Saturday, June 6, 2009

Further Against Torture

This is a reply to Derek's comment. Blogger won't allow me to post it as a comment because it is too many characters.


You’re right, JMNR’s post doesn’t put forth a formal argument for why torture can never be justified. It assumes that “torture” is evil by definition, and then wonders whether the Bush Administration tortured. He says that many of the practices used by the administration “have been widely condemned as torture prior to their use”. He says the actions don’t pass the “smell test” and that John McCain (a man with first-hand experience with torture) condemns them. Then he says that if a “bipartisan and judicious examination” of the facts (calmly and fully disclosed) finds the acts as torturous, then the acts are condemnable.

That’s a position, if not something close to an argument.

And you don’t do any better. You’ve yet to cough up an argument for why torture may be justified.


My post isn't an argument for the immorality of torture, so much as it is an argument for why we shouldn't torture (the fact that torture is immoral is just one reason why we shouldn't do it). I never meant to argue that because torture is illegal, it is therefore immoral.

Torture just happens to be one of those things that’s both illegal and immoral.


You admit that torture is harmful to the souls of the individuals carrying it out, that it is illegal, and that it is harmful to the reputation of our country.

Yet you dispute that it is always immoral.

I think the burden of proof is on you to demonstrate that torture is ever morally permissible, since the majority position is that it is not (hence all the legislation against it).

But not only that, I also think you bear the burden of proof because non-violence should be our preferred default. We should be slow to conclude that intentional infliction of suffering on other human beings made in the image of God and for whom Christ died is ever warranted.

If you want to stand up for torture, you have to make your case. And it better be good.


It isn’t clear whether you admit that torture is ineffective, or whether you understand how that fact is relevant. All you gave us is a “hmmm”.

But the fact that torture is ineffective for extracting reliable information, especially when contrasted with other means of interrogation, is hugely relevant.

I agree that there are occasions for doing things that happen to be illegal and harmful to the soul and reputation. But one is hard-pressed to find a reason why such an illegal and harmful thing might be justified if it's ineffective to begin with, and if there are far more effective alternatives!


As for what you take to be the strongest case against the justification of torture is interesting, but isn’t really that much of an argument, so much as it is simply a (pretty coherent) position.

Nevertheless, you admit that it is persuasive, though you offer one counter-example (Just War).

It seems like someone wanting to maintain that torture is always evil could reject Just War theory, or, wanting to maintain a version of Just War theory, one could hold that war may only be justified as a means to self-defense (a scaled up version of shooting and regrettably killing an armed intruder in your house who obviously intends to kill you). Obviously wars run under this philosophy would look different than we might be used to.

As for Aquinas, I think he might be able to save his position as you described it, that war may be justified if declared by a legitimate authority (something I do not necessarily concede in this post), by being careful to define how an individual or group of individuals can obtain authority legitimately.

One might argue that in the case of the America Revolution, we were first justified in declaring independence and national sovereignty, which we did, and thereby obtained the legitimate authority to declare war against armed intruders, which we did.

Or, like Norman Geisler as I understand him, you can argue that violent revolution is never justified. He views America like an illegitimate child (he loves her, but not the way she was conceived).


As for whether it’s true that “Intentional killing can be justified, in the absence of a legitimate authority, if the killing is done for the sake of securing a people’s natural rights.", I’m not sure. I for one am not prepared to go to war with you for stealing one of my books and refusing to give it back (though you might argue I have a natural right to my property).

As to whether a person who endangers the lives of non-combatants gives up their right to not be tortured, I am just not convinced. Even if it’s possible to forfeit certain rights to certain degrees (a claim I am not sure about), it does not follow that torture itself may be justified. There may still be lines that one should never cross.


  1. good response. I'm interested in following. I wonder, Louis, what "far more effective alternatives!" you have in mind.

  2. “And you don’t do any better. You’ve yet to cough up an argument for why torture may be justified.”

    Touché. It’s notoriously difficult to argue for the justification for an action F if someone doesn’t already believe that F can be justified. Furthermore, if someone thought action F is sometimes justified, it would be pointless to argue for its justification.

    But not everything is hopeless. What I can do, it seems, is try to give cases where I think my interlocutors might think F might be justified. Assuming we might reach an agreement, the next step in the dialectic is to figure out why we might think F might be justified, and to see what our thinking that F might be justified might entail.

    So here we go.

    Case A.

    Jitler single-handedly rounded up 6.6 million Muslims and has stored them in place where they will inevitably run out of oxygen and die if they aren’t rescued. We don’t know where this place is, but we know that Jitler is responsible for this state of affairs, and we know that Jitler knows where they are and how to get to where they are. Let’s assume we know no one else knows where Jitler has put the Muslims.

