Ethics of Torture

From August 9, 2010.  A look at the academic perspective on torture and its effects and whether it is truly justifiable.  Short answer: it’s not, ever.  Long answer…

Ethics of Torture

            Weighing the costs and benefits of the use of torture has become a hotly debated issue in the United States since the government’s decision to utilize “enhanced interrogation” methods in its War on Terror.  People have argued whether torture has provided great benefits to the intelligence gathering of terrorist groups and if the use of these harsh methods should be considered moral or depraved.  Along with these discussions are other questions we should be asking about the use of torture.  How reliable is tortured interrogation?  Is it ever justified for positive reasons?  What are the effects of torture on both the victims and perpetrators of it?  Is it strategically effective in the long run?  These are the issues this paper will address.

I will begin this paper by giving a general definition of torture and describing some of the categorizations of different types of torture.  After briefly discussing some of the reasons for justification of torture given by state entities, I will describe some of the elements necessary in the training of personnel to carry out the act of torture.  I will then present some of the traumatic aftereffects of torture to victims of torture, interrogators using torture, and states as a whole involved in torture.  Torture warrants will be mentioned before an extensive discussion of the ‘ticking bomb’ scenario justification for torture.  The reliability of torture as an information gathering method will be followed by some concluding arguments against an article arguing a pro-torture position.

Defining torture has been attempted by many but a standard definition has not been agreed upon by everyone concerned with the issue.  Schweiker (2008) gives a reasonable definition by describing five elements generally associated with most instances of torture.  The first two elements are two people must be involved and one has physical or mental control over the other.  This is to point out there is no fair combat involved and there is no self infliction of abuse occurring.  The third factor is the pain inflicted is intended for the victim and is not done accidentally.  The fourth and fifth elements are critical because they separate torture from acts of sadism.  The torture has a purpose whether it is to punish, intimidate, obtain information or acquire a confession from a person.  Finally, the torture is directed at either the victim or a third party to achieve the goal of the torturer.  Many definitions of torture have some varying factors not mentioned in these elements but most commonly include these five factors.

Torture can further be broken down into sub categories of punitive and interrogational torture.  Santucci (2008) defines interrogational torture as having the intent of “extracting information…considered critical to a higher cause” from the person being tortured.  This is the type of torture that would describe the purpose of its use by the United States in the War on Terror.  Punitive torture is used to discipline or sway the opinions or convictions of someone or a group of people (Santucci, 2008).  This type of torture is more likely used by a terrorist group to influence a ruling power or force and was also used in the past for instances such as getting people to renounce their religious beliefs or admit they were witches.  Both could involve the same types of torture but interrogational would likely be seen as more moral torture since the results and reasons would be sold to the public by a larger propaganda machine as necessary for the advancement of a noble cause or society in general.

One final distinction that must be made when discussing the ethics of torture, particularly by the United States, is the differences in severity of torture.  The most severe types of torture could have the intent to eventually kill the person or permanently maim them in some physical way.  Wolfendale (2009) defines “torture lite” as torture that does not “physically mutilate the victim’s body…techniques commonly include sleep deprivation, forced standing (also known as stress positions), isolation, manipulation of heat and cold, noise bombardment, personal humiliation, and mock execution.”  The United States claimed the torture it uses in the War on Terror can be described as “torture lite”, “enhanced interrogation”, or “stress and duress” (Wolfendale, 2009).  The phrase “enhanced interrogation” seems to be the most popular one for the officials in the U.S. defending torture and appears to be originally utilized in Nazi Germany.  The Gestapo used the German phrase “Verschärfte Vernehmung“, which literally translates to “enhanced interrogation”, to attempt to hide the use of torture from government officials unaware of its exercise in the country (Hunsinger, 2008).  The use of these techniques is particularly popular with regimes trying to avoid the ire of human rights organizations because it is harder to detect and very difficult for victims to provide physical proof of it actually occurring.  Since no scars are left on the body or any obvious maiming of extremities is visible, the torture gives the appearance of being more humane and more tolerable for democratic societies (Wolfendale, 2009).

