April 22, 2009


Torture works sometimes -- but it's always wrong (Gary Kamiya, 4/22/09, Salon)

Torture is wrong. It is condemned by every civilized nation and by international law. There is, however, one situation in which torture might theoretically be morally justified. This is the so-called "ticking bomb" scenario, which in one form or another has been debated by philosophers and ethicists for hundreds of years. Suppose we know that a captive has planted a bomb in a school, which is due to explode in a few hours. The captive refuses to say in what school he planted the bomb. Are we justified in torturing one depraved individual to save the lives of hundreds of innocent children?

In their response, philosophers divide into two camps. The Kantians, those who believe that human beings have a categorical imperative to treat other humans as ends, not as means, say we are never justified in torturing, no matter how legitimate the goal. The Benthamites or utilitarians say that we are justified, because in this case torture is the lesser of two evils.

Defenders of the Bush administration's use of torture, most notably former Vice President Dick Cheney, would like to pose as high-minded Benthamites. [...]

The argument that torture works cannot simply be dismissed. During World War II, for example, the Gestapo used torture with considerable effectiveness on captured agents working for Britain's Special Operations Executive, the top-secret organization dedicated to sabotage and subversion behind Axis lines. A number of agents, unable to withstand the pain or, in some cases, even the prospect of pain, told their captors everything they knew, including the identity of other agents, the arrival time of flights, and the location of safe houses. During France's brutal war in Algeria, the colonial power used torture effectively. As historian Alistair Horne, the author of the classic analysis of the French-Algerian war, "A Savage War of Peace," told me in a 2007 interview, "In Algeria, the French used torture -- as opposed to abuse -- very effectively as an instrument of war. They had some success with it; they did undoubtedly get some intelligence from the use of torture." That intelligence included information about future terrorist strikes and the infrastructure of terror networks in Algiers.

So the easy argument against torture, that it is ineffective, is wrong. Torture can work.

There isn't much there that will withstand even cursory scrutiny. To begin with, torture as a method of punishment is condemned and confessions extracted via torture are rightly considered worthless, precisely because torture is so effective, but liberal democracies routinely torture "the bomber" (the person with intelligence that we need to extract for security reasons), which even as extreme a pundit as Mr. Kamiya concedes may be morally justified.

More than that though, consider the "Kantian" standard he's proposing and were one to adopt it you couldn't justify either war itself or any form of criminal punishment either. If your ideology requires that because Khalid Sheikh Mohammed must be treated as an end in himself you may not waterboard him then obviously you can neither shoot at him nor imprison him either. Mr. Kamiya here proposes a standard of action that he doesn't really mean because he hasn't thought about it very deeply. Let Mohammed walk into the Salon offices wearing a dynamite vest and we'll see just how much Kantian deference Mr. Kamiya truly thinks he should be paid.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 22, 2009 9:41 PM
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