The Ethics of Torture

I am a utilitarian and a consequentialist. I believe we should try and maximize the well being of conscious creatures and minimize suffering. We can do this by measuring outcomes, which gives us the ability to distinguish between different moral actions and determine what is right and wrong.

I suspect most people would agree with my views at first glance, but many people grow cautious the second they hear any number of thought experiments. The ticking time bomb is a perfect example. For those that are unfamiliar, here it is:

“Suppose that a person with knowledge of an imminent terrorist attack, that will kill many people, is in the hands of the authorities and that he will disclose the information needed to prevent the attack only if he is tortured. Should he be tortured?”

In 99% of cases torture is wrong and immoral, but within the ticking time bomb scenario torture becomes ethically permissible in a utilitarian and consequentialist worldview.

In this thought experiment we know the outcomes of the scenario: If we torture the man, we will receive information on the bomb and save lives. If we don’t torture the man, the bomb will go off and people will die. The consequences of not torturing the man is worse then torturing the man because it increases suffering for more people.

What many people do not understand, however, is that just because this thought experiment is ethically permissible, doesn’t mean torture is practical in the real world. Why? It’s simple: in the thought experiment we have perfect information and outcomes, but in the real world there is a degree of uncertainty and randomness.

In the real world, the man could lie, not give the information, or give the information too late to be useful. The bomb may not even be real. Because of uncertainty, because we cannot know the outcomes, we don’t have the ability to distinguish whether torturing someone will actually save peoples lives. What we do know, however, is that torture will increase suffering for the individual.

Furthermore, I believe the majority of tortures are employed not as a method of extracting information, but as a method of terrorizing and subjugating a population. This enables state forces to control the establishment of innocence or guilt and the entire legal process altogether. In this context, and in 99% of cases, torture is immoral.

For sake of argument however, let’s say the government is utilitarian and they are considering torturing a man for the sole reason of saving lives and maximizing human well being. This would be just like the ticking time bomb scenario, but within the real world and limited information.

The question then becomes something different: Is the chance of maximizing well being for many people morally superior to increasing suffering for an individual? This is a difficult question because what is right and wrong depends entirely on whether the individual will give up the information in time. Moral luck is at play in this situation.

My intuition tells me the answer is no, but the higher the number of lives that are at risk, the more appealing yes becomes. Where do you draw the line? 10 lives? 100 lives? 1000 lives? An entire city? At some point, not torturing the individual seems to become immoral even if it’s only a chance to save them. And I would argue that it is.

So yes, the chance of maximizing well being for many people (at some arbitrary point) is morally superior to increasing suffering for an individual. This means that torture can be ethical given very specific circumstances. Discussion surrounding torture will continue for a long time, but I don’t think the world is as black and white as it appears.

Stereotypes and Uncomfortable Truths

Humans like to categorize things. The world is a complex place, so in order to better understand how things work we simplify them down. And given the limited information of our personal experiences, we often jump to conclusions.  We’ve been doing this since the dawn of language- sometimes for our benefit, but often times for worse.

The poor are lazy. The rich are greedy. Muslims are terrorists. Christians are xenophobes. Irish are drunks. Asians can’t drive. Southerners are stupid. Politicians are corrupt. You get the idea.

Unfortunately, there is something very uncomfortable about some stereotypes: they may hold a comparative truth. In other words, when comparatively speaking between multiple groups of people, stereotypes may represent a larger percentage of a specific group then they would compared to another. This is often why the stereotype exists in the first place. Of course, many stereotypes are complete nonsense and founded in ignorance. But for others, science even provides evidence to confirm them.

For example: It’s a fact that within the European Union, Ireland ranks the highest for per capita consumption of alcohol. Does that mean that all Irish people are drunks? Or even that the majority of them are? Of course not, but comparatively speaking they drink more alcohol than other European countries.

The problem with stereotypes isn’t the fact that it oversimplifies things, but rather that it can potentially enable people to avoid critical thinking. Stereotypes are natural ways our brains can store and retrieve information, and they’re useful so we’re not overloaded with details of everything. However, this means the world can begin to look very black and white. Critical thinking allows for nuance and shades of grey to appear.

We need to be able to acknowledge stereotypes for what they are, but think critically about what they actually mean. This can be done by thinking slow. By doing this we can speak with more clarity on important topics and not confuse nuance for bigotry. So let’s be clear to help prevent misunderstandings of this kind.

Third Wave Feminism and Equality

From new workplace and education opportunities to reproductive rights and the ability to vote, womens rights have come a long way in the last century throughout the developed world. Today, women experience more freedom and personal choice than any other time throughout history. However, this isn’t true for women in all societies. There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done.

In this post I want to focus on feminism in the west specifically, because it is this kind of feminism that seems to be so controversial. No rational person is arguing against human rights for women in Yemen. So why is it then that so many people in the west are hesitant to call themselves feminists? What is third wave feminism and why is it so contentious?

Before we can answer these questions, we must recognize a couple of things. First, third wave feminist issues are of less significance than first and second wave issues. That’s not to say that third wave feminist issues don’t matter or that they are insignificant, but that the issues third wave feminism faces are much less visible and pale in comparison to the issues millions of women face in developing countries.

One of the few ways we can shine light on these third wave feminist issues is through transparency. The insight we can gain from, for example, the Gender Gap Report is of great value. A common theme across the best ranking countries is that in 2 of the 4 categories measured, health and education, are nearly identical. We begin to see some discrepancy when it comes to economic standing and large differences in political empowerment.

Since these issues are less visible, it is difficult to see exactly how much of a role biology plays versus culture when looking at these discrepancies. One of the most obvious biological differences is testosterone. On average, in adult males, levels of testosterone are about 7–8 times as great as in adult females. Why is this important? Because testosterone increases aggression and risk-taking.

(UPDATE: After reading Robert Sapolsky’s book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst I’m much more skeptical of this claim. Sapolsky argues testosterone increases status seeking behavior. Evolutionarily this has generally correlated with aggression, but it can swiftly change based on a number of factors.)

If men are more aggressive and more prone to risk-taking, shouldn’t we see some differences between the sexes? And we do. This may explain why men make up 93% of inmates in the United States. It may also explain, at least partly, why there are more men in leadership roles and make more money for the same work (aggressively negotiating pay raises).

Of course, culture plays a significant role as well. Just look at any of the Abrahamic religions with their uncanny obsession with virgins and blaming of women for literally everything. The majority of religious communities still believe women should hold traditional roles in society. Not surprisingly, the least religious countries in the world are rated the highest in gender equality.

So lets go back to that original question- why is it that many people don’t like calling themselves feminists in the west?

In the internet era, the loudest and most fringe groups of people are given the largest platform. The third wave feminist movement is no different. Month after month, new videos have emerged online of self described feminists and some of there more absurd radical beliefs. A quick search of the word “feminist” on YouTube prompts words like ‘crazy’, ‘triggered’, and ‘cringe’. To my surprise, #KillAllMen isn’t satire to some.

Regardless of whether you consider these actions representative feminism is irrelevant. Guilt by association has done damage to the perception of feminism in western societies. Furthermore, I think many feminists simply don’t find the amount of focus on third wave feminism appealing. Many people believe that equality between the sexes already exists, and in many circles I don’t think this is an unreasonable position. However, with that said, I don’t think the issues third wave feminists face are completely insignificant. Just because there are more crucial issues in the world doesn’t mean the lesser ones don’t matter.

At the end of the day, we must be able to acknowledge gender differences while simultaneously encouraging greater equality. The debate on the significance of third wave feminism will continue, but in the meantime, let’s not argue over the semantics of a label.