The Argument for Torture

Comments (19)

I. Practical Considerations

The problem of the "ticking bomb" - rediscovered after September 11 by Alan Dershowitz, a renowned criminal defense lawyer in the United States - is old hat. Should physical torture be applied - where psychological strain has failed - in order to discover the whereabouts of a ticking bomb and thus prevent a mass slaughter of the innocent? This apparent ethical dilemma has been confronted by ethicists and jurists from Great Britain to Israel.

Nor is Dershowitz's proposal to have the courts issue "torture warrants" (Los Angeles Times, November 8, 2001) unprecedented. In a controversial decision in 1996, the Supreme Court of Israel permitted its internal security forces to apply "moderate physical pressure" during the interrogation of suspects.

It has thus fully embraced the recommendation of the 1987 Landau Commission, presided over by a former Supreme Court judge. This blanket absolution was repealed in 1999 when widespread abuses against Palestinian detainees were unearthed by human rights organizations.

Indeed, this juridical reversal - in the face of growing suicidal terrorism - demonstrates how slippery the ethical slope can be. What started off as permission to apply mild torture in extreme cases avalanched into an all-pervasive and pernicious practice. This lesson - that torture is habit-forming and metastasizes incontrollably throughout the system - is the most powerful - perhaps the only - argument against it.

As Harvey Silverglate argued in his rebuttal of Dershowitz's aforementioned op-ed piece:

"Institutionalizing torture will give it society's imprimatur, lending it a degree of respectability. It will then be virtually impossible to curb not only the increasing frequency with which warrants will be sought - and granted - but also the inevitable rise in unauthorized use of torture. Unauthorized torture will increase not only to extract life-saving information, but also to obtain confessions (many of which will then prove false). It will also be used to punish real or imagined infractions, or for no reason other than human sadism. This is a genie we should not let out of the bottle."

Alas, these are weak contentions.

That something has the potential to be widely abused - and has been and is being widely misused - should not inevitably lead to its utter, universal, and unconditional proscription. Guns, cars, knives, and books have always been put to vile ends. Nowhere did this lead to their complete interdiction.

Moreover, torture is erroneously perceived by liberals as a kind of punishment. Suspects - innocent until proven guilty - indeed should not be subject to penalty. But torture is merely an interrogation technique. Ethically, it is no different to any other pre-trial process: shackling, detention, questioning, or bad press. Inevitably, the very act of suspecting someone is traumatic and bound to inflict pain and suffering - psychological, pecuniary, and physical - on the suspect.

True, torture is bound to yield false confessions and wrong information, Seneca claimed that it "forces even the innocent to lie". St. Augustine expounded on the moral deplorability of torture thus: " If the accused be innocent, he will undergo for an uncertain crime a certain punishment, and that not for having committed a crime, but because it is unknown whether he committed it."

But the same can be said about other, less corporeal, methods of interrogation. Moreover, the flip side of ill-gotten admissions is specious denials of guilt. Criminals regularly disown their misdeeds and thus evade their penal consequences. The very threat of torture is bound to limit this miscarriage of justice. Judges and juries can always decide what confessions are involuntary and were extracted under duress.

Thus, if there was a way to ensure that non-lethal torture is narrowly defined, applied solely to extract time-critical information in accordance with a strict set of rules and specifications, determined openly and revised frequently by an accountable public body; that abusers are severely punished and instantly removed; that the tortured have recourse to the judicial system and to medical attention at any time - then the procedure would have been ethically justified in rare cases if carried out by the authorities.

In Israel, the Supreme Court upheld the right of the state to apply 'moderate physical pressure' to suspects in ticking bomb cases. It retained the right of appeal and review. A public committee established guidelines for state-sanctioned torture and, as a result, the incidence of rabid and rampant mistreatment has declined. Still, Israel's legal apparatus is flimsy, biased and inadequate. It should be augmented with a public - even international - review board and a rigorous appeal procedure.

This proviso - "if carried out by the authorities" - is crucial.

