The Ethics of Torture

Photo via Bob M.

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.

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