The ticking time bomb of torture

It’s pretty obvious why torture is immoral. It’s violent, degrading, corrupting, dehumanising, damages both the victim and the torturer, perpetuates violent opposition and is an unreliable means of collecting information given most people would say anything to alleviate extreme pain.

But can there ever be an extraordinary situation where torture is justified as the lesser of two evils?

The hypothetical ethical case used to examine this question is the ticking time bomb.

Imagine a captured terrorist has planted a bomb in a crowded city and it’s too late to evacuate. Is torturing the terrorist to extract information to enable others to be saved the right thing to do?

According to the consequential approach to ethics the right action is the one that leads to the greatest good for those affected.

This is the argument used as a moral defence by governments that engage in torture; they were sacrificing one person’s well-being to save many.

However the overwhelming weakness of the ticking time bomb defence is that a set of realistically impossible conditions must all exist, and not just in the minds of the torturers. These conditions include:

1. There are no alternatives to torture.

2. The torture technique will extract the required information with certainty.

3. The information can be acted upon to save lives.

4. There actually is a bomb.

5. The prisoner is correctly identified as a terrorist who knows where the bomb is.

Based on recent experiences the prisoner was actually a farmer (not a terrorist), or a liar, or completely unco-operative, has no idea at all or was more willing to respond to ‘incentives’ rather than torture.

If rules are defined to allow torture in extreme cases, these rules will be bent, exploited and broken particularly during the panic of a suspected or real terror attack.

The United Nations stressed in their 1984 Convention that no extreme circumstances exist which justify torture, confirming Article 5 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights: No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Immanuel Kant, a famous German philosopher developed an ethical rule stating that no human can be used as a means to an end; they must be treated as an end in themselves.

This principle protects the rights of the individual and is applicable in cases of intended torture and other cases such as medical experimentation on patients or volunteers. The extreme and certain suffering experienced by the victim is more significant than the hypothetical idea that good could result from torture.

One of the moral tragedies of the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld era was their authorisation of torture of prisoners of war and suspected terrorists. Bush suspended prisoner rights developed under the Geneva Convention, sewing the seeds for aggressive interrogation in their war against terror.

The notion of winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqi and Afghan people has been emphasised in recent times. Clearly the use of torture by US soldiers has struck a major blow against this possibility, and significantly weakened the moral standing of the USA in the international community.

The UN’s absolute rule against torture in any circumstances recognises the hypothetical ticking time bomb scenario is science fiction, and our political leaders should be capable of distinguishing Hollywood fiction from reality.

Geoff Lamberton is a senior lecturer in ethics and sustainability at Southern Cross University.


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