If Torture Works, Is It Wrong?

Is the US willing to accept the moral consequences of a society that institutionalizes torture?

In Zero Dark Thirty, enhanced interrogation techniques — so-called torture-lite of the kind practiced at Guantanamo Bay and various CIA black sites — are shown being used to extract information about Osama bin Laden's courier, known as al-Kuwaiti. In the film, this information is a crucial link in a long and complex detection chain, with information gleaned in other ways and from other sources, which helps track down bin Laden to the house in Abbottabad where he is killed by US Seals on May 2, 2011.

The movie has provoked a lively debate in the US, with many critics claiming that by showing torture to be effective, the film is pro-torture. Leading the charge has been Senator John McCain, who, together with fellow senators Dianne Feinstein and Carl Levin, sent a letter to the film's distributor, complaining that: "With the release of Zero Dark Thirty, the filmmakers and your production studio are perpetuating the myth that torture is effective."

Does it Work?

So the presumption seems to be that if you think torture works you must be in favor of it. Conversely, any self-respecting opponent of torture should believe that torture does not work. It would be wonderful if we lived in such a fairy tale world where evil always fails and good succeeds. But what if the world is not as simple as that? Is it possible to maintain that, even if torture works, it is still wrong? I believe it is.

Well, does torture work? In his judicious response to the McCain letter, the then-Acting Director of the CIA, Michael Morell, criticized the film for exaggerating the importance of the information gleaned from enhanced interrogation techniques in the hunt for bin Laden. But he conceded that amid the "multiple streams of intelligence" employed to track him down, "some came from detainees subjected to enhanced techniques." So, information extracted by enhanced techniques did play at least some role in tracking bin Laden.

It should not surprise us that enhanced interrogation can work. Advocates of torture often exaggerate its effectiveness, portraying it as a magical silver bullet. Torture is notoriously unreliable as a means of extracting confessions since people will say anything to stop the pain, including confessing to being witches, as illustrated in another film, based on Arthur Miller's play, The Crucible

But torture can also be used, as in Zero Dark Thirty, to extract information which can be checked against other sources. It can then sometimes provide useful intelligence. The Nazis used torture, of a much more extreme form, successfully to hunt down French resistance cells in the Second World War. So torture can sometimes work.

If torture can work, however, does that mean that we should legalize it? To that, my answer would be an emphatic no. So what is wrong with torture?

Absolutists and Consequentialists

In the debate over torture, there has at times been a rather sterile stand-off between moral absolutists, who hold that moral rules are absolute, admitting no exception, and consequentialists who think that what matters morally are the consequences of our actions. This is reflected in arguments over how to respond to a terrorist with a ticking bomb.

Suppose that we have captured a terrorist who is suspected of having planted a bomb in an elementary school in New York that, if let off, will kill all 800 children. There are many elementary schools in the city and we do not know in which the bomb has been placed. The terrorist knows where the bomb is hidden but refuses to speak. Time is running out. The only way to obtain the information and save hundreds of lives is to torture the terrorist. So should we torture him?

For a moral absolutist the answer is easy. Intentionally to torture another human being is always wrong. Torture – even in its moderate "torture-lite" variants — is forbidden and we should not do it, regardless of the consequences, and regardless of however many lives may be saved.

The absolutist response has an attractive simplicity. But it makes the decision appear easier than it is. For, as the disastrous consequences of inaction are piled up, the absolutist’s insistence on maintaining her personal integrity, keeping her own hands clean, may begin to look less attractive.

With the pleas of the school childrens’ parents in our ears, it becomes progressively more difficult to resist the conclusion that it may, exceptionally, be right to apply non-lethal torture to a terrorist suspect, if this is the only way to save the lives of many innocent school children. Indeed, for a consequentialist, such a conclusion might then seem as easy to reach as it is for the absolutist to draw the opposite conclusion.

After all, non-lethal torture of its nature does less harm than killing someone. We are prepared to justify killing those threatening us harm to defend our country from attack. So, it might appear relatively easy to concede that torture of a suspected terrorist could be justified, if this is the only way to secure information to prevent a terrorist attack killing many innocents.

Moreover, even if the wider adverse consequences of the precedent thereby set were taken into account, these might still seem to be outweighed by the catastrophic consequences we were preventing, particularly since the example, as described, relates to an exceptional concatenation of circumstances. It might thus appear a rather obvious and easy decision that we should use torture.

Such ease should give us pause. For in reality, such a decision would and should be agonizingly difficult. If difficult decisions are made to look easy, this suggests that something is wrong with the structure of the moral argument being employed.

The ticking bomb examples look easier than they are to decide, because we are usually only invited to consider selected features of the situation — whether the intention to breach a rule on which the absolutist focuses or the consequences of our action or inaction, to which the consequentialist directs our attention.

To understand why such decisions are so agonizingly difficult and why we feel a moral antipathy to torture, even where it has beneficial consequences, we instead need to attend to all the relevant features of our moral agency: to both the internal qualities and external consequences of our actions, as well as to the principles that guide those actions and the virtues needed to put the principles into practice. Moral reasoning can best be characterized as what I have called, virtuous consequentialism.

It's Still Wrong

So why is torture wrong? There is, first and foremost, a strong moral prohibition against torture. This is not just a bedrock principle of morality but is also enshrined in international law through Common Article 3 of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, further reinforced in 1987 by the UN Convention against Torture.

The moral and legal prohibitions on torture and any kind of humiliating and degrading treatment, create an immense moral presumption against such actions. Torture is judged wrong both because of its immediate harmful consequences – the severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental — as well as its wider adverse consequences. These include the way torture can provide a recruiting sergeant for the terrorists' cause by exposing the gap between liberal values that we proclaim and the illiberal practices we adopt, as Guantanamo Bay demonstrated. But the harmful consequences of torture are only part of the explanation. We also condemn torture because of its internal qualities.

In state-sanctioned torture, the ultimate objective of the torturer may be noble: extracting information to save lives. But the proximate intentions of the torturer — the chosen means by which he achieves his ends — are not. For the torturer intends not just to inflict pain. He also intends to control, humiliate and degrade the victim. Our moral antipathy to torture stems, in part, from the malevolent mental states that it necessarily requires of the torturer.

Torture adversely affects the character of those involved in the process: both the torturers and the tortured. We are, therefore, rightly concerned over the sort of people that the public officials, whom we appoint to conduct special interrogations on our behalf, may become through their practice of torture. Virtues are crucial to our moral lives. We want our public servants to be men or women of virtue.

Yet, we need our special interrogators to be – professionally — men or women of vice. In the ticking bomb examples, the torturer arrives by magic just at the moment we need him; and he departs, conveniently, shortly thereafter. We never encounter him at the dinner table.

We confront the torturer only in the individual act of torture. But we hear nothing of what was needed to precede this, the selection process and training required to ensure that the interrogation is effective, nor what follows in terms of the corrosive effects of torture — not only on the character of the special interrogator but also of those, including doctors, who provide the necessary support for his activities.

For torture to be successfully implemented, it needs to be established as an institutionalized practice. To succeed in his craft, the special interrogator needs to become, at best, indifferent to the pain of those whom he is interrogating; and, at worst, adept in the vice of cruelty.

In deciding whether to legalize torture, we need, therefore, ultimately to consider whether, even if torture sometimes works, we want to belong to the kind of society that institutionalizes such a practice, despite its morally corrosive internal and external qualities, affecting all those involved.

The public outcry on both sides of the Atlantic that attended the revelation of the enhanced interrogation practices secretly deployed at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere, suggests that the answer to that question in Western democracies is no. We prefer to incur whatever risks may attend forgoing the practice in order to safeguard the liberal values that underpin our society. Even if torture works, it is still wrong.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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