Making a case to justify the use of torture can take on various forms.  On an individual moral level, Steinhoff (2006) argues torture should be held to the same level of justification as death and states torture would be chosen almost unanimously over the prospect of death by people if given the choice.  Since this choice would be so overwhelmingly one-sided, torture is morally justified if it is used to protect or save the lives of others potentially facing a terrorist attack.  On the state level, there seems to be typically used commonalities in the justification given by governments, particularly that it is for the greater good of everyone.  Schweiker (2008) states, “the justification of torture usually is tied to some larger political, religious, cultural, or social goal that is believed to provide the reasons for acknowledging the torturous action as morally acceptable.”  In other words, the morally justifiable means of torture will lead everyone to a more positive end.  The more promising and bountiful the ends appear to be to the people, the more likely they are to turn a blind eye and reason the seemingly temporary use of torture is morally justified in a particular case.

The next question to ask is: was the United States justified in its use of torture in the War on Terror?  If we look at the United Nations Convention Against Torture – signed by the U.S. – it appears the use of torture was not justified.  Article 2 of the Convention states, “no exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture” (Costanzo, Gerrity, and Lykes 2007).  Since the U.S. War on Terror is a war with terrorist organizations and not a state entity, it would likely fall under the category of “public emergency” in this article.  Unless the action by the U.S. could be specifically redefined into something not imagined by this article, it would have to be measured as a direct violation of it.  Considering the language in the article, it would be hard to imagine any situation in which a state would be legally justified by the Convention to use torture.

Once a (seemingly impossible) justification of torture is made by a governing entity, training must begin for interrogators who will use torture on others.  To begin, a certain amount of priming helps transition the person to an interrogator who does not see the people they will interrogate as equal human beings.  Wolfendale (2009) describes various instances where this occurs in wartime.  Calling civilian casualties “collateral damage” or talking of killing someone as “dealing with a target” are some examples of this.  As already mentioned, the use of the phrase “enhanced interrogation” describes a different type of torture that is seemingly more benign than other more brutal torture techniques.  Interrogators may feel less guilt by using these types of actions on suspects.  “Someone using torture lite techniques does not need to go to the same psychological lengths to distance himself from his actions” because many of the techniques allow for physical distance between torturer and victim (Wolfendale, 2009).  Using noise bombardment or stress positions, for instance, only require the interrogator to turn on some loud music or put the person in shackles to accomplish their task.  This differs from more brutal torture techniques where the interrogator would have to inflict physical pain, such as beating or cigarette burning, from a close distance to their suspect.

When the United States decided to use torture tactics, it did not have to look far for personnel to train interrogators in the use of enhanced interrogation techniques.  Two important factors resulting from the Cold War helped the U.S. prepare for the torture of terrorist suspects in the War on Terror (Soldz, 2008).  The first was the U.S. support and training of military leaders in Latin America in torture methods to use on their own population as a suppression technique against rebellions.  The U.S. was concerned about any Soviet infiltration in its own “backyard” of Central and South America so it helped any friendly regime gain and hold power regardless of their tactics.  The other factor was the Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape (SERE) program created by the U.S. military to train its personnel to resist torture tactics if they had been captured by the enemy.  It goes without saying secrecy is critical in times of war, hot or cold, and SERE was developed with the help of medical personnel to keep strategic secrets from reaching enemy ears.  These two factors set the stage for the use of torture in the War on Terror.  Soldz (2008) points out, “When the U.S. government turned to torture after 9/11, they turned to SERE psychologists to develop their interrogations strategies.”

Another critical factor in training interrogators who will use torture is the ability to tell when people are lying and telling the truth.  It must be taken into consideration that part of the justification of torture is people who undergo torture are always presumed guilty of some criminal act.  It must also be presumed the interrogator will know when he has gotten all the information he can expect to get from a suspect and will end the torture.  This presents a dilemma.  According to Costanzo, Gerrity, and Lykes (2007), “some researchers have identified a troubling perceptual bias among people who have received interrogation training – an increased tendency to believe that others are lying to them.”  They go on to state people who have received this training have shown the ability to tell when people are lying “only slightly above chance” and are overconfident in their ability to detect deception.  If an interrogator cannot reliably tell when someone is lying and when the truth is being told, how can we be sure torture is not being used on the innocent or being used in excess against a guilty person who has told everything he knows regarding what he is being questioned about?  An assumption we must make about when the use of torture occurs here is that it is being exercised prior to a trial establishing the guilt or innocence of a person.  This puts the weight of deciding guilt or innocence solely on the interrogators in charge of the potential torture.  It is difficult to justify its use here considering the unreliability of deception and truth detection by trained interrogators.  An example of the potential for failing here is the U.S. detention of Abu Zubaydah.  He had given up useful information to the U.S. but it was believed he had more so the decision was made to torture him for more prospective intelligence and “not in response to any knowledge of any imminent, catastrophic threat” (Hunsinger, 2008).