The sovereign has rights denied the individual, or any subset of society. It can judicially kill with impunity. Its organs - the police, the military - can exercise violence. It is allowed to conceal information, possess illicit or dangerous substances, deploy arms, invade one's bodily integrity, or confiscate property. To permit the sovereign to torture while forbidding individuals, or organizations from doing so would, therefore, not be without precedent, or inconsistent.

Alan Dershowitz expounds:

"(In the United States) any interrogation technique, including the use of truth serum or even torture, is not prohibited. All that is prohibited is the introduction into evidence of the fruits of such techniques in a criminal trial against the person on whom the techniques were used. But the evidence could be used against that suspect in a non-criminal case - such as a deportation hearing - or against someone else."

When the unspeakable horrors of the Nazi concentration camps were revealed, C.S. Lewis wrote, in quite desperation:

"What was the sense in saying the enemy were in the wrong unless Right is a real thing which the Nazis at bottom knew as well as we did and ought to have practiced? If they had no notion of what we mean by Right, then, though we might still have had to fight them, we could no more have blamed them for that than for the color of their hair." (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, paperback edition, 1952).

But legal torture should never be directed at innocent civilians based on arbitrary criteria such as their race or religion. If this principle is observed, torture would not reflect on the moral standing of the state. Identical acts are considered morally sound when carried out by the realm - and condemnable when discharged by individuals. Consider the denial of freedom. It is lawful incarceration at the hands of the republic - but kidnapping if effected by terrorists.

Nor is torture, as "The Economist" misguidedly claims, a taboo.

According to the 2002 edition of the "Encyclopedia Britannica", taboos are "the prohibition of an action or the use of an object based on ritualistic distinctions of them either as being sacred and consecrated or as being dangerous, unclean, and accursed." Evidently, none of this applies to torture. On the contrary, torture - as opposed, for instance, to incest - is a universal, state-sanctioned behavior.

Amnesty International - who should know better - professed to have been shocked by the results of their own surveys:

"In preparing for its third international campaign to stop torture, Amnesty International conducted a survey of its research files on 195 countries and territories. The survey covered the period from the beginning of 1997 to mid-2000. Information on torture is usually concealed, and reports of torture are often hard to document, so the figures almost certainly underestimate its extent. The statistics are shocking. There were reports of torture or ill-treatment by state officials in more than 150 countries. In more than 70, they were widespread or persistent. In more than 80 countries, people reportedly died as a result."

Countries and regimes abstain from torture - or, more often, claim to do so - because such overt abstention is expedient. It is a form of global political correctness, a policy choice intended to demonstrate common values and to extract concessions or benefits from others. Giving up this efficient weapon in the law enforcement arsenal even in Damoclean circumstances is often rewarded with foreign direct investment, military aid, and other forms of support.

But such ethical magnanimity is a luxury in times of war, or when faced with a threat to innocent life. Even the courts of the most liberal societies sanctioned atrocities in extraordinary circumstances. Here the law conforms both with common sense and with formal, utilitarian, ethics.

II. Ethical Considerations

Rights - whether moral or legal - impose obligations or duties on third parties towards the right-holder. One has a right AGAINST other people and thus can prescribe to them certain obligatory behaviors and proscribe certain acts or omissions. Rights and duties are two sides of the same Janus-like ethical coin.

This duality confuses people. They often erroneously identify rights with their attendant duties or obligations, with the morally decent, or even with the morally permissible. One's rights inform other people how they MUST behave towards one - not how they SHOULD, or OUGHT to act morally. Moral behavior is not dependent on the existence of a right. Obligations are.

To complicate matters further, many apparently simple and straightforward rights are amalgams of more basic moral or legal principles. To treat such rights as unities is to mistreat them.

Take the right not to be tortured. It is a compendium of many distinct rights, among them: the right to bodily and mental integrity, the right to avoid self-incrimination, the right not to be pained, or killed, the right to save one's life (wrongly reduced merely to the right to self-defense), the right to prolong one's life (e.g., by receiving medical attention), and the right not to be forced to lie under duress.

