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The person being tortured is for the duration of the torturing process physically powerless in relation to the torturer. Perhaps the terrorist could negotiate the cessation of torture and immunity for himself, if he talks. Consider also a situation in which both a hostage and his torturer know that it is only a matter of an hour before the police arrive, free the hostage and arrest the torturer; perhaps the hostage is a defence official who is refusing to disclose the whereabouts of important military documents and who is strengthened in his resolve by this knowledge of the limited duration of the pain being inflicted upon him.

The conclusion to be drawn from these considerations is that torture is not necessarily morally worse than killing or more undesirable than death , though in many instances it may well be. Killing is an infringement of the right to life and the right to autonomy. Torture is an infringement of the right to autonomy, but not necessarily of the right to life. Let us now turn directly to the question of the moral justification for torture in extreme emergencies.

Here we must distinguish between one-off cases of torture, on the one hand, and legalised or institutionalised torture, on the other. In this section one-off, non-institutionalised acts of torture performed by state actors in emergency situations are considered. The argument is that there are, or could well be, one-off acts of torture in extreme emergencies that are, all things considered, morally justifiable.

Torture - Bibliography - PhilPapers

Accordingly, the assumption is that the routine use of torture is not morally justified; so if it turned out that the routine use of torture was necessary to, say, win the war on terrorism, then some of what is said here would not be to the point. The most obvious version of the argument in favour of one-off acts of torture in extreme emergencies is consequentialist in form. For example, Bagaric and Clarke 29 offer a version of the ticking bomb scenario in the context of their hedonistic act utilitarian theoretical perspective.

A standard objection to this kind of appeal to consequentialism is that it licenses far too much: torture of a few innocent victims may well be justified, on this account, if it provides intense pleasure for a much larger number of sadists. As it happens, Bagaric and Clarke insist that they want to restrict the practice of torture; only the guilty are to be subjected to torture and only for the purpose of extracting information.

However it is far from clear how this desired restriction can be reconciled with consequentialism in any of its various permutations, let alone the relatively permissive version favoured by Bagaric and Clarke. Why, for example, should torture be restricted to the guilty, if torturing a small number of innocent persons would enable the lives of many other innocents to be saved as presumably it might.

Contemporary Moral Problems

Again, why should under-resourced Indian police not torture — as they often do in reality — a repeat offender responsible for a very large number of property crimes, if this proves to be the only available efficient and effective form of retrieving the stolen property in question and, thereby, securing the conviction of this offender, reducing property crime and making a large number of property owners happy? The essential problem confronted by consequentialists participating in the torture debate is that their theoretically admissible moral barriers to torture are relatively flimsy; too flimsy, it seems, to accommodate the strong moral intuitions in play.

But see Arrigo However, their moral absolutism is not without its own problems: specifically, in relation to torturing the guilty few for the purpose of saving the innocent many. See Walzer , Miller ; Kershnar and Steinhoff Before turning in detail to the arguments on this issue, let us consider some putative examples of the justified use of torture.

The first is a policing example, the second a terrorist example. Arguably, both examples are realistic, albeit the terrorist ticking bomb scenario is often claimed by moral absolutists to be utterly fanciful. Certainly, the policing example is realistic; indeed, it was provided by a former police officer from his own experience.

So is it entirely fanciful that there could be such an attack and that an Al Qaeda operative known on the basis of intercepted communications to be a member of the cell involved in the planned attack might not be arrested, interrogated and tortured?

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At any rate, these are the two most popular kinds of example discussed in the literature. These cases include the real-life Daschner case involving the threat to torture a kidnapper by German police in which resulted in the kidnapper disclosing the location of a kidnapped child Miller Consider the following case study: Height of the antipodean summer, Mercury at the century-mark; the noonday sun softened the bitumen beneath the tyres of her little Hyundai sedan to the consistency of putty.

Her three year old son, quiet at last, snuffled in his sleep on the back seat. He had a summer cold and wailed like a banshee in the supermarket, forcing her to cut short her shopping. Her car needed petrol. Her tot was asleep on the back seat.

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She poured twenty litres into the tank; thumbing notes from her purse, harried and distracted, her keys dangled from the ignition. Whilst she was in the service station a man drove off in her car. Where did you dump the car? He quite enjoyed handing out a bit of biffo, but now, kneeling on hands and knees in his own urine, in pain he had never known, he finally realised the beating would go on until he told the police where he had abandoned the child and the car.

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When found, the stolen child was dehydrated, too weak to cry; there were ice packs and dehydration in the casualty ward but no long-time prognosis on brain damage. In this case study torture of the car thief can be provided with a substantial moral justification, even if it does not convince everyone. Consider the following case. A terrorist group has planted a small nuclear device with a timing mechanism in London and it is about to go off.

If it does it will kill thousands and make a large part of the city uninhabitable for decades. One of the terrorists has been captured by the police, and if he can be made to disclose the location of the device then the police can probably disarm it and thereby save the lives of thousands. The police know the terrorist in question. They know he has orchestrated terrorist attacks, albeit non-nuclear ones, in the past. Moreover, on the basis of intercepted mobile phone calls and e-mails the police know that this attack is under way in some location in London and that he is the leader of the group.

Unfortunately, the terrorist is refusing to talk and time is slipping away. However, the police know that there is a reasonable chance that he will talk, if tortured. Moreover, all their other sources of information have dried up.

Torture: Is it ever justifiable?

