Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Moral Case for Torturing Terrorists

The moral case for torturing terrorists.
Copyright 2009 Michael S. Kochin all rights reserved

A1. Terrorism is a crime.
A2. It is the obligation of everyone with knowledge of a potential crime to share that knowledge with those that can prevent the crime.
A3. If someone is obliged to do something, there is a prima facie case that they ought to be coerced to carry out their duty.
A4. Torture is an effective means of extracting information
It follows:
C1. There is a prima facie case that those with relevant knowledge that can prevent terrorist actions ought to be tortured into revealing that information.

Discussion: Obviously, the required means of coercion depends on a whole host of factors. We must do things to prevent a murder that we must not do to prevent a shoplifting.
Also, this argument assumes that we know that somebody has relevant knowledge which they are refusing to share. Since in the real world we are are uncertain about this in any given case, we need to concerned about torturing innocent people. But in the real world we also need to worry about arresting innocent people, jailing innocent people, and executing innocent people. The answer to all these problems is the same as the answer to the surgeon: "try real hard not to make mistakes."


  1. Every single one of your assumptions is entirely incorrect ...not in part but in full. And if you do not understand this, than you cannot put forth any sort of moral argument at all, because to make these assumptions you have to be fundamentally amoral.

    Please read "The History Boys" by Alan Bennett...The movie is very good but the most important fundamental important theme in that play was actually excised from the film script.

  2. Well, I'm not sure that each of the assumptions are incorrect; A4 certainly is, and it doesn't tell the whole story. Is it an effective tool for extracting the right information? Any sort of coercion fudges the data a little bit - money, pain, favors, esteem. Each of these might yield some information - but they can also yield JUNK information. As the Detroit error, and its precursors 9/11 and the WTC bombing in the 90s, it's not that we didn't have the information - we did. We just didn't collate it properly from the noise.

    You'll have to go much further in your argument if you want to convince anyone - define what torture is. Is it sleep deprivation? I don't think so, but some might. Is it extreme temperatures? Some think so.

    While there may be a moral imperative to use any and all means necessary to coerce information from a terrorist, the professional interrogator must also realize that he or she is risking their job and their freedom if they step over the line into torture.

    And terrorism isn't a crime - it's a methodology. Murder is the crime.

  3. Rich:

    Do you really think that we have no obligation to share knowledge that could prevent impending crime? Your state's medical ethics rules see things differently.

  4. Jeremy:

    Torture works to an extent, just like eavesdropping or "follow the money." Obviously any method of coercing information -- including the Federal prosecutor's old favorite "confess or we indict your daughter" -- can extract falsehoods instead of truths.

    I define torture very broadly. For example, I do not see a relevant moral difference between incarceration as a mode of applying physical coercion to extract information and waterboarding.

    You write "the professional interrogator must also realize that he or she is risking their job and their freedom if they step over the line into torture." There are certainly circumstances where I would agree with you. But the harder question is: does the professional interrogator risk his job by refusing to torture when torture is morally required?
    Finally, we can reqord assumption 1 in avrious ways. The essential issue is that torture is morally required in cases where it is effective at extracting information need to prevent serious crimes.