    Is it morally permissible to waterboard Jitler to find out where the Muslims are? Why or why not?

    Case B.

    Bob hates all of Europe. He planted a thermonuclear device underneath the continent in just the right place such that if the bomb goes off, all of Europe will be destroyed. The bomb is set to go off in 6 hours. The detonation device is Bob’s cell phone. In six hours his cell phone will automatically send asignal that will set the bomb off. Tampering with the phone will set the bomb off. Tampering with Bob’s cell phone network will set the bomb off. Turning the phone off will set the bomb off. Tampering with the bomb will set if off. It’s physically impossible to get the bomb before it’s slated to go off. The objective probability of cracking the code to disarm the bomb is infinitesimally low. No one but Bob knows the code. It’s estimated that one third of Europe is able to evacuate in time, which means that roughly 553 million people will die if the bomb is not disarmed. We know that Bob knows the code, and we know Bob is single-handedly responsible for this state of affairs.

    Is it morally permissible to waterboard Bob as a means to obtaining the code? Why or why not?

  3. @Elessar "Non-coercive, traditional, rapport-based interviewing approaches" are argued by experts to be the most consistently effective. Think about just one example - if you've been told all your life that America is evil and they torture Muslims and then you get captured and instead of being tortured, you are treated humanely (provided shelter, food, hygiene, etc.) and then someone comes to you and levels with you and reasons with you, you are far more likely to cooperate than if you are met with exactly the cruel treatment you have been preparing your whole life for and are resolved to endure no matter what.

    @Derek In both cases it would be sorely tempting to torture. But I've already said that nonviolence should be our default and that you are obliged to argue for the moral permissibility of any violent act. So for now, no, I don't think water-boarding is morally permissible in either of the cases you gave (though I reserve the right to change my mind if given reason to do so).

    It also bears mentioning that the majority position seems to be that "No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency... [justifies]... torture.".

    Under my current view, the bloodguilt belongs to those who shed blood unjustifiably, and their accomplices. This would include those who refuse to give up the bomb cell phone code or the location of the Muslims in your examples.

    I think it might help to remember that death is not the end. The deaths of the Muslims or the Europeans in your hypothetical cases wouldn't be any cosmic tragedy (just a tragedy within the frame of reference of this life).

  4. Enter incommensurability. We've reached an impasse.

    I don't know what else to say. On my tentative view of moral epistemology, I can't prove that any given act is immoral. All I can do is investigate certain states of affairs (both actual and not) and see what my intuitions tell me. If a moral intuition is gleaned from a particular case, I then compare it to similar cases and see if my intuitions are coherent. If they aren't, I must figure out which intuition is the strongest. Once I figure that out, I then try and see if the weaker intuition is really in conflict with the stronger. If it turns out there really is a conflict, in the name of coherency I have to try and reason my way out of the weaker intuition. If successful, an intuitive and coherent moral theory will begin to take shape.

    This being said, I think your nonviolence-as-default principle, though well intended, is too strong. To show you why I think this, imagine yourself trying to defend the moral permissibility of killing in self-defense to a pacifist. You paint what you take to be the most clear cut situation in which it would justified, and after doing so, the pacifist responds:

    "I see the intuitive force of your examples, but I've already said that nonviolence should be our default and that you are obliged to argue for the moral permissibility of any violent act."

    I think your response would be: Dude! I just gave you an argument in the form of presenting you a putative case. You seem to think that F-ing might be justified in this case. But instead of telling me why it's not, you appeal to some principle that says I have to argue for my case. Since I gave you an argument, you at least have to give some response on why it's not a good argument. Saying "nonviolence should be our default and that you are obliged to argue for the moral permissibility of any violent act" is not an answer to the question: "Here's a case where I think F-ing is justified, do you think it is, why or why not?"

    Perhaps you think, by invoking such a principle, that you don't have to explain why you don't think waterboarding would be justified in Case A and B. But at least admit that you don't know why waterboarding would not be justified in these cases.

  5. I've thought about it and you have a good point. I am not sure why I think water-boarding would not be justified in case A or B, and I would not know how to argue for the moral permissibility of regrettably having to kill in self-defense. I could always become a pacifist, but that would be silly. I will have to settle for uncertainty for now. I've appreciated our dialogue.

    I guess a potential new question to discuss is whether certain specific actions taken by the Bush Administration were morally permissible (for certainly they were illegal).

    Maybe an even more appropriate line of inquiry would be into what the best steps to take to determine whether and how certain actions should be prosecuted would be.

  6. Go ahead and pretend the last two words of the last sentence never existed. Thanks.


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