Torture: Some Moral Issues

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There's been a resumption in the discussions of torture with the Michael Mukasey attorney general hearings. I haven't had much chance to say anything about these issues, but I've been thinking that there are two questions people I've been hearing and reading have been sidestepping. Some of the questions are legal. There are international treaties that weigh in on the issue, and there are explicit laws and policies that may have a bearing. I'm not interested in those issues for this post, but I hope to come back to them later this week. For the moment, I want to offer some moral considerations apart from whether any law or treaty applies to any particular technique.

Here is a plausible moral view (which I've tried to motivate a little more in general here and here). There are lots of things that are generally immoral that in extreme circumstances might be morally justified or at least excused. This is almost uncontroversially true of killing. Hardly anyone will oppose killing in self-defense or defense of others. It's also not that controversial to say it's true of causing lesser degrees of pain for the sake of achieving some further goal (e.g. cutting off someone's arm to amputate it when their arm would otherwise cause them to die from gangrene). It might be true in cases of causing one person pain in order to prevent a great harm to many people, as happens with interrogation methods that cause some psychological discomfort but are not controversial.

Given all that, it's at least an option on the table to consider more extreme methods of interrogation as different only in degree and not in kind. It's a greater amount of discomfort, pain, and distress. So it should take a greater amount of seriousness in the situation for it to be morally allowable. But I don't see how it's going to follow automatically from the greater amount of discomfort, pain, and distress that we should have an absolute moral prohibition on it. Maybe some techniques are so awful that the moral seriousness of the situation needs to be so high that it's almost certainly never going to occur. But that's still not an absolute moral prohibition.

Notice that I haven't used the word 'torture' in any of that discussion. I've been using more precise terms that actually mean something. If this view is correct, and I haven't argued that it is but simply claimed that it should be on the table, then techniques like waterboarding may well be immoral in almost any case that someone might propose to use them but not necessarily immoral in every case.

Leaving aside any actual laws and policies, what does this mean for what the ideal law or policy should say? I'm not sure it follows that any particular law or policy is the right one, but it does suggest that there should be extremely strong safeguards against using such techniques except in very extreme circumstances, and it seems perfectly fine given such a view that there would nevertheless be some way such techniques could nevertheless be used in extremely rare, extremely serious situations. I have no idea how such a policy would work, but it seems to me that absolute prohibitions and blanket allowances would both fail to capture the correct moral view if what I've been outlining is correct.

Again, I haven't argued that this view is true, but it seems to me to be one of the views we should have on the table, and that means absolute prohibitions and blanket allowances should not be the only options on the table. Meanwhile, the opponents of waterboarding aren't allowing anything but a blanket prohibition to be on the table, and many of the supporters of extreme interrogation techniques have not shown much willingness to figure out how to have safeguards to keep these techniques rare. I think that's unfortunate.


It seems to me that this logic could apply equally well to terrorism. If the goal is important enough, then killing innocent civilians in order to intimidate a nation into submission may, in rare circumstances, be permissible.

That view, of course, has often been embraced by reputable nation-states as well as by stateless renegades. Thus, so far so good, unless (like me) you're squeamish about Hiroshima and Dresden.

This view could also be used to justify genocide in certain cases. It has been used, after all, by some Christian apologists to justify certain Old Testament passages. If killing an entire ethnic group will prevent a greater future catastrophe, then why not kill that ethnic group?

But of course we *do* espouse blanket prohibitions on terrorism and genocide. Even people allowing such exceptions as the ones I mentioned above tend to pay lip service to an absolute prohibition. If you ask them, they'll say that terrorism and genocide are wrong, period.

And as far as policy goes, I think that's a good thing. Would it do us any good at all to build a loophole into laws against terrorism and genocide?

Why do we as Christians think that "those people over there are evil"? Doesn't the scripture teach us that we are all equally guilty before the Lord?

It might be uncomfortable to compare torture with the other lesser sins we commit all the time. We might think that torture does more damage to our souls, the victim and society than say gluttony.

I remember being an idealistic (absolutist) youth and arguing on an internet form that I would hide Jews during WWII unless a Nazi asked me a direct question then I wouldn't lie about harboring them.

What preposterous thinking I had!

I realized in the ridiculousness of that hypothetical wherein a terrible truth hid, I was trapped. In fact, there was no way (at least in my mind) to avoid sin. Either I would allow the harm to come to another person (and in fact support a evil regime), or I would lie.