Furthermore, there is no other way to avoid catastrophe; evacuation of the city, for example, cannot be undertaken in the limited time available. Torture is not normally used by the police, and indeed it is unlawful to use it. In this case study there is also a substantial moral justification for torture, albeit one that many moral absolutists do not find compelling. Consider the following points: 1 The police reasonably believe that torturing the terrorist will probably save thousands of innocent lives; 2 the police know that there is no other way to save those lives; 3 the threat to life is more or less imminent; 4 the thousands about to be murdered are innocent — the terrorist has no good, let alone decisive, justificatory moral reason for murdering them; 5 the terrorist is known to be jointly with the other terrorists morally responsible for planning, transporting, and arming the nuclear device and, if it explodes, he will be jointly with the other terrorists morally responsible for the murder of thousands.

In addition to the above set of moral considerations, consider the following points. The terrorist is culpable on two counts. Firstly, the terrorist is forcing the police to choose between two evils, namely, torturing the terrorist or allowing thousands of lives to be lost. Were the terrorist to do what he ought to do, namely, disclose the location of the ticking bomb, the police could refrain from torturing him.

This would be true of the terrorist, even if he were not actively participating in the bombing project. Secondly, the terrorist is in the process of completing his jointly undertaken action of murdering thousands of innocent people. He has already undertaken his individual actions of, say, transporting and arming the nuclear device; he has performed these individual actions in the context of other individual actions performed by the other members of the terrorist cell in order to realise the end shared by the other members of the cell of murdering thousands of Londoners. In refusing to disclose the location of the device the terrorist is preventing the police from preventing him from completing his joint action of murdering thousands of innocent people.

In the institutional environment described, torture is both unlawful and highly unusual.

List of References

Accordingly the police, if it is discovered that they have tortured the terrorist, would be tried for a serious crime and, if found guilty, sentenced. We will return to this issue in the following section.


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Here simply note that the bare illegality of their act of torture does not render it morally impermissible, given it was otherwise morally permissible. Here it is the bare fact that it is illegal that is in question. So the relevant moral considerations comprise whatever moral weight attaches to compliance with the law just for the sake of compliance with the law, as distinct from compliance for the sake of the public benefits the law brings or compliance because of the moral weight that attaches to the moral principle that a particular law might embody.

But even if it is held that compliance with the law for its own sake has some moral weight — and arguably it has none — it does not have sufficient moral weight to make a decisive difference in this kind of scenario. In short, if torturing the terrorist is morally permissible absent questions of legality, the bare fact of torture being illegal does not render it morally impermissible. Note also that since the terrorist is, when being tortured, still in the process of attempting to complete his joint action of murdering thousands of Londoners, and murdering also the police about to torture him, the post factum legal defence of necessity may well be available to the police should they subsequently be tried for torture.


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  • Some commentators on scenarios of this kind are reluctant to concede that the police are morally entitled — let alone morally obliged — to torture the offender. How do these commentators justify their position?


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    • Someone might claim that torture is an absolute moral wrong Matthews ; Brecher For criticisms of these authors see especially Steinhoff and Allhoff On this view there simply are no real or imaginable circumstances in which torture could be morally justified. This is a hard view to sustain, not least because we have already seen that being tortured is not necessarily worse than being killed, and torturing someone not necessarily morally worse than killing him.

      Naturally, someone might hold that killing is an absolute moral wrong, i. This view is consistent with holding that torture is an absolute moral wrong, i. However, the price of consistency is very high. The view that killing is an absolute moral wrong is a very implausible one. It would rule out, for example, killing in self-defence. Let us, therefore, set it aside and continue with the view that torture, but not killing, is an absolute moral wrong. For those who hold that killing is not an absolute moral wrong, it is very difficult to see how torture could be an absolute moral wrong, given that killing is sometimes morally worse than torture.

      In particular, it is difficult to see how torturing but not killing the guilty terrorist and saving the lives of thousands could be morally worse than refraining from torturing him and allowing him to murder thousands — torturing the terrorist is a temporary infringement of his autonomy, whereas his detonating of the nuclear device is a permanent violation of the autonomy of thousands.

      In conclusion, the view that it is, all things considered, morally wrong to torture the terrorist in the scenario outlined faces very serious objections; and it is difficult to see how these objections can be met. It is plausible, therefore, that there are some imaginable circumstances in which it is morally permissible to torture someone. Let us now turn to the other argument of those opposing the moral permissibility of torture mentioned above.

      decepretistio.ga The basic idea is that while torture is not an absolute moral wrong in the sense that the evil involved in performing any act of torture is so great as to override any other conceivable set of moral considerations, nevertheless, there are no moral considerations that in the real world have overridden, or ever will override, the moral injunction against torture; the principle of refraining from torture has always trumped, and will always trump, other moral imperatives. Proponents of this view can happily accept that the offenders in putative examples should be tortured, while simultaneously claiming that the scenarios in these examples are entirely fanciful ones that have never been, and will never be, realised in the real world.

      It is important to stress here that the kind of scenario under discussion remains that of the one-off case of torture in an emergency situation; what is not under consideration in this section is legalised, or otherwise institutionalised, torture. The first point to be made is simply to reiterate that some of these scenarios — such as police officers beating up kidnappers and other offenders to rescue children — are not only realistic, they are real; they have actually happened.

      What of the ticking bomb scenario in particular? As stated above, it is by no means self-evident that this kind of scenario is entirely fanciful.