A key aspect of training someone to use enhanced interrogation is the importance of what the person undergoing the torture feels about what is happening to them.  Resulting from studies done during the Cold War, the CIA discovered what is called the Debility, Dependency, Dread paradigm for treatment and interrogation of detainees.  The goal of this is to “induce a profound sense of hopelessness and helplessness that fosters a total dependency upon the captors” (Soldz, 2008).  In other words, all will in a suspect must be broken to the point where they feel they could no longer function in the world without the direction of their torturers.  This is done by making the torture seem as if the person being tortured is taking part in their own demise.  The intent of enhanced interrogation is to “encourage victims to feel responsible for their own suffering…his suffering arises not from the torturer’s actions (blows, fists, weapons), but from his own inability to cope with the changes in his environment” (Wolfendale, 2009).  Enhanced interrogation makes the questioned feel as if they are hurting themselves and cannot stop doing it.  Soldz (2008) points out this facet of torture lite is critical because it is likely to kill the person’s will faster than more brutal direct torture, which could lead to a building up of a person’s will to resisting his torturers.

From this breaking of the person’s will a new question arises: what happens to someone after they have been tortured, had their will completely broken, and now need to function as a normal person after release from their captors if they are innocent or have served their time in confinement?  In her article on treating torture survivors, Nguyen (2007) sums up the tortured psyche as follows:

“This wish for love has been perverted into the pursuit of rejection…For these patients, to know another mind is unbearable…What they know too much, too well, too irretrievably, is that there exists a dimension in this life where there is no meaning…where embracing death is the way to keep living…It is this knowledge, not the amputated limb or the torn vagina, which is the deadly blow.”


It is clear from this article the most difficult factor survivors must overcome is the realization not everyone is a torturer.  They may live their lives believing everyone can be and might be a torturer but overcoming the hurdle of believing they are not evil is the challenge.  This holds true for torture no matter the type used, whether brutal physical torture or enhanced interrogation.  Wolfendale (2009) found survivors of torture lite suffered similar psychological effects at similar rates of survivors of more vicious methods of torture.  The key between the two tortures that made the effects similar was the amount of distress and helplessness the survivors felt during their torture.  Since the intent of both types of torture is to induce the greatest amount of distress and helplessness, it makes sense the survivors of each would experience similar post traumatic effects.

An interesting and potentially devastating effect also occurs with survivors depending on who is present during their time undergoing torture.  Psychologists and psychiatrists, along with medical doctors, have been used during torture sessions to advise on when a suspect is breaking or is reaching a point of danger to their survival.  Lott (2007) points out when these medical personnel are working in hospitals and in communities they are held to certain ethical standards and must follow certain rules put in place to not breach the bounds of moral codes.  When these same personnel are working in secret advising on covert torture, the same rules and codes do not apply.  The effect this creates is survivors of torture are extremely reluctant to seek help from the people trained best to help them.  They no longer trust the “healers” or medical professionals like psychologists because of their complicity in the person’s traumatic experience (Costanzo, Gerrity, and Lykes 2007).  Resulting from these revelations, most medical organizations have taken a strong stance prohibiting the participation of any of their members in torture of any kind.  In the words of a president of the American Psychological Association, “Our profession is lost if we play any role in inflicting these wounds” (Soldz, 2008).  Not only does torture cause potentially lasting traumatic effects, the effects could have little chance of being remedied if the people trained to help are also the people helping with the torture.

The traumatic psychological effects of torture do not seem to be exclusive to just the survivor of torture.  “Violence workers” who participated in Brazil’s “suppression of communist insurgents” were studied to observe the psychological effects of their brutal work and a stunning result was found.  People involved in torture reported “even greater job-related stress than members of death squads” (Bufacchi and Arrigo, 2006).  It seems in this case, the taking of a life was less stressful than the torture and interrogation of a human being.  This could imply a certain amount of bonding is done between torturer and victim which makes it more stressful for the interrogator.  Another fact torturers must deal with is the label and burden they will carry for the rest of their lives.  Bufacchi and Arrigo (2006) state torturers are not regarded with the same respect as soldiers sent to combat “because the torturers and their families will not be honoured (sic) but disdained.  Statements of military necessity and legalization of torture cannot remove revulsion and stigmatization.”  It is much more likely a torturer would hide his past from his future acquaintances instead of admitting to it proudly.

Another post torture problem arises for the entity responsible for the abuse in the form of how vocal the survivors of the abuse become when they return to their normal lives.  Santucci (2008) observes, “unless the person who is tortured is then killed, torture creates martyrs who are living recruiters of new terrorists.”  The people who survive torture are symbols of both atrocity and resilience in the face of that atrocity and could inspire hatred and disgust toward the parties guilty of committing the abuse.  This creates a vicious cycle that seems to have no end once it has been put in motion.  State policies generate parties that feel slighted and oppressed in some way so they retaliate the only way they see fit, through terrorism.  The state decides torture is justified and begins utilizing it against these terrorists.  This action in turn swells the ranks of the organization by diminishing the popularity and support for the state and increasing sympathy for the terrorists and giving them a strong tool for propaganda.  Hunsinger (2008) sums this cycle up by describing it as a “protection racket, producing precisely the enemies it needs to justify itself as the defender of society against the threat that it has itself created.”  One could argue a state fighting terrorism needs to terrorize in order to sustain its fight against terrorism.

It is now likely terrorists have picked up on the reality of this cycle of states using torture to fight terrorism and are using it against them.  This tactic of inducing torture through the use of terrorism to then denigrate the respectability of the state has been termed by some researchers as “drawing the foul” (Santucci, 2008).  Terrorists see one relatively “small” terrorist act as a conduit for creating an overwhelming response of force by the state they are attacking.  This induces some interesting thoughts about the attacks on 9/11 and the potential intent of the perpetrators of the attacks, Al Qaeda.  Using this reasoning of “drawing the foul”, Al Qaeda may have wanted the U.S. to come to the Middle East in overwhelming numbers and begin attacking areas knowing it would create civilian casualties of coalition force attacks.  As time went on and casualties on both sides mounted, the terrorist organizations would eventually appear to be defending their homeland against a larger foreign force and sympathy for them would start to bloom.  They would ultimately look like such an underdog to the larger force that people would begin to question why the excessive use of force and abuse was needed.  It could be possible no large scale attack similar to 9/11 has not happened in the U.S. since then because the attacks have been thwarted through thorough intelligence gathering.  It could also stand to reason Al Qaeda has no need to attack the U.S. so viciously again because their mission of inducing atrocities by the state has been accomplished and they are just biding their time while the U.S. wastes more money and resources on military actions and continues to lose support with the international community.

One possible solution for allowing torture but keeping its use from getting out of control is the idea of torture warrants.  Similar to other types of warrants, a judge would be responsible for approving the warrant to torture a suspect believed to have knowledge of critical information.  The belief, as espoused by legal expert Alan Dershowitz, is torture warrants would keep the use of torture from being secretive “so that we may know what is being done in our name” and would restrict the exercise of it by the government (Kleinig, 2005).  In other words, it would keep torture in the public eye and it would not be used as excessively as it would under more secretive standards.  It is possible torture warrants would do this but it does not change the moral argument as to whether it is ethical or not.  Opponents of torture would see warrants as a way of “pasting a veneer of moral respectability over practices that do not deserve it” (Kleinig, 2005).  There is also the issue of time and the need for speed in intelligence gathering.  Getting a warrant to torture someone would mean a solid enough case would be needed to get a judge to agree to the torture while, in the mean time, the information the suspect has may become obsolete (Bufacchi and Arrigo, 2006).  An opponent of torture might then ask why not just put the person on trial and seek a criminal conviction since the time needed to do either would be similar and the person might give up the same information in the process.  The judicial branch could do its job and do it without the government losing face by using harsh methods to get the same information.

Torture under normal circumstances does not seem to garner a lot of popular support but there is a commonly debated reasoning as to a justified use of torture.  The scenario is generally termed the “ticking bomb” situation (Schweiker, 2008, Santucci, 2008, Hunsinger, 2008, Kleinig, 2005, & Bufacchi and Arrigo, 2006).  The hypothetical scenario generally begins with the knowledge a large bomb, maybe even a nuclear bomb, has been placed in the middle of a large city.  The bomb is set to a timer and is going to explode in a short amount of time, usually an hour.  One terrorist has been captured who has knowledge of the bomb and how to disarm it.  The city cannot be evacuated in time and the captured terrorist will likely surrender the information needed to stop the detonation if he is tortured.  Hundreds of thousands or even more than one million lives could be saved be stopping this bomb.  When this situation is presented, it is believed most people would agree with the torture and would see it as being justified in this case.  This reasoning has been used by advocates of torture because of the potential for destruction in modern times by larger and more dangerous explosive devices and the potential for saving lives resulting from a little bit of torture.

Kleinig (2005) argues we must make six assumptions about the scenario for it to properly work in the real world.  The first assumption is we know for an absolute fact there is a bomb and it is set to explode.  There has to have been solid intelligence gathered prior to the capture of the terrorist to have begun the manhunt for anyone with knowledge of a bomb.  The second assumption is the bomb is going off soon and there are no alternatives left to finding a solution.  If action is delayed in any way, it will cost thousands of people their lives.  The third assumption is the threat is of massive magnitude and the amount of bloodshed is almost unimaginable.  One could think of 9/11 and Pearl Harbor paling in comparison to this attack.  The fourth assumption is there are no other ways of retrieving the information needed to stop the attack other than torture.  There is no time to go through normal channels of investigation and torture is the quick solution to this problem.  The fifth assumption is the person with the information about the bomb is the one to be tortured and not a third party to get the whereabouts of the bomb.  The police are not torturing his very young daughter or elderly mother in front of him to get the information.  The final assumption is the information given will stop the threat for sure and a catastrophic explosion will be avoided.  This means the bomb is made in a way that allows it to be found and disarmed in the time given.  We must assume all of these factors are exactly as presented for the torture to be justified in this scenario.

Hunsinger (2008) understands these assumptions and argues there are five reasons we should be skeptical of this scenario and using it as a justification for the utilization of torture in the War on Terror.  The first reason is the reliability factor.  Information surrendered under the stress of torture has not proven to be 100% reliable and to expect it to be would be a fallacy.  The second reason is the uncertainty factor.  With such a truncated time frame, it would be difficult for the police to know they have captured the correct person responsible for the attack.  The third reason for skepticism is the slippery slope factor.  If the torture works for this scenario, how do we decide what is a dangerous enough situation to use torture?  How many lives have to be on the line for torture to be used?  The fourth reason is the accountability factor.  If the police happen to be mistaken about their intelligence, who would they have to answer to for their mistake?  They would have to be allowed to make mistakes in these situations which means little to no oversight of their activities regarding these scenarios.  The final reason is the corruptibility factor.  Since this would be a warrantless action, what is to keep it from being abused by the people involved?

The fear of justifying and legalizing torture because of the ticking bomb scenario is the government would be making and carrying out policy on the basis of a situation with no precedent.  In the words of Hunsinger (2008), “The abnormal is normalized…Declaring a permanent state of emergency in order to justify a systematic resort to criminal means is the well-known hallmark of dictatorship.”  There has been no instance of the ticking bomb scenario occurring in the U.S. and this includes the attacks on 9/11.  The scenario is just “too perfect for reality” (Santucci, 2008).  The belief torture actually works in these situation comes from television and movies and seems to be too much of an influence on opinion according to some.  Luban (2007) states the dean of West Point even made a special trip to Los Angeles to speak with the producers of the popular Fox television show, 24, and attempted to persuade them to eliminate scenes of torture producing actionable information because of the perception it was creating in the public and with soldiers at war.  To sum up the argument against the ticking bomb scenario, Bufacchi and Arrigo (2006) state, “justifications for torture thrive in fantasy, and as every moral philosopher knows only too well, fantasy makes for bad ethical theory.”

I believe there is one other criticism of the ticking bomb argument worth consideration and that is its use against the terrorist we are currently trying to defeat.  Members of Al Qaeda, and religious fundamentalists in general, have shown a strong willingness to die for their cause through numerous suicide attacks carried out around the world.  How sure can we be any religious terrorist would be willing to give up any information regarding a plot even under the stress of torture?  Considering they are more than willing to die for their cause of religion and are more concerned about facing their maker than facing their interrogator, it is highly unlikely a hardened Al Qaeda operative would give up any useful information under torture.  Taking into account Al Qaeda’s previous tactics and the use of suicide terrorism, the possibility of this group setting a major bomb with a timer and trying to get away before it explodes is also difficult to accept.  Capturing an operative with the information of this plot would be difficult to impossible considering most operatives with any information of it would likely be with the bomb when it detonated.  Even if the ticking bomb scenario worked in the real world in some way, it would likely not work against religious fundamentalist.  The ticking bomb scenario was created with a different type of terrorist group in mind and does not appear to apply to the tactics of Al Qaeda.

When discussing the justification of torture, it should be important to ask if torture even works and is reliable enough to validate its use.  Hunsinger (2008) addresses this at length and begins by noting philosophers dating back to Aristotle have claimed torture does not provide good information for intelligence use.  He also points out it appears some of the evidence Colin Powell presented at the United Nations to justify the U.S. going to war with Iraq was obtained through torture and history has shown that evidence to have been almost universally false.  Hunsinger even obtained statements of professional interrogators about their feelings and beliefs of the reliability of torture.  Two of the most interesting and revealing statements follow:

“Any professional interrogator you speak with, uniformed or otherwise, will tell you that torture doesn’t work…I don’t even like putting ‘interrogation’ and ‘torture’ in the same line.” – Mark Jacobson, former planning officer for Guantanamo in the Department of Defense.

“No one has yet offered any validated evidence that torture produces reliable intelligence…While torture apologists frequently make the claim that torture saves lives, that assertion is directly contradicted by many Army, FBI, and CIA professionals who have actually interrogated al Qaeda captives” – Brigadier General David R. Irvine, retired Army Reserve strategic intelligence officer.  Taught prisoner interrogation for 18 years at Sixth Army Intelligence School.


Considering how unreliable torture seems to be in the realm of people who closely study the dependability of it, one is hard pressed to understand why any state entity would be so quick to want to implement it in the name of safety and progress.

Santucci (2008) describes one example sometimes quoted as a torture success story and that is the statements of General Aussaresses, a key participant in the French conflict with Algeria.  Torture methods like electric shock were used during the war to obtain information about the enemy and they seemed to have worked and been successful according to those present.  Success in the short-run however, does not necessarily mean success in the long-run as well.  As word of the French Army’s use of torture spread, the popularity of the government and support for the war both domestically and internationally quickly waned.  The use of torture may have been arguably effective on a small scale on the front line of the war but it was a disaster for the government as time passed.  “The decision to use torture in Algiers fragmented the French Army, helped erode public support in France, and alienated France from other nations around the world who would normally have stood her in support” (Santucci, 2008).  Taking France’s disgrace into account, even if we accept torture might be reliable, it would likely still cause more harm to the state willing to carry it out than if it chose to prohibit its use.

One of the few scholars arguing for the use of torture as a justified policy is Steinhoff (2006).  He makes an interesting point as far as the justification of torture in wartime.  If we are now willing to allow the killing of defenseless civilians as collateral damage in modern warfare, which seems to be unavoidable considering modern technology and weapons, why should we not allow torture?  Is torture truly worse morally than the killing of civilians?  The reasoning given for collateral damage is the attack was intended for enemy combatants and civilians got in the way of stopping the enemy from killing the attackers.  Steinhoff asserts if this is the case with civilian casualties, “why should it not be permissible to torture a defenceless (sic) terrorist in order to avoid own casualties?”  This is an intriguing point and if we do collectively believe death is worse than torture then it stands to reason we should be willing to allow torture during wartime.  Considering some points already made in this paper however, it could be argued death might not be worse than torture.  If the effects of torture hold true for victims and torturers experiencing psychological problems and the case of France having such difficulties dealing with its use of torture against Algeria are representative of the results of torture, death might be a more reasonable option.  This is of course assuming only two options and that the deaths incurred are justified and not random terror killings.

Comparing torture to the prospect of death is a common theme running through the article written by Steinhoff (2006).  He gives a series of scenarios where the choices given to the person are either torture or death.  Many of these scenarios are similar to the ticking bomb situation in that they are very hypothetical and unlikely to occur in the real world.  The glaring problem with his argument is he gives death and torture as the only options to choose from as if there are no other possible solutions to these scenarios.  We must remember non-abusive interrogation is another option to torture so selling torture as an alternative to death is somewhat misleading.  If we are to justify crimes as acceptable in certain situations because it is better than death, then one could argue acts like bank robbing or rape are justifiable under certain circumstances.  If we concede torture is immoral under most scenarios, it is hard to justify it being a legitimate tool during any situation.

In conclusion, there seems to be no legitimate reasoning for allowing torture to occur regardless of the circumstances.  The effects of torture on both the victims and the perpetrators of it are deep and extremely traumatizing to each.  The so-called ticking bomb scenario might sell some people on the surface that torture can be justified some of the time but a deeper and more incisive study of the situation reveals more flaws than justifications.  The United States government may have made a critical error in the War on Terror by allowing the torture of suspected terrorist.  Costanzo, Gerrity, and Lykes (2007) sum up the potential danger by stating, “The use of torture has far-reaching consequences for American citizens: it damages the reputation of the United States, creates hostility toward our troops, provides a pretext for cruelty against U.S. soldiers and citizens, places the United States in the company of some of the most oppressive regimes in the world, and undermines the credibility of the United States when it argues for international human rights.” How can our government criticize another dictator for abusing his own people when their next abusers could be us?  Only time will tell how much damage was done to the United States’ credibility by the use of torture in the War on Terror.


Bufacchi, V., & Arrigo, J. (2006). Torture, Terrorism and the State: a Refutation of the Ticking-Bomb Argument. Journal of Applied Philosophy, 23(3), 355-373.  Retrieved on August 1, 2010 from Academic Search Premier database.

Costanzo, M., Gerrity, E., & Lykes, M. (2007). Psychologists and the Use of Torture in Interrogations. Analyses of Social Issues & Public Policy, 7(1), 7-20.  Retrieved on August 1, 2010 from Academic Search Premier database.

Hunsinger, G. (2008). Torture Is the Ticking Time-Bomb: Why the Necessity Defense Fails. Dialog: A Journal of Theology, 47(3), 228-239.  Retrieved on August 1, 2010 from Academic Search Premier database.

Kleinig, J. (2005). Ticking Bombs and Torture Warrants. Deakin Law Review, 10(2), 614-627. Retrieved on August 1, 2010 from Academic Search Premier database.

Lott, B. (2007). APA and the Participation of Psychologists in Situations in Which Human Rights Are Violated: Comment on “Psychologists and the Use of Torture in Interrogations”. Analyses of Social Issues & Public Policy, 7(1), 35-43.  Retrieved on August 1, 2010 from Academic Search Premier database.

Luban, D. (2007, Fall2007). Torture and the Professions. Criminal Justice Ethics, pp. 2-66. Retrieved on August 1, 2010 from Academic Search Premier database.

Nguyen, L. (2007). The Question of Survival: The Death of Desire and the Weight of Life. American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 67(1), 53-67.  Retrieved on August 1, 2010 from Academic Search Premier database.

Santucci, J. (2008). A Question of Identity: The Use of Torture in Asymmetric War. Journal of Military Ethics, 7(1), 23-40.  Retrieved on August 1, 2010 from Academic Search Premier database.

Schweiker, W. (2008). Torture and Religious Practice. Dialog: A Journal of Theology, 47(3), 208-216.  Retrieved on August 1, 2010 from Academic Search Premier database.

Soldz, S. (2008). Healers or Interrogators: Psychology and the United States Torture Regime. Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 18(5), 592-613.  Retrieved on August 1, 2010 from Academic Search Premier database.

Steinhoff, U. (2006). Torture — The Case for Dirty Harry and against Alan Dershowitz. Journal of Applied Philosophy, 23(3), 337-353.  Retrieved on August 1, 2010 from Academic Search Premier database.

Wolfendale, J. (2009). The Myth of “Torture Lite”. Ethics & International Affairs, 23(1), 47-61.  Retrieved on August 1, 2010 from Academic Search Premier database.

5 thoughts on “Ethics of Torture

    1. Apologies for the lengthy delay in responding. Was on Vacation.

      What type of help are you looking for? This paper is a few years old so it is dated a bit at this point.

      The general answer I would give to whether it is acceptable is finding out whether it actually ever works and is more effective (or even as effective) as non-torture interrogation methods. There is plenty of research on that and this paper only touches on some of it. I’m not aware of any legitimate research showing torture to be even as effective as other interrogation methods.


  1. Enjoyed this article, however would like to add a perspective. The fact that while the U.S. government denies its use of torture, the fact that the Nuremberg code was removed from U.S. law under George W. bush, suggests experimentation on likely unwitting and unwilling American citizens, far beyond simple doctor visit consent forms and treatments as this only covers a health coverage platform as opposed to a law enforcement and intelligence community platform relating to human experimentation that encircles the torture debate.
    I am also wondering if there are due process laws and resources should some one find themselves in such a situation?? and if so what they are???


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s