Every time we use violence, even in self-defense, we are diverging from the example set by our savior, silent as the lamb before the slaughter.

So instead of losing my mind over whether torture is evil or not, I would accept that I was given an opportunity to save lives by doing something harmful to my soul and pray for the Lord's forgiveness as I do every other day of my life.

As for "policy", I've always been a believer that policy should reflect the ideals of a society. When individuals (aka Jack Bauer) feel they must break that policy, they should and even if they were "right" in doing so, they should suffer the consequences.

Just as an officer should disobey a bad order from a superior in the military, but still be disciplined afterward.

It is the same logic that I use with euthanasia (it should be illegal, but I understand why some might perform it anyway), social activism (those who practice civil disobedience should expect to go to prison), and taxes. After all, my taxes go to support all manner of sinful things, but Christ taught us to pay them. Surely Christ wasn't telling us to sin?


Yes, it applies to terrorism and genocide. I think there might be extremely rare cases when terrorism or genocide might be morally justified. I don't hold an absolutist view on either issue. So I don't think I'm with those who espouse blanket prohibitions on terrorism and genocide.

What I would say is that those acts are intrinsically wrong. What makes them wrong is something about the action itself and not some result of the action (as would be the case in consequentialism). But what this means is that the intrinsic wrong makes it extremely hard to find cases where the consequences can be so bad as to outweigh the very serious moral constraint against doing that action. But that's consistent with thinking there might be possible cases when it does get outweighed.

It's unfortunate if the law doesn't allow legitimate authorities to go against such things, but I would want some really serious safeguards on whatever allowance we're going to make. I do think it would be worth having a loophole, but it would have to be a loophole with much more serious constraints than just leaving it up to the discretion of the president.

David, you're assuming something I wouldn't grant. I think your assumption is that if something can be described as bad in any way then it's wrong. I just don't think that's true. When you've got two choices, and one is worse than the other, but neither is ideal, it's still possible that the one that's less bad is morally right because it's the least bad of all possible choices.

As for Jesus, you're ignoring the violence he was willing to engage in when he overturned the tables in the temple. It's not the violence that he's condemning in the Sermon on the Mount. It's the attitude of self-righteousness and self-importance that often leads people to violence. There's nothing in any of Jesus' teaching that should prevent someone from using violence to save someone else's life. There's no contradiction in his teaching to God's outright commands to Israel to do violence, both in capital punishment and in executing God's justice against the peoples who occupied the land. All the cases he gives are about elevating self.

I think your taxes case is helpful for what followers of Jesus should say. I think you're right that Jesus wouldn't tell us to sin. But he says to pay taxes, knowing that taxes support immorality. Doesn't it follow that he wouldn't think it isn't immoral to pay taxes that will be used to support immorality? It's bad, but it's not immoral, because it would be worse not to pay the taxes.

I've discussed lying and civil disobedience at length, so I won't repeat my thoughts on those.

Notice that I haven't used the word 'torture' in any of that discussion. I've been using more precise terms that actually mean something.

Hi, Jeremy. Interesting post. On the bit I quote above, I think "torture" really does have a good, actual meaning -- at least enough so that recent abuses of it by our current administration are demonstrably wrong (to use a very kind word, given the situation). But I guess the meanings of words can always be put in jeopardy by sustained, organized attacks on their clear meanings.

But also, the word has meaning enough that the more "precise" terms you're using in its place actually fail to capture an element of its meaning that is crucial to some of the moral evaluations that involve it. Suppose I'm a soldier in a just war. I fire on some advancing soldiers from the other side under circumstances such that almost any non-pacifist will say my actions are justified. I see several of the advancing enemies go down, due to my shots. It's possible that I've killed them, but it's more likely, in the case of each, that I've merely injured him. In the circumstances, anyone I've injured is likely to be in excruciating agony for a long period of time, but will likely survive. When asked if I killed anybody during the battle, the correct answer for me to give is something like this: "It's possible. I shot several, and I saw them go down, but I don't know whether I killed any of them." But when asked whether I tortured anyone during the battle, I think the correct answer is a simple "No." But it's even more likely (from my point of view) that I caused considerable (and even very severe) suffering to enemy soldiers than that I caused their deaths. So I don't think that "torture" means only causing severe pain (discomfort, etc.). I don't think the difference here is a matter of my intending to cause death, but not intending to cause severe suffering. My intention is to put those enemies "out of commission." We can suppose that my preference is that I only injure them. We may even suppose that I chose what ammunition I used in part because it would be slightly less likely to kill than the alternative ammunition I might have used -- perhaps because I thought it would be better for those I shot not to be killed. Still, the answer to whether I killed anyone seems to be "Possibly," while the answer to whether I tortured anyone seems "No." Now, once any enemies have surrendered and are safely "out of commission," if I were to walk up the cage holding them and shoot any of them to cause them severe suffering, *then* I'm torturing them. There seems to be a crucial element of the notion of "torture" that goes beyond causing severe pain, and that is present in this case of shooting captives, but is absent in the case when I'm firing on advancing soldiers. I don't claim to have this crucial element completely & precisely "Chisholmed," but, whatever its exact contours, it seems to be part of the meaning of "torture," and it does seem to be very relevant to moral concerns. Note that, though "killing" doesn't have such an element to its meaning, it does seem morally more problematic to shoot to kill the captured enemy than to shoot to kill an advancing enemy soldier.