None of these rights is self-evident, or unambiguous, or universal, or immutable, or automatically applicable. It is safe to say, therefore, that these rights are not primary - but derivative, nonessential, or mere "wants".

Moreover, the fact that the torturer also has rights whose violation may justify torture is often overlooked.

Consider these two, for instance:

The Rights of Third Parties against the Tortured

What is just and what is unjust is determined by an ethical calculus, or a social contract - both in constant flux. Still, it is commonly agreed that every person has the right not to be tortured, or killed unjustly.

Yet, even if we find an Archimedean immutable point of moral reference - does A's right not to be tortured, let alone killed, mean that third parties are to refrain from enforcing the rights of other people against A?

What if the only way to right wrongs committed, or about to be committed by A against others - was to torture, or kill A? There is a moral obligation to right wrongs by restoring, or safeguarding the rights of those wronged, or about to be wronged by A.

If the defiant silence - or even the mere existence - of A are predicated on the repeated and continuous violation of the rights of others (especially their right to live), and if these people object to such violation - then A must be tortured, or killed if that is the only way to right the wrong and re-assert the rights of A's victims.

This, ironically, is the argument used by liberals to justify abortion when the fetus (in the role of A) threatens his mother's rights to health and life.

The Right to Save One's Own Life

One has a right to save one's life by exercising self-defense or otherwise, by taking certain actions, or by avoiding them. Judaism - as well as other religious, moral, and legal systems - accepts that one has the right to kill a pursuer who knowingly and intentionally is bent on taking one's life. Hunting down Osama bin-Laden in the wilds of Afghanistan is, therefore, morally acceptable (though not morally mandatory). So is torturing his minions.

When there is a clash between equally potent rights - for instance, the conflicting rights to life of two people - we can decide among them randomly (by flipping a coin, or casting dice). Alternatively, we can add and subtract rights in a somewhat macabre arithmetic. The right to life definitely prevails over the right to comfort, bodily integrity, absence of pain and so on. Where life is at stake, non-lethal torture is justified by any ethical calculus.

Utilitarianism - a form of crass moral calculus - calls for the maximization of utility (life, happiness, pleasure). The lives, happiness, or pleasure of the many outweigh the life, happiness, or pleasure of the few. If by killing or torturing the few we (a) save the lives of the many (b) the combined life expectancy of the many is longer than the combined life expectancy of the few and (c) there is no other way to save the lives of the many - it is morally permissible to kill, or torture the few.

III. The Social Treaty

There is no way to enforce certain rights without infringing on others. The calculus of ethics relies on implicit and explicit quantitative and qualitative hierarchies. The rights of the many outweigh certain rights of the few. Higher-level rights - such as the right to life - override rights of a lower order.

The rights of individuals are not absolute but "prima facie". They are restricted both by the rights of others and by the common interest. They are inextricably connected to duties towards other individuals in particular and the community in general. In other words, though not dependent on idiosyncratic cultural and social contexts, they are an integral part of a social covenant.

It can be argued that a suspect has excluded himself from the social treaty by refusing to uphold the rights of others - for instance, by declining to collaborate with law enforcement agencies in forestalling an imminent disaster. Such inaction amounts to the abrogation of many of one's rights (for instance, the right to be free). Why not apply this abrogation to his or her right not to be tortured?

About the Author

Sam Vaknin ( ) is the author of Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited and After the Rain - How the West Lost the East. He served as a columnist for Central Europe Review, PopMatters, and eBookWeb , and Bellaonline, and as a United Press International (UPI) Senior Business Correspondent. He is the the editor of mental health and Central East Europe categories in The Open Directory and Suite101.


Brad 23.03.2010. 20:14

Why have we seen a reversal in attitudes about torture in recent years? During the 19th century, torture was repudiated. Until the last few years, everybody in western countries regarded torture as something that was done in less civilized times and in backward countries. Yet, now we hear arguments that torture is supposedly necessary to "keep us safe" from "terrorists" from Middle Eastern countries.

How did this come about? How did many people come to believe that torture is not self-evidently wrong?


Admin 23.03.2010. 20:14

I disagree. I think that most in the western world abhor torture. I have had personal issues trying define exactly what constitutes torture and I think the debate on things like water-boarding are more in that regard..


Sarah 17.02.2013. 20:35

Is the reasoning used in my argument for "Torture can be morally permissible " valid? I thank my opponent for accepting this debate and wish him luck!

For an action to be morally permissible, I argue it must produce results which are morally desirable to the alternative of the action not taking place. It is foolish to look only at the act itself when determining if an act is morally permissible, because this would limit the depth and extent our morality, and would be useless after the action had taken place. Torture is a taboo because too often, people are intellectually lazy and do not consider the entire issue. To examine whether something is moral, one must deconstruct the issue.

People who are against torture are inconsistent with their reasoning; adopting utilitarianism when it suits them and dropping it like it's hot when it leads to the conclusion that torture can be morally justified and permissible. Utilitarianism is defined as

"...a theory in normative ethics holding that the proper course of action is the one that maximizes utility, specifically defined as maximizing happiness and reducing suffering."

People who are against torture in all cases use utilitarianism in their reasoning because they support the notion that it is moral to limit the amount suffering (torture), in the world. Being opposed to torture wouldn't mean, for instance, that these people would be apathetic toward the issue after one person was already being tortured. Being against torture means you are against the amount of torture, not just if it exists at all.

Now that I have shown being against torture means accepting utilitarianism as a moral principle, I will move on to how this ties to the resolution. If utilitarianism is accepted as a valid moral normative system, then it only follows that if the good caused by an act of torture exceeds the 'bad' caused by said torture, the act is morally permissible. Let me provide a concrete example:

Take a scenario in which someone knows the whereabouts of five innocent people who are about to be tortured. The person in question refuses to give away any information, and the only way to get the information and prevent these five people from being tortured is through torture. The torture used on this individual is no more painful than the torture that will be used on the other five. By torturing one person, five others would not. If we have already concluded that the number of people being tortured matters (Torture is not moral on random people if only one person is already being tortured) , it only follows that this would be a morally permissible act, assuming torture without cause is something that is immoral.

While torture can and has been abused in the history of humankind, that is not to say it does not have any place in society. There are no valid arguments to suggest that torture can never be morally permissible, other than the argument, 'Torture is bad....mmkay." It is intellectually lazy to argue that torture is never morally permissible.

I pass the debate to Con.


Admin 17.02.2013. 20:35

This would be a pretty good argument if torture produced good results, which it does not. Studies have shown that people tend to make up information and false confessions just to end the torture. For this reason torture is clearly counterproductive - which would actually make it illogical and not at all utilitarian.

Here's an excerpt from a website:
"Researchers at Trinity College in Dublin have found that torture and stress techniques used in interrogation compromise brain function and damage the parts of the brain where memory reside. This could result in the tortured person giving false information, confusing reality with fantasy, repeating the torturer?s assertions as fact, or simply saying what he thinks the torturer wants to hear in order to end the torture."



emmy 25.04.2011. 22:44

How do I add to my thesis on medieval torture? I'm writing a research paper on medieval torture that has to be at least 10 pages. I have 2 right now and my argument is that torture still exists today, much to the disbelief of many (waterboarding, electric shock, burning) but that, obviously, only gave 2 pages. im running out of evidence and i need to expand my thesis so that i can go on talking about something else. i have all this info on different torture devices but i don't know how to incorporate it into my argument! help!


Admin 25.04.2011. 22:44

well a thesis in your introduction is what your going to talk about and what stuff like torture is still here today is you background... if i was you i would say a introduction is...
Hook: Imagine yourself in medieval times having a wonderful time and then suddenly you find yourself in a place where your tortured and there is no mercy what so ever.
Background: During medieval times it was atrocious if you got yourself in trouble because there would be tough and serious consequences beyond your comprehension.
Thesis: In my writing piece you will find out all about medieval torture and how it impacted people.

well i just wrote that quickly i would say that don't put that there is still torture today because that is not your essay :)
good luck! oh and just to let you know im 12 :D
atrocious means
1. shockingly brutal or cruel
2. exceptionally bad or displeasing
3. provoking horror

hope this helped!!!


Graffitti Guy 07.05.2012. 11:17

How can information be extracted from a terrorist other than by means of torture? Most of the arguments online debate whether torture is a reliable means of extracting information. If it is not, then what other methods can be used?

Graffitti Guy

The Real Deal 13.06.2007. 08:07

What is your argument for why I should not eat fish? I would like to hear from some vegetarians, an argument for not eating fish. I am considering going vegan, and I want to know what you think about eating fish.

I have been reading a lot about how bad beef, pork and chicken are, because the animals are treated very badly, and I watched a video narrated by Alec Baldwin documenting this. But, I would like to see similar evidence about fish.

Are fish put through similar atrocities as Cow, Pigs and Chickens are?

Also, what are the health risks of eating fish as opposed to beef, chicken or pork products?

The Real Deal

Admin 13.06.2007. 08:07

Well, only you can know what is right for you, but I don't eat fish because
1. fish are animals, and vegetarians do not eat animals
2. fish feel pain and emotions
3. fishing is terribly damaging to the environment
4. we are overfishing, and the fish and most other sea animals cannot reproduce fast enough. All the other ocean life needs fish to survive, so no fish kills off whales, penguins etc. (haven't you seen Happy Feet?)
5. even farmed fishing is a terrible environment and I go back to the idea that fish are animals who feel and therefore do not deserve to be tortured like that to be on my plate.
6.) once the fish are gone, we are pretty much done for

Good luck with your decision


Space Cowboy 11.07.2006. 01:05

What is the best argument against the existence of God? I don't care if you believe in God, I just want to know what you think the best argument you've heard against his existence. For the sake of this question, assume that God is:
1. Eternal, or at least as old as the universe
2. Omnipresent, or at least capable of being many places at once
3. Omnipotent, or so powerful that we wouldn't understand his limitaions
4. Sensient (no Hagelian "Geist", I mean a god that knows he exists and that he is God.)
5. Purposeful.
6. Not "created" or "evolved" or other things that would make him just a better version of us.

I am also asking the opposite question, and I would appreciate people answering both questions.
I actually asked the opposite question as a different question:;_ylt=Ag.2XwmaMxhO4elIql.fKDrsy6IX?qid=20060710180340AAKJGw5

So there is 10 points available for both answers if you answer the question in both places!

Space Cowboy

Admin 11.07.2006. 01:05

Probably the best argument against God goes something like as follows:

Defenders of a good, all powerful, and all knowing God have to explain why two kinds of evil exist, not just one. The two kinds are chosen evil (rape, torture, murder, etc.) and unchosen evil (diseases, natural disasters, etc.).

First they will say chosen evil must exist so that we can have free will. Okay, let's allow them that. Score a point for their God.

Next they will say that unchosen evil must exist so that we can appreciate the good - that good cannot exist except in contrast with evil. There are two things wrong with that answer. First, it admits that God is incapable of creating a world in which good is absolute (non-relative). Second, even if we allow them the claim that good must be relative to evil, the question remains why *so very much* evil is necessary to make us appreciate the good. To say that there needs to be as much unchosen evil in the world as there is so that we can recognize and appreciate the good is like saying that we could not tell the difference between black and white in a picture unless at least half the picture was black.

As a last resort, they will say evil does not exist - that what seems an evil is only an absence of good. This is like saying that there is no black paint on the canvas, there is only an absence of white paint - accepting it as an answer requires one to wilfully insult one's own intelligence.

This is called The Problem of Evil.

Another argument con God:

God has perfect knowledge, which must include knowledge of all that is going to occur in the world He created. Yet we, His creatures, are claimed to have free will, the ability to choose whether or not we will do something. But it cannot be possible that we have free will if our creator made us while having complete foreknowledge of all that we will do. It is not possible because there could not be such knowledge unless all our behaviour is pre-determined, and if all our behaviour is pre-determined we do not have free will. Therefore, such a God does not exist.

This is called The Problem of God's Foreknowledge.

Finally, look at what's involved in theism (that is, belief in God). We assume that because the world contains persons the origin of the world must be some kind of person (whom we call call God) - but that does not follow. Granted that the world developed or evolved from some fundamental set of principles, and that process gave rise to persons, it does not follow that the original principles were laid down by a Person (God). There might be a God, but that God is or was a Person is an unwarranted assumption. And a grossly arrogant one.


Stewie Griffin 09.12.2007. 19:28

Can anyone point to where torture of even famous al qaida terrorists has been productive and saved lives? Anyone justifying torture should be able to provide examples. Frankly, seems a terrorist tortured after being held prisoner for more a week would have outdated information at best and be providing disinformation at worse in response to torture.

Great arguments can be made torture is counterproductive.
BTW, I wouldn't have a problem with torture, say, under extraordinary circumstances,as depicted in a Dirty Harry movie, but it seems like real life examples should be provided to justify real torture.

Stewie Griffin

Admin 09.12.2007. 19:28

No. And neither can the CIA or the military. If they could, you can bet they'd so-say.

The real purpose-down the ages-of torture and extra-judicial incarceration-is to terrify the citizenry. It has ALWAYS been so. If the purpose remains obscure now, just wait. Sad to say, but just wait...


Aaron 29.11.2010. 03:27

What should I major in to get a government job where I can devise ways to torture people? I am really fascinated by the debate about torture in the USA and want to get a government job devising ways to torture people in less violent ways than we do, because I don't like how violently the USA tortures people. What should I major in during college?


Admin 29.11.2010. 03:27

One must speak up in situations where silence can objectively be taken to mean agreement with or sanction of evil. When one deals with irrational persons, where argument is futile, a mere ?I don?t agree with you? is sufficient to negate any implication of moral sanction. When one deals with better people, a full statement of one?s views may be morally required. But in no case and in no situation may one permit one?s own values to be attacked or denounced, and keep silent.

To abstain from condemning a torturer, is to become an accessory to the torture and murder of his victims.

Become an ACLU lawyer and fight against torture in all forms. Lest you experience it personally.

The moral principle to adopt in this issue, is: ?Judge, and be prepared to be judged.?


shyone 18.03.2009. 21:57

What do you think about torture in police remands and interrogations? Do you think it's legal,logical and humane to torture someone physically or mentally in police remands and interrogations,particularly in their private (sexual) parts or other sensitive parts of his/her body?
Sometimes I had read some news about those tortures particularly to political peoples,leaders that made me sick,not only me a normal person will feel sick if he read those descriptions!
Please express your opinions.


Admin 18.03.2009. 21:57

Governments try and use the Terrorism argument in an effort to make people scared and have them accept brutal approches to gathering intelligence. When in actual fact all torture does is become a propoganda tool used by terrorist groups as a justificatio of taking radical action

Its just cycle of violence nonesense


Live by 29.06.2011. 06:19

Is it ever okay to torture other human beings? Do you think it is EVER okay to torture human beings?
What about in the Ticking Time Bomb Scenario, where there is a terrorist in custody who possesses critical knowledge, such as the location of a time bomb or a weapon of mass destruction that will soon explode and cause millions of people to die?
Lets also add that every single family member of yours is in the general vicinity of that bomb..Is it then okay to torture the terrorist? Why/why not?

Live by

Admin 29.06.2011. 06:19

Haha upping the ante and the stakes, lol
It's quite easy to give an opinion on a forum and pretend to be a
keyboard warrior.
Real life is the true test, no 1 knows really how they'll behave under those
Too easy watching a game from the sidelines and shout at the referee, than it is to
participate and actually feel how the referee is judging/directing the game
Because it's a judgment call after all, you're getting close to the point where
there is no clear distinction between objectively right or wrong
Best would be to avoid such situations from arising altogether


Edit A movie and wiki to "enlighten" you
Unthinkable (2010) with Samuel L. Jackson



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