Jean Maria asked:
I am a social psychologist preparing an assessment of the popularly proposed program of torture
interrogation of terrorists to present to the Joint [Military] Services Conference on Professional Ethics.
Advocates of torture interrogation usually run a utilitarian argument starting from the "ticking bomb"
scenario. I want to say that unintended effects of a program may be morally acceptable when
reasoning from something like virtue ethics or duty, but a utilitarian argument must also attempt to
account for all foreseeable effects in its cost-benefits analysis.
My questions: (1) What is the proper philosophical language for making this assertion? (2) Is the
principle of double effect relevant when the intended good effect is clearly dwarfed by unintended
From the perspective of policy studies, I then describe the necessary institutional effects of
implementation of an official program of torture interrogation of terrorist suspects. The social
breakdown of institutions and the difficulty of social repair then constitute something of a
counterargument, I believe, to the simple utilitarian argument based on the "ticking bomb" scenario.
However, these unintended effects, e.g., loss of citizen trust of government and compromise of the
judiciary, will be minimized if the program operates under a pretense of decency or is chiefly covert.
For example, during the dirty war in Argentina military police had a policy of submitting only
unimportant interrogees to regular judicial procedures.
My questions: (3) Can utilitarians responsibly argue for a secret or deceptive course of action? That
is: "publicly I argue for program X, intending all the while to create program Y under the authorization
for X so as to minimize unintended effects." (4) Further, how much exploration of consequences can
the utilitarian be required to make? (5) And is it fair to hold utilitarians responsible for a plan of repair
or restitution for unavoidable bad effects of the proposed utilitarian program? (6) Or must a better
alternative be proposed?
Thank you for helping me out of this muddle. I could send you a draft of my paper, "Torture
Interrogation of Terrorists — An Impractical Program," but this is probably more than you want to
The obvious utilitarian objection to torture is that once you allow it as a practice it is very unlikely that
it will be confined to the very small number of cases where it might be justified and that it will become
a more or less standard practice — human nature, and especially official nature, being what it is, and
given how much brutality there is when it's supposedly illegal. This is apart from intrinsic objections, of
course. Ought a decent person to get involved in this at all? Also, do we have any evidence that it's
effective as a reliable method of interrogation?
I would like to answer Jean Maria Arrigo's question with a question. Why should we automatically
assume that the only utilitarian benefit gained from torturing a "ticking bomb" terrorist is the short-term
avoidance of a particular terror attack, and that all of the long-term societal consequences will be
bad? I don't think that is true in all societies and historical situations. Here's an extreme example:
Suppose the police catch a well-known terrorist who proudly announces his knowledge of impending
terror attacks that will kill hundreds of people. Let us say that the person in question has been found
guilty of managing a terrorist organization by a properly conducted court of law, and that a
democratically elected legislature has already passed a law that specifically allows for the supervised
use of torture as a method of interrogation in precisely such circumstances. Would the use of torture
in such a case really lead to "social breakdown of institutions"? It might be argued that in such
circumstances, a refusalto torture would lead to a crisis of legitimacy for the government involved —
especially if many citizens were to die in preventable attacks. Angry citizens would demand to know
why the state hadn't done everything in its power to protect them. Wouldn't such a government need
to torture the terrorist in order to protect the institutions of society (as well as in order to thwart terror
Berel Dov Lerner
I realise you asked people to respond to this question on the appropriate website, but reading the
question I think it points to all that is wrong with moral theory and the attempt to apply moral theory.
Would anyone with any feeling/ compassion for humanity, seriously bother to defend the torture of
another human being, regardless of who they were and what names e.g. 'terrorist' we assigned to
them? Do people really care if torture can be justified under a virtue ethics rather than utilitarianism
etc? Doesn't this just all miss the point of human cruelty and anthropocentrism? Well, it does to me.
Eccy de Jonge
I found it difficult to answer what could have been a straightforward question about the ethical status
of torture. I attribute my difficulty and Mr. Arrigo's "muddle" to the complex political and sociological
context within which he chose to frame his questions. As a philosopher, I cannot take seriously the
pretensions to ethical concern expressed by either the contemporary statesman or his terroristic alter
ego. I simply cannot work up interest in how a given policy of interrogation may adversely affect the
mystique of a modern state (its "legitimacy" in the popular mind). Modern governments and terrorist
organizations are fatefully (and perhaps fatally) linked to each other; leaders of both types of
organization seem to have few qualms about sacrificing innocents for "the greater good" as they see
it. What qualms they may have about any bloody business are limited to the public relations downside
of a misstep. Events in Moscow during the last weekend in October illustrated that rather neatly. ("If
the terrorists blow up the theater, everybody dies; but if we gas the theater before storming it, maybe
we cut that number in half." "Well, then, obviously we gas the theater!" "Not so fast, tovarisch.
Theoretically, we canpull out of Chechnya, you know. After all, we've been oppressing Chechens for
two centuries, and for what? Why not cut our losses?" "Because then the terrorists will have won, you
As for utilitarianism and torture, we need to distinguish. According to act utilitarianism,an act of
harming one or more individuals by torturing them may be morally acceptable if that actbenefits more
people than it harms, and cannot if it doesn't. According to rule utilitarianism,the act must be brought
under a rule: an act of harming one or more individuals by torturing them may be morally acceptable
only if we know that, as a rule, torturing leads to a greater number of beneficial than harmful
The problem with either form is that it presupposes the commensurability of interpersonal benefits
and harms.That is, it presupposes that benefits and harms to a great number of persons are
translatable into a common unit of measurement (much the way international currencies can be
translated into American dollars or Euros). The advertised benefit of this translation is that we can
then reckon whether a proposed course of action is likely to result in more of one kind of "stuff" than
another (i.e., either more benefits than harms, or more harms than benefits). This fallaciously
aggregates benefits and harms while ignoring the concrete persons to whom they accrue.
Utilitarianism's inability to tote up all consequences of a proposed course of action (or to
non-arbitrarily demarcate a cut-off point for considering further consequences) are side issues
compared with utilitarianism's basic fallacy. The principle of double effect stipulates that the
undesirable consequences are not intended(not just left unmentioned), not the meansto the desired
consequences, and not more evilthan the intended effect is good. So, for instance, an airline
representative has the right to evict a stowaway from one of its passenger planes, but not eject him at
30,000 feet, even if his certain death is not the intended consequence.
Mr. Arrigo asks: "Can utilitarians responsibly argue for a secret or deceptive course of action? That is:
'publicly I argue for program X, intending all the while to create program Y under the authorization for
X so as to minimize unintended effects.'" I don't see how such subterfuge minimizes unintended
effects, although it might minimize their accurate attribution. Where is even the slightest trace of
Mr. Arrigo's question reminds me of another widespread pretext concocted to rationalize the inflicting
of harm, namely, the invocation of the principle of double effect to justify abortion. Now, please note,
some abortions are not homicides (no hominesare at mortal risk in the very early stages of
pregnancy). Furthermore, some homicides are justifiable (I'm no pacifist). What is offensive to the
moral point of view, however, is the deceptive language. A woman may statethat she wishes only to
end her state of pregnancy, suggesting that the death of her viable fetus (when it is viable) is a
possible secondary effect to which she would be indifferent. The test of her veracity, of course, would
be her reaction to the placement in her arms of her healthy baby after the successful abortion, that is,
the termination of her pregnancy. Due to advances in medical knowledge and technology, the
pregnant woman can be relieved of her unwanted pregnancy without prejudice to the fetus. But her
claim that she does not also intend the death of her fetus, in addition to no longer being pregnant, is
simply not credible. To use Mr. Arrigo's formula, she is publicly invoking the right to control her body
while privately intending also to destroy the living body of another. It may be that she has the right to
do the latter. She should make the case. Lying only discredits any case she might have.
As for Arrigo's fifth question, a person is reasonably held responsible for what his freely undertaken
actions cause, with his state of mind (e.g., coerced, depressed, etc.) being a possibly a mitigating
factor. Whether or not he is a utilitarian or a Kantian is irrelevant to the issue of assigning
Deliberately to inflict excruciating suffering on a human being in the hope (it is by no means a
certainty) that he will prefer to reveal certain information than to continue to suffer is to aggravate the
offense of utilitarianism. Instead of merely treating him as collateral damage on the way to securing a
desirable end, the torturer degrades his captive, treating him as less than human, as an egg that must
be broken if it is to yield an omelet. Even if the victim of torture himself would inflict suffering on
innocents, he is still a person, a self-transcender and seeker after a good life, however criminally
mistaken he may be. To torture in order to extract information is to create one unit of the very horror
that the terrorist threatens, thereby rendering meaningless one's own anti-terrorism. How we treat him
reflects well or poorly on our own handling of the task our natures have set for us, namely, to realize a
great diversity of values regularly and harmoniously, that is, to create good lives for ourselves. There
is no good life without respect for persons as such. That drive to actualize the good life is a priori, if
you will, prior to, underpinning, and penetrating any particular good we may seek. It is the source of
duty, which ultimatelyis justified by certain consequences: lives worth living, but not reducible or
restricted to a particular consequence or type of consequence. The prospect of the good life, however
explicitly or implicitly grasped, is the intelligible unity of all our different desires that we must sort out,
rank, and attempt to achieve. It is the standard by which we do those things. The achievement of any
other values, however, is a function of the appreciation of the value of truth. Only he who can deceive
himself about the nature of another human being can implement a policy of torture.
Around 1974—5 during my penultimate year as an undergraduate at Birkbeck College, London
University, I had the honour, as President of the Philosophical Society, of entertaining the philosopher
H.J. McCloskey who had been invited to read a paper to the assembled staff and students.
McCloskey, author of John Stuart Mill: A Critical Studyis well known as a writer on utilitarianism.
Over dinner at a local Italian restaurant, McCloskey told me that he had recently completed a lecture
tour in Chile, one of few academic philosophers — or possibly the only academic philosopher — to be
invited during the reign of the military Junta. Surprised at first by the invitation, he was disquieted to
learn during his visit that the Junta were keenly interested in the question whether utilitarian moral
theory could be used to justify torture.
Not very long after this meeting, I saw a film about Chile, which included the brief image of an
electrode being applied to a woman's nipple. The film makers knew their craft. To this day, whenever
I think of torture, that image irresistibly obtrudes.
On that memorable evening, as my guest and I twirled our spaghetti, I pictured McCloskey sitting
round a dinner table with the Chilean Generals and their clinking medals, smoking cigars and drinking
fine wine. 'A toast to John Stuart Mill!'
I would like to ask who are going to be the torturers. Is it going to be like the doctors trained in the
correct surgical procedures for removing the hand, as prescribed by Islamic Law as a punishment for
theft? The charge on the electrode is to be 2000 volts, not a volt more. Enough to produce
excruciating pain, but not enough to cause permanent injury. Perhaps scientific research will lead to
new, ever more efficient methods of torture which effect the mind, but not the body. Suitably
chastened, but in the best of physical health, the terrorist (or criminal) can return to a worthwhile job
and be a productive member of society.
It seems as though the questions asked by the author of this letter strike at some of the classic
objections to Utilitarianism:
2)How can we be sure that the "effects" we observe are effects of one particular act or another?
3)Consider the classic example, a man who acts from a desire to kill a religious leader misfires his
rifle, and instead strikes oil (an unlikely example, but one used in objection to Utilitarianism); whereas
a man who intends no evil misfires his rifle and wounds or kills a religious leader. In the first case, the
man clearly intended evil, but good resulted from his action. In the second case, the man intended no
evil, but--nevertheless evil did result. Can we fail to hold the first man responsible for his actions?
May we condemn the second man? Clearly (some have argued) our intentions figure into the
normative status of our actions.
I would also like to ask whether the author of the original letter is asking about act or rule
Utilitarianism, or both. This, it seems to me, would alter a possible response.
To begin with a game-theoretical scenario, we have two parties fighting for some conflicting goals.
Then the natural question for each party will be, if the means it uses are effective and where to stop if
the costs become unbearable.
The terrorist is no lamb. Even if we concede that his aims are just (as he claims always of course), he
is bringing much suffering on the victims of his "ticking bomb". If he is faced with torture he has a
choice. He could tell how to find and de-activate the bomb. If he decides not to, this is his decision for
killing other people for his cause. In this respect a suicide-terrorist is at least honest setting value
against value. From this derives a right of the offended to use torture as a means for defence. It's a
War is war and terrorism is war of a special sort but not principally different. From a philosophical
point of view most if not all arguments to justify war are invalid. But the churches always have up to
this day justified war, e.g. on communism or on islam. I will not enter this extended discussion now,
since it is not asked for. I only mention it.