Wednesday, December 10, 2014


Here's a hypothetical:

Let's say that the police have a man in custody who has kidnapped a child and hidden the child in a location that he refuses to disclose. Let's also assume that inflicting physical pain on this man is the only way to get him to disclose the location, that there would be no permanent damage caused by this infliction of pain, and that there is no other way that the police will be able to find the child. Is it then okay to torture the man for the sake of the child?

In the hypothetical situation, I say yes. I tend toward consequentialism, though, and I can see how someone might say no even with the assumptions. Plus all sorts of trouble arises as we move further away from the hypothetical. None of those assumptions will be strictly true, and any information we have about the extent to which they are true will be imperfect. All of that uncertainty gives a lot of latitude to the potential torturer to convince himself that the torture is being conducted for the greater good. Given human beings' propensity to abuse power, allowing torture under any circumstances starts to look like a bad idea.

Nonetheless, I still can't say I'm categorically opposed. The current hubbub over the CIA's use of torture is basically about three things:
  • The methods of torture are inhumane
  • The use of torture has not been effective
  • Information about the use of torture has not been adequately disclosed
That last point seems the really problematic one to me. As in so many other areas, just having sufficient information available would eliminate other problems. Although there are obvious reasons why counter-terrorism interrogations and their results should not be made public in real time, it is a good standard to apply: how would one conduct a torture session if the entire world is watching and the torturer must be able to justify his every action? Isn't it at least possible to have a reasonable standard in place and sufficient oversight to see that the standard is met? Is it possible that torture could be used in a humane and effective way?

One detail from the recent spate of articles jumped out at me: that sleep deprivation is one method of torture. Like any parent, I have been sleep deprived for significant periods of time. It's unpleasant, the more so the longer it continues. If someone wanted to weaken my will to the point that I would hand over information that I would not otherwise, depriving me of sleep would probably work, and I'm not aware that it would cause me any real harm. In the above hypothetical, if the torture method under consideration is in the same ballpark as sleep deprivation, my "yes" answer is all the more enthusiastic. If in addition to that there is a concrete standard in place for when such a method could be used--like probable cause, but much stricter--and if the whole process is subject to review, then it doesn't seem out of the question to me in a real-world, non-hypothetical case.

Torture is a dangerous game, perhaps so much so that we shouldn't play it at all. I'm just not sure that the CIA's actions since 2001 are telling us that it should never, ever happen.

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