(None of this is intended to address the main point of your post. Sorry for picking on a side matter, but it seems to me important.)

Keith, I'm going to discuss the word 'torture' when I get to legal issues later in the week. I have some things to say about that, and what you say might inform what I want to say, and I thank you for that, although I do think I still will want to say most of what I originally wanted to say. But it will help to think of it in relation to your concern.

As for this post, I think you're right that torture requires the intention of causing pain, and I think you're also right that, as with killing, causing pain should be more problematic morally with a captured enemy than with an advancing enemy soldier. What I'm not at all sure is what precisely counts as a sufficient condition for torture. I don't think it's torture when someone pokes on my arm twenty times to show me that small discomfort when added up over time becomes painful. The pain is intended, but it's not torture.

So what you've pointed out is clearly a necessary condition, and I think the post could have been clearer and more to the point if I'd included that necessary condition in my example and made clear that there is a moral distinction between:

(a) causing pain because the thing you do that causes the pain has a benefit
(b) causing pain because the pain itself will lead to a good result

I do think (b) is more problematic morally than (a). That's one place the view I would defend departs from consequentialism and why it counts as a kind of deontology. At the same time, I don't think an absolute prohibition on (b) is morally justified. That's what distinguishes my view from Kantian (or other absolutist) deontological views.


I think I was being overly complicated to say something rather simple. I want to please God. I make a thousand decisions a day trying to do as He would have me do.

After a while (even without the critical input of the Old Testament Law, the examples of the Saints who've gone on before and the admonition of the Apostles and 2000 years of Church history) I see principles that I begin to use as moral short hand.

I find repeatedly that these principles are often in conflict. Creating no-win situations where I must violate at least one of them. I call this sin because I have come to believe that the violation of these principles is as close as I can understand a violation of God's will to be.

I'm limited, but given the tools I have, I'm stuck. I must do "this" immoral thing or "that" immoral thing. So I chose which one seems, as they say "the lesser of two evils" and then pray for forgiveness that I am so limited.

I am absolutely convinced that the genocides God authorized Israel to do, harmed their souls, but God had His hand ready to heal the hurts.

OK, that's still a complicated way of saying it, but it might be a more useful way.

I just don't see torture as any more in need of an agonizing night of ethical dilemma as whether I would go to work for a demonstrably evil corporation if it meant I could feed my family. Or whether I think government charity is more harmful in the big picture than those who's noble motives drive them to seek to increase its presence in our society.

Jeremy, I agree with you on the abstract, theoretical issue: that it's theoretically possible that there could be some conceivable situation where torture would be morally justified. But I don't see how that's relevant to our actual political discussions in the actual world, or why that implies that some "safeguarded, legal, and rare" torture option should be on the table. After all, your theoretical argument applies to every law on the books. Even keeping things in broad, general terms, it seems like it would be irresponsible for anyone to propose rare legal extreme interrogation unless:

- situations where it would be morally acceptable are likely to arise, at least occasionally
- some description of those justifiable torture cases can be given
- the people authorized to interrogate extremely will reliably be able to identify those cases

Otherwise, the person proposing rare legality wouldn't even know what he was proposing, or would be proposing something that could not be enacted by humans.

Things get much more difficult for the rare but legal position once we get beyond abstract philosophy or political theory and look at current political reality. Current extreme interrogation techniques are generally used immorally, and are accompanied by a host of other problems with how we deal with detainees, including a lack of legal process for distinguishing people who should be detained from those who shouldn't, a lack of oversight and accountability concerning how we treat and interrogate detainees, the presence of many people who believe that extreme methods of interrogation (or extreme methods of inflicting suffering on detainees who "deserve it") should be common, and leadership in the executive branch who will grab onto any shred of law resembling a justification of these sorts practices and take it as far as they can. If you really want extreme interrogation methods to be extremely rare and extremely well safeguarded, then advocating any law allowing any sort of torture in these circumstances is not just irresponsible but horribly reckless and foolish. You're obviously not going to get anything resembling the ideal torture policy that you dream of, but you might help our government continue its excesses in interrogation extremity.

If we can clean up this whole process, so that our treatment of detainees (including their interrogation) is consistent with the relevant moral principles and has the necessary safeguards, then maybe we can start to talk about letting torture back into the picture. I think the arguments for a blanket ban would still hold sway, should those distant circumstances ever arise, but I'll spare you that whole set of arguments.

One problem is that those you don't want to use hte loophole will by their nature be the ones who spend a lot of time looking to find it and those you do want to use it would probably not think about it until they had to.

I suppose it would allow you to write torture into the text books of the police of the world and for them to work out 'best practice'. But again I'm concerned it would be the same issue on a bigger scale.... However....

> I do think it would be worth having a loophole

I think there is a loophole - in fact if anything its too wide. that is that the system itself would not tolerate the procecution of a hero. there are probably already day to day situations where people are not procecuted because their crime appeared to be justified.

that loophole may already be more accurate than any other loophole we might design which could let more people through that we did not want through.

"It might be true in cases of causing one person pain in order to prevent a great harm to many people, as happens with interrogation methods that cause some psychological discomfort but are not controversial."

Even if I agree with that in theory, what happens when you add the other moral questions that go along with torture that don't apply to self defense and amputation in real-world situations? Like:

What if the person you're torturing is innocent?

What if as a result of torture a person signs false confessions, or makes up information he thinks will please interregators which is taken to be true and inadvertently causes pain or death to more innocent people?

G: Those concerns can be true of far less severe interrogation techniques that people use all the time and are often considered perfectly ok.

Blar: You sound as if you think the kind of rarity I'm envisioning is virtual non-existence except in remote possible worlds. It's not. It's just rarity. As terrorism becomes the primary method of evildoers, we're likely to find these things from time to time, just not all the time. I don't think it's that unlikely that we'll find cases where we have very good reasons to think a particular person has planted a bomb somewhere and set it to go off but have no idea where and might seek to interrogate the person with extreme techniques in order to find out or that we'll capture someone involved in a massive plot that we have good reason to think is nearly imminent and need information as soon as possible to try to prevent it. That these cases are rare does not make them unlikely.

Most of the problems with the actual state of play do seem to me to be resolvable. We could come up with a better process for distinguishing between who should be detained and who shouldn't, for overseeing treatment of detainees, and so on. I suppose there are people proposing that, but it's not the emphasis I keep hearing. It seems to me that those concerns are far more important than what interrogation techniques we use once we have determined that a legitimately detained person who has been treated well might need to be interrogated more extremely in order to save a huge number of people from a terrible fate that the person being interrogated is partly responsible for.

GeniusNZ, it occurs to me that there is some sort of loophole in the pardon. That doesn't satisfy me for two reasons. One is that, though pardons can recognize the rare cases when the legal system fails to serve justice, it would be better if we could make the legal system more just. The other is that pardons are actually too far in the other direction, allowing a president or other executive to pardon anyone for virtually any reason, and I'd rather not resort to something with such a blanket allowance. It would be better to have clearer criteria and a legal system that would safeguard these things from getting too far. I have no idea how that would go, but I'm still convinced that a more just legal system would have some method of evaluating these cases as exceptions to a general policy against such techniques without having to convict and then pardon.

Jeremy, do you agree that we should not try to legalize torture (for the special circumstances where you think it's justified) until after we've cleaned up the rest of our detainment & interrogation system? Do you agree that it is not possible to limit torture to the narrow set of cases where you consider it justified until there are drastic changes to the way our nation deals with terrorism suspects? I'd like to see your answers to these questions, and if you disagree (despite what you've said about the importance of safeguards) I would be curious about why.

I hope that the problems that we have are resolvable, and I would love to see them resolved, but I'm not feeling very optimistic about it. And while we have all of these serious problems in how we deal with suspected terrorists, these serious abuses, and this severe overuse of "extreme" techniques, it seems like it is, at best, a distraction to focus our concern on the possibility that we might be unable or unwilling to torture someone in one of the rare, special cases where torture would actually be morally justified.

I could say more, but to keep things focused I'll just add two quick side points 1) thank you for specifying in a little more detail when you think extreme interrogation methods should be permitted, and 2) there has been significant opposition to other aspects of the current approach to interrogation & detention, especially the fact that so much is based on unaccountable executive decisions, though I don't think the opposition to any of it (torture included) has been forceful enough.

Jeremy, do you agree that we should not try to legalize torture (for the special circumstances where you think it's justified) until after we've cleaned up the rest of our detainment & interrogation system?

Those are certainly the priority, so yes they should be taken care of first in terms of a permanent solution. But I do think decisions need to be made in the meantime, and we ought to have some idea of how those are going to be made if such rare circumstances arise (and for all I know they've already arisen given the nature of the conflict). There's got to be some temporary way to allow some leeway without having a blanket allowance for executives to make the judgment call in the extreme cases (which is, strangely, Alan Derschowitz's proposal).

Do you agree that it is not possible to limit torture to the narrow set of cases where you consider it justified until there are drastic changes to the way our nation deals with terrorism suspects?

Well, it's possible. You could certainly make laws that are very specific about kinds of cases. It would just be horrendous to try to write and follow such a law. I'm hoping for some other way to deal with it than such case-specific, detailed laws, since those often ignore other factors that are important.

it seems like it is, at best, a distraction to focus our concern on the possibility that we might be unable or unwilling to torture someone in one of the rare, special cases where torture would actually be morally justified.

Sure, but don't try to accuse me of focusing our concern on this (I don't know if that's your intent, but if it is I don't think it's fair). I wrote one post on one issue that I think needs to be kept in mind. I'm not a specialist dealing with this issue who is constantly writing about this and ignoring other, more important concerns. The other concerns are getting plenty of time, and this one concern ought not to get buried in that just because it's less important. It's less important, but it involves scenarios that could be happening right now for all I know and likely enough despite being rare that it's probably going to happen soon enough if it isn't now.

Jeremy, under the circumstances you offered, I'm almost close to agreeing with you on the sacrifice one to save the many principle but only if we're RIGHT about what we assume going into torture, and if we're successful with the information we come away from torture with.
To me this means we can only really be justified after the fact if things indeed work out in our favor, and I think given the variables it would be extremely rare to end up end up being justified even with a good hypothetical setup.

There's a lot of debate within ethics about how much our moral responsibility depends on how things turn out. Even most consequentialists, who think consequences are all that matter morally, will generally say that your moral evaluation should depend on what you could reasonably have expected to happen and not on which actual consequences happen. Non-consequentialists have an easier time paying attention to what could reasonably be expected.

Do you think a prosecuting attorney who pursues the evidence where it seems to lead and makes a case against an actually innocent suspect because the evidence very strongly supports that has done something wrong? I do think there's more reason to hesitate and require greater evidence when the thing we're going to do is more severe, but I don't think that completely removes the fact that there's only so much we can do to be fully informed.


Are you all actually arguing the merits of torture?

You need to come up with a new name for your religion. You are not Christians. Better yet I think I'll come up with a new name for mine.

Don, first of all I'm not sure why you're assuming all or even most of the people in this discussion would claim to be Christians. I happen to know that several are, but I don't know if all are, and it may be that several aren't. But I don't know this from anyone's views on contentious moral theories. Lots of Christians have disagreed on important moral theories without violating what's important for being a Christian, which is an issue of one's response to the gospel. I wouldn't presume (as you have done) to label people as not Christians because they have a moral view I don't share.

I've deliberately avoided discussing torture, because I'm not sure the exact range covered by the term. But I've certainly taken a stance that it's morally unconscionable to pretend that consequences are totally irrelevant to the point where they can never outweigh a prima facie duty. I think it's thoroughly against principles that I see taught by Christianity, in fact, to think consequences are completely irrelevant. But again that doesn't mean I'll elevate myself to the level of God in declaring that someone who has such views is not a Christian. Holding views that go against the moral teaching of Christianity does not make one not a Christian.

There are three grounds in scripture for taking someone not to be a believer when they claim to be one. The first is gross moral sin that one has been confronted about and remains unrepentant. Discussing a theoretical issue not facing us isn't in that category. It's actually doing the sin unrepentantly after being confronted by other believers and ultimately one's congregational elders. The second is gross doctrinal error in violation of crucial gospel issues. This doesn't seem remotely to be about that kind of thing. The third is divisiveness on the level of requirements beyond the gospel for being Christian or refusing to associate with other believers or call them Christian because of something you disagree with them about. I don't think it's the people who have been debating this issue here who are the ones in danger of moving in that direction.

I thought about deleting your comment, but I decided it would be better to point that out, because I think you should seriously think about your attitude toward other Christians because of their moral views.

For future commenters: this is a discussion about moral issues. One legitimate moral view is the moral absolutism that takes us to have a crystal clear idea of what counts as torture and then puts all those views in the category of always being wrong no matter the consequences. I'm open to anyone wanting to defend that view with moral arguments. I'm a philosopher, and that view is on the table even if it's not my view. What I won't tolerate on my blog is mere assertion without argument and then name-calling as if one has no absolute authority to declare who is a Christian and who is not merely based on views that a lot of people have a hard time coming to a firm conclusion about.

...but don't try to accuse me of focusing our concern on this...

I was disagreeing with what you said, that it's "unfortunate" that rare extreme interrogation is not on the table, not making an accusation based on the fact that you made this post on your blog. As I've tried to argue, rare, limited, safeguarded extreme interrogation is not a genuine option right now, given the current state of the executive branch. And I have my doubts about whether it will be a genuine option in the foreseeable future. What's unfortunate is that we haven't be more aggressive in banning & stopping the torture and other abuses that have been going on.

You may already know this, but you should be reading Obsidian Wings. That's true in general, but it's especially relevant in this case because of their recent posts on torture.

If you mean posts like this one, I'm not remotely convinced. Two assumptions are crucial for that post. One of them is at best highly speculative and doesn't apply as easily to what I have in mind. The other is clearly inaccurate to the kind of view I've put forward.

The highly speculative assumption is the extremely confident prediction of what must happen given one case of torture. Given the kinds of constraints I would want placed on it, I just don't see how that sort of thing must happen. In fact, the kinds of constraints I have in mind should minimize almost all of those effects.

The simply inaccurate assumption is the treatment of proposals for exceptions as if they are merely simplistic utilitarian calculations. The idea seems to be that torture would be allowed whenever in the particular case you can envision the consequences turning out slightly better given the torture (including subtracting the pain of the torture from the good consequences). As long as the net result is positive, it's good to do it.

But that's not remotely the view I have in mind, and it's not the view Alan Dershowitz and others have advocated when saying torture is ok in very extreme circumstances. In circumstances when the consequences are simply better, that's not enough to overcome the deontological constraint against intentionally causing harm. The threshold for something like this is much, much higher than where the consequentialist would put it (i.e. at zero).

Do you think a prosecuting attorney who pursues the evidence where it seems to lead and makes a case against an actually innocent suspect because the evidence very strongly supports that has done something wrong?

I'm not sure... doesn't a prosecutor/defendant have a moral obligation to present their case diligently and honestly based on the information they have available? I think the moral burden of the accused's fate is with the judge (to the degree that he oversees) and the jury...

There's a huge problem with torture. You have an interrogator playing the role of the entire justice system with no defense given to the guy being tortured.

Equally as big are the ramifications of torture if the information you get is wrong either because the person is innocent and just trying to say ANYTHING you want them to to make you stop... or they are guilty and clever enough to set you up for a trap you might actually fall for in the heat of the moment when you don't have time to check all the facts (like you would in a trail)

"Where is Al Qaeda hiding the bombs?" "Not telling." *Torture*

"Where is Al Qaeda hiding the bombs?" "Not telling." *Torture*

"Where is Al Qaeda hiding the bombs?" "Ok, they're in this little village in, uh, Pakistan, you know.. in that building that, uh, looks like an orphanage." --Send in the bombers...

There's a huge problem with torture. You have an interrogator playing the role of the entire justice system with no defense given to the guy being tortured.

That assumes that none of the safeguards I'd like there to be are possible. Why couldn't there be some safeguards that seek to limit things to genuinely extreme cases with people who actually know something and who are not innocent? The fact that we can't guarantee it absolutely doesn't stop us from convicting people when the evidence is against them. In this case the stakes are significantly raised, but raising the stakes doesn't make a moral absolute. Raising the stakes simply raises the threshold for when consequences are important enough to make a moral difference.

Your last case assumes that people should just act on information and do drastic things when their only source is torture, and the only way to act on it is to do something that for all you know isn't going to achieve what you want. This means the safeguards can't just be about when you use harsher interrogation procedures but about what you do with information you receive from such interrogations.

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