Saturday, November 24, 2007

Sensible Torture Policy

For years I've been baffled by the huge mess the Bush administration has made of "the torture issue."

I'm going to lay out a policy for torture (surprise - it's utilitarian) that I think a) any president's administration should hold, and b) any president's administration should keep SECRET. As I'll argue, (b) is essential, and without it, one shouldn't pursue (a).

This is a pretty simple idea I'm recommending. Let's start by imagining a classic "ticking time bomb" scenario, where thousands of lives hang in the balance, and we're confident that a single person knows where the bomb is. If the question is whether to torture one person to save 3,000 lives (where other options have been exhausted) I think the obvious answer is that torture is morally permissible. Only the strictest of Kantians ought to object to this, I think. Most objections will be along epistemological lines, I think. That is, how can I be sure that I've got the right guy and that this will save people's lives, etc. Well, put these questions aside for the moment. Imagine that we are confident about the cost-benefit analysis.

So part (a) is just asserting that torture is permissible in cases where we're justified in thinking that torturing someone can directly result in the saving of many lives. This is, I think, exactly what Bush takes to be his mandate. But look at all the trouble this has caused! Not just hot water for the administration, but this news about Bush torture policy has made America objectively less safe. Obviously torture is offensive to people. It ought to be offensive! When people in middle eastern countries who already suspect us of ill deeds see something like guantanamo, they get even angrier at us. If a torture policy results in creating even more terrorists, it's a bad policy.

This is why (b) needs to be integral to the policy. If I'm in charge, I want the freedom to torture people in circumstances where lives can be saved, but I don't want anyone to know about it. So here's how it should work: The president as well as several levels below him need to have plausible deniability. The policy needs to be that if someone finds out about the torture, only the torturer and perhaps his/her direct superior take the heat. After all, if many lives are at stake, sacrifice may be required of not just the tortured but the torturer too. If I'm some jail guard and I can save 3,000 lives by waterboarding (of COURSE waterboarding is torture) my prisoner, HIS sacrifice is called for, and MINE (in the form of firing, or prosecution) may also be called for (but only if it gets out). If it's worth torturing someone it's obviously worth losing my job over. It seems like this tactic (of blaming it on the guards) was tried at Abu Ghraib with modest success, but the problem there was that they weren't strictly obeying (a). They were torturing with no promise of lives saved.

This kind of secrecy condition is what Bush has been lacking. Why the hell won't he and his attorney general(s) just come out and say that torture (including waterboarding, etc) is utterly impermissible?? They're obviously not allergic to lying, so what's the deal? I think they may be inept utilitarians.

I know this sounds awful, and I probably just ruined by chances of getting elected to public office, but unless you're a "respect for persons though the sky may fall" nut, where have I gone wrong?

One place to object might be that Bush isn't the kind of person to be trusted with this power. He's a power-hungry, slightly delusional, child, and yes, this makes me nervous too. But I actually think that my torture doctrine, if followed well, would be self regulating. Bush HAS abused his power, and he's taken heat for it. Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib are an absolute disgrace not because they torture people there, but because they're not discriminating enough about WHO they torture. %80 of the prisoners (perhaps even more) have been released from Guantanamo without charges, which means that basically they had the wrong guys. By being careless with who we torture we've lessened our ability to successfully get information out of the right guys. And obviously we've made everyone mad at us (the U.S.).

So my torture policy would be rarely used. As I say, one needs to be very confident in both the veracity of the info and the payoff (lives saved). Torturing people willy-nilly as Bush has done is self-defeating. This hopefully makes me seem less of a monster. It allows me to forcefully disapprove of both Guantananmo Bay and Abu Ghraib. No one should be humiliated and tortured for no reason. Such evils are only permitted in the rarest of circumstances.

Any thoughts?


  1. Arhur,

    How much of the "this is ok" intuition rests on the fact that in such bomb scenarios the person we torture also tends to be involved in the bombing itself. What if the bomber is in hiding and only video footage of the torture of an innocent family member will bring him out to tell the truth? Is torture still justified? I'm guessing you think it is, given that it's still just a numbers game for you as a utilitarian, but I suspect less people will share your intuition here than in the simple case where the bomber is the one being tortured.

  2. Quite right about my response, and right about how that would change people's intuitions also, I think.

    But as a practical matter, if such cases do come up, how likely is it that I'd need to torture someone NOT involved in the plot in order to extract information? I'd hope they'd tell me before it got that far.

    I'll appeal here to the "that's really unlikely" utilitarian defense regarding your thought experiment, and bite the bullet if it were somehow to arise.

  3. Faraci,

    I think I responded too quickly to your post.

    I take it you were saying that even if the majority of people agree with my simplistic ticking time bomb scenario, they'll come to this agreement from so many different ethical positions that they might not stick around if the scenario changes even slightly.

    You were pointing out that intuitions about desert might be clouding the example. Those people who were in agreement when the torture victim was deserving of scorn (if not torture) would get off the bus when it came time to torture an innocent.

    I think my initial response holds, though. The policy remains sensible because the occasion to torture an innocent to save thousands of lives seems far-fetched.

  4. Arthur, I think I'm on board. My qualms about torture are generally epistemic in nature.

  5. Ignoring the epistemic arguments gives a faulty answer to the question of whether or not torture is a good policy. The question cannot be practically simplified in this manner because, as a important practical consideration, humans don't have a God's-eye-view. To simplify the question to one whose answer is obvious provides only a narrow answer to an impractical situation. The absolute scenario that you are considering may be applicable in a vanishingly rare number or cases. So are you willing to establish policy based on those kinds of numbers?

    In your first response to Arthur you say, "I'd hope they'd tell me before it got that far." (That is that they aren't involved?) But the underlying assumption about torture is that the subject is disinclined to reveal the information, and will do anything to avoid revealing the truth. So would their statement of innocence be heeded?

    I pose to faraci, if your promoting torture, then anything goes. I would argue that, "anything goes" is implied with Arthur's premise.

    I don't think that the arguement is well framed because it lacks enough connection to reality that its conclusion can only be reached for situations that can only be justified through extensive and exhaustive verification. This is not practical. The arguement needs to be broadened in order to justify your blanket points (a) and (b). (And (b) assumes a completely ethical administration - which regardless of which way you swing, I would argue. Real life is messy.)

  6. growler,

    I'm sympathetic to your reply, but here are a few thoughts:

    It seems your chief complaint is that this isn't practical, but I think this is extremely practical, just rather limited in scope. It may help if I re-frame what I mean by "policy."

    given the seriousness of the secrecy condition, this isn't something anyone should write down. It's not a policy in that sense, but in the colloquial sense that I have a policy of tipping 20% or a policy of brushing my teeth before I wash my face. It's just a principle that would be wise to follow.

    If I were the president of the united states, and I was utterly confident that a person had information that would save 3,000 lives, what I recommend in my original passage as "policy" would, I claim, be the right thing to do.

    It's tricky when applying it to others, because as you point out, one shouldn't toss aside the epistemology as academic. I do not have confidence that Bush would have the same threshold of epistemic justification that I would have. Therefore, in a sense, I would not want him to feel at liberty to torture people. But, from HIS perspective, if he actually WAS confident that many lives would be saved, he should follow the Ward doctrine (as I'll humbly call it).

    That may not be terribly clear. But it comes down to this: torture works when the prisoner knows the information and doesn't work when the prisoner doesn't know the information. That much is clear from all the talk shows and pundit interviews over the last weeks regarding waterboarding. Overall, torture is an awful policy because most cases are where you're not sure what the prisoner knows. This is why the Ward doctrine would be so limited. But it's not fantasy, I think. Once in a while a case of great magnitude will arise. And given the right circumstances, as you say, anything goes.

  7. Arthur,

    Thank you for the clarification on the policy.

    It is hard to disagree that it is sensible to use whatever means to obtain information if you are certain that many peoples' lives will be saved because of this knowledge.

    But from an aesthetic and ethical point of view, torture is ugly and immoral (arguably). If we are a nation that promotes good moral conduct, then one would argue that we should avoid using torture to extract information.

    With this in mind one considers the details of the hypothetical situation: we have interrogated a person using ethical and moral means and through that process have learned beyond a shadow of a doubt that this person is witholding vital information. The clock is ticking. We need the information - and soon. We are certain that we will be able to get the information from the person using means that we abhore and reject as an ethical and moral nation/culture. So do we sacrifice a principle to save some lives?


    But there is the weight of the world watching us. Do we deserve to be consdered a world leader if we are willing to violate our own principles in the name of expedience? We could keep it secrete and maintain the appearance of moral and ethical high ground, but that would make us hypocrits.


    I like the idea that we will sacrifice a few lives in the name of principle. It speaks of character and strength in the face of evil.

    Sorry if this isn't well phrased, I'm kinda rambling. But certainly evokes thought.

  8. oho good dear !!!! very interesting blog and a good posting !!! you must maintain your blog, its interesting !!! Nice Buddy

    Research Paper Help