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March 22, 2007

consequentialists should want torture to "work"

I ended yesterday's post with the question, "if killing is worse than torturing, why should we ban the latter--especially if it proves an efficient means of preventing casualties?" I said "if" because this is a controversial empirical hypothesis. Human rights groups argue that torture does not work. It does not prevent terrorism or other grave evils, because those who are tortured can lie or can change their plans once they are captured. It generates false information that justifies even more torture without actually serving national security or any other acceptable end.

This sounds at least plausible. But it isn't impossible to imagine a situation in which a particular form of torture (duly limited and overseen) actually has beneficial net effects on human happiness. That is, the few people who suffer under torture may--in this hypothetical world--cough up enough true information that there is less terrorism, tyranny, or war. Their suffering is far outweighed by the increased security of numerous others.

What I find interesting is that I don't want this scenario to be empirically true. I believe in universal human rights, which rest on a sense of the dignity and intrinsic worth of all people. I also think that virtue excludes the use of torture, which is dishonorable. However, I am not so much of a "deontologist" that I'll stick to principles regardless of their consequences. I won't say "fiat lex pereat mundus"--let the [moral] law prevail even if the world perishes. Instead, I hope that the effects of torture prove harmful, because then arguments about consequences will line up with arguments about principles and virtues and the case will be easy.

One could, however, be a consistent consequentialist and argue that we should institute torture (with appropriate safeguards and limits) if and only if its net effects are positive. If that is your view, you should actually hope that torture is highly effective. If any practice, P, has both costs and benefits, a consequentialist should want its benefits greatly to outweigh its costs and should then press to institutionalize P. A consequentialist should oppose torture if, as the human rights groups say, it doesn't work. But I see no consequentialist grounds for hoping that it doesn't work.

March 22, 2007 9:18 AM | category: philosophy | Comments


I appreciate your intellectual honesty about how and why the consequentialist position, whatever it ends up entailing, is worth thinking through charitably. But to defend your own sense about the primacy of human dignity, the intrinsic worth of all people, let me add one thing: Part of Kant's humanity principle -- that we treat all people as ends in themselves, as having humanity, and never merely as means -- is that it calls on us to reflect on what kind of people we would be if we did not do so. What kind of person do I become if I treat someone else merely as a means to my own end (which torture boils down to)? I would be exiling myself from the realm of humanity. When any country engages in torture, even in self-defense, it makes itself an outlaw state, an outlaw from both international law and the realm of ends. I think this is one of the key insights of non-violent civil disobedience: never sink to the level of the wrongdoing your are trying to change and in the end you will prevail.

Well, let's hope.

March 23, 2007 10:36 PM | Comments (2) | posted by Noelle McAfee

In addition to Noelle's comment, I've received several thoughtful emails on this post. I'd only like to clarify that my argument here is not about torture; it's about consequentialism.

Torture is bad because it doesn't happen to have good consequences, and it violates basic moral principles (treating others as ends), and it reflects badly on and corrupts the torturer. I've made those arguments here, and here and here. What interests me in this post is a point in moral theory. Consequentialists should want the empirical facts to be such that torture works.

This is not a refutation of consequentialism. The universe may be a place in which (a) the best action is that which produces the greatest good for the greatest number; even if (b) torture sometimes maximizes the good. I'm simply trying to clarify the distinction between consequentialism and Kantianism (and kindred theories) by noting one of the implications of the former.

March 24, 2007 5:50 PM | Comments (2) | posted by Peter Levine

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