not quite a similar level of English grammar ability, I think. There are at least three different people. It might be better to check if this post was linked from a popular site.

Dr. Clarke said...

actually I wrote to the blogger that my High School students would be posting some thoughts as part of their Leadership and Ethics course. That's why we are coming from the same area and around the same time. We really enjoy the blog and think it a valuable service.

Eneasz said...

Ah, ok! Thank you for clarifying that.

I think you're probably confused on Alonzo's point, which is why the conclusion didn't seem to follow from the premises. Generally people think in terms of act-utilitarianism, which states that the action itself is either good or bad.

Desire utilitarianism proposes that people always act upon their desires, and therefore we (society) should strengthen good desires and weaken bad desires. The argument proposed in this post outlines the reasons that an aversion to torture is a GOOD desire, and should be strengthened as much as possible. However it also points out that people sometimes have conflicting good desires that can override this aversion (a desire to save lives, for example), and therefore can sometimes be overruled by the stronger desire.

Actually, I think this is a good reason to teach interrogaters that torture doesn't work (and WHY it doesn't work). That way when they are tempted to use torture to save lives, they will (hopefully) remember that torturing the subject will not actually save any lives, and will probably ending up killing or harming even more people than if they never had used torture at all.

But of course that assumes that the interrogators wish to save lives, and not simply fulfill their own revenge fantasies.

Dr. Clarke said...

the problem seems to be one of inappropriate guilt. People feel that they have to try EVERYTHING to intervene even up to and including torture even when they KNOW it won't work. At least they can absolve themselves by saying they tried EVERYTHING. so the solution is probably one of Psychological support and training emphasizing the appropriate limits of one's responsibility. We all seem to have a touch of the superhero in our thinking.

Anonymous said...

Its absolutely imperative for us to recall that we are dealing with a a hypothetical scenario that way we dont get carried away,ticking bomb scenario are extremely rare compared to the torture that takes place every day nevertheless it is worthwhile to explore the ramification of legalisation of torture