Several months back, Ralph's post on torture provoked a good deal of valuable discussion, so I wanted to draw attention to C.A.J. Coady's review of a recent book by Bob Brecher, a book that deals only with the  'ticking time bomb' scenario often used by defenders of torture. The book looks intriguing because (a) this scenario seems to be the one that leads even those otherwise morally opposed to torture to make an exception, and (b) the scenario deals with the only rationale that (at least in my opinion)  is even a candidate for morally justifiying torture, namely, that torture could be used as an interrogation method to extract information that could prevent significant amounts of harm to innocