General Question

A_Beaverhausen's avatar

Is torture ever justifiable?

Asked by A_Beaverhausen (2443points) April 1st, 2009
Observing members: 0 Composing members: 0

23 Answers

aviona's avatar

I tortured a cricket to its eventual death when I was 10. It was completely unjustified.

I am not proud of this. And, yes, I realize it doesn’t answer your question.

Nimis's avatar

In the eyes of the person doing the torturing? All the time.
Funny how that works.

crisw's avatar

I think we can all conceive of extreme, improbable situations where torture may be morally justified. The important thing to remember is that justification in extreme cases doesn’t mean justification in every case.

For example, let us say an evil mastermind had planted hidden atomic bombs throughout the U.S. Only he knew where they were and could give the code to disarm them. If he doesn’t give you the code, the bombs go off and 200 million people die. He won’t give up the code just because you ask him nicely. If you knew for a fact that the bombs were planted, that they would go off, and that torturing him would extract the code, I believe it would be justified.

Real life is never so simple.

jrpowell's avatar

Give me a pair of needle-nose pliers and you will lie tell me whatever I want to know. I think it could be justified. I just don’t think it is effective.

edit :: grammar.. affect vs effect. They always mix me up.

omfgTALIjustIMDu's avatar

I suggest reading this article by Michael Levin about the subject.

Nially_Bob's avatar

Yes, though in few situations. The examples that occur to me immediately are improbable circumstances (as exemplified previously by Crisw) and consensual sadism/masochism related sexual play.

AstroChuck's avatar

Only on television or if it’s a Dodger fan.

teirem1's avatar

NO. How can you defend and claim morality and then participate in something so amoral. Also, how do you define torture? Where do you put the stops? How do you control the participants (those conducting the torture) and what does that say about the those people that they can participate in something of this nature?

Furthermore, gaining information through torture is a known unreliable technique to gain information (see link).

@Nially_Bob btw I’m not including consensual sadism/masochism torture related sexual play in my response – to me that is completely different.

crisw's avatar

“NO. How can you defend and claim morality and then participate in something so amoral.”

Go back to the thought experiment I posted (which is very similar to the one in the article omfgTALIjustIMDu cited.) It is just a thought experiment and not entirely realistic-but these experiments are often the best ways to test morality. Forget about the questions on efficacy and reliability. In this specific situation, why would torture not be justifiable?

teirem1's avatar

@crisw I do not advocate it in this case either. I do not find inflicting torture on anyone acceptable – ever.

Beyond that, why would I choose a method that is amoral and ineffective? The comment in the article that it “is the only way to save those those lives” – I don’t believe. Those lives may or may not be savable but it would not be through torture that they gained their salvation.

I do believe torture strips us of our humanity.

crisw's avatar


Ignore for the moment, as I asked, whether it’s effective or not. Accept that, in this case, it will be effective. Again, this is a thought experiment.

So, in this case, rather than torturing one person, you’d let 200 million people die. Why? Again- forget the effectiveness. Focus just on the use of torture. Why, morally and exactly, is it wrong in this specific thought experiment?

Would you find it equally morally reprehensible to kill the person?

teirem1's avatar

@ crisw sorry I just reread your comment on disregarding efficacy and reliability. I have a hard time doing that as I think that’s why people try torture as they would think it was effective -

I can’t participate in something that I think a) is wrong – it is wrong to inflict pain on another being in this cruel non-consensual manner, b) it is wrong to place another human being in the position to conduct this type of behavior, c)it creates a precedence of acceptance.

Also, people would need to accept that if it’s ok for “us” to use, then you better accept the fact that it is ok for “them” to use too

teirem1's avatar

Would killing the person get the same response in this particular case?

crisw's avatar

“it is wrong to inflict pain on another being in this cruel non-consensual manner”
In this case, don’t forget, it’s the only possible way to save 200 million lives, and the person has deliberately committed the act that will take those lives, which might, in many ethical systmes, have some bearing on how he is treated.

I presume that, in your ethical system, “sins” of commission are greater than “sins” of omission? It’s worse to commit an act you consider unethical than to let a much more unethical act happen?You have prettty much just said it’s wrong, not specifically why it’s more unethical than letting the 200 million die.

Again, let’s simplify the thought experiment- and remember, I made it clear in my first post that it should not be taken as a general rule. It is a one-time only affair, it will work, it is entirely secret and no one else will ever know it happened, so it sets no precedent.

Just for the record, I do not believe that, in most situations, torture is ethically acceptable. However, I do not feel that a blanket statement can be made that it is never acceptable.

teirem1's avatar

ooo.@crisw.I just noticed fluther is saying you are “constructing some drivel…” lol, I can only imagine what it said about me :)

crisw's avatar

“Would killing the person get the same response in this particular case?”
No. The 200 million people would die, in this case. I’m just curious if you see killing someone as always morally unacceptable- a general pacifist position.

crisw's avatar

actually, it says teirem1 is construing some drivel… which is even weirder

teirem1's avatar

@crisw I don’t think I can answer this question as I can not disassociate myself from everything else that bears on a torture question. No, it is not right to let 200 million die and no, it is not right to let a person be tortured (I don’t care if no one would know – it does not change the facts of what I believe is right and wrong). But that scenario would never happen – just a “thought experiment” right?

I would put to you that the purpose of this unrealistic ” experiment” is but to corral people into accepting that torture is acceptable under some circumstances. Isn’t that what the article goes on to propose? But how can you base an argument on something unreal?

teirem1's avatar

@crisw – opps, it probably did say “construing” for you and I just I mistyped…it’s late

mattbrowne's avatar

The issue can create an ethical dilemma. But society’s goal should be the elimination of torture. Closing Guantanamo bay was the right thing to so.

Lupin's avatar

If it wasn’t they’d have to take “24 hours” off the air.

crisw's avatar

“But how can you base an argument on something unreal?”

Because one of the most important things to figure out about any moral concept is whether or not it’s universally applicable, and, if it isn’t, in exactly which cases it isn’t. In other words, where to draw the line.

Most moral principles, when examined this way, aren’t really black and white; there are almost always exceptions. Thinking about those exceptions, in my opinion, helps determine the validity of any given principle. It also helps us set moral standards as to exactly when a principle may be violated, and how to remain consistent in following a moral principle.

On the other hand, moral rules that are followed rigidly, without any discussion of whether there are exceptions to the rule, can lead to some untenable conclusions, or violation of common sense.

One very common example of this is the trolley/train problem (which also explores the omission/commission divide that I referred to earlier). Most people follow some code of morality such as “it’s always wrong to kill innocent people.” In the trolley problem, you have to make a decision whether or not to let someone die, or to kill someone, in order to save many others. Studies have shown that this gives us some interesting insights into human morality.

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