Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Justification in Hindsight

A poll (.pdf) taken in November shows that most Americans think that torture is justified in at least some rare instances. I was especially amazed to see that 86% of South Koreans are down with torture if the correct situation arises.

I think I would have a hard time answering the question given in this survey, however.

"How do you feel about the use of torture against suspected terrorists to obtain information about terrorism activities? Can that...often be justified? ...sometimes be justified? ...rarely be justified? ...never be justified? ...not sure"


When a person goes ahead and tortures a detainee, it is never a morally correct decision. The practical issues feed directly into the moral ones here, because the cruelty of torture is not worth the risk of it being fruitless. If I could be assured that my subject of interrogation would tell me how to defuse the ticking nuclear bomb planted in a daycare for the children of nice-smelling nobel prizewinners if I were to commit some horrible act on him or her, I see no problem going ahead and doing it. The point of interrogation, however, is that the interrogator does not know what the detainee knows. There really is no way to know what is going to be accomplished by practicing waterboarding on a detainee. I am not at all comfortable with the idea of torturing another human being just in case I find out something important. It may happen that good, useful information that saves many lives will be obtained through torture. In that case, retroactively, I think that torture could be considered "justified." Its potential utility, however, does not make it acceptable, and the fact that it is more likely to be useless than not, makes it evil.

2 comments:

Victor said...

The problem with torture as an intelligence-gathering tool is when you induce enough pain, be it psychological, physical, or otherwise, the tendency is to tell your tormentors whatever they want to hear, regardless of the veracity of the information. This results in a dilution of effective, actionable intelligence, which is why torture is more a propaganda tool ("look at your degraded heroes NOW") than an intelligence tool. Until now, anyway.

Sara E Anderson said...

Yes yes yes. I guess I didn't make it explicit that I think it's both practically bad and morally bad. Either one is bad enough on its own, but both together really make me wonder why it gets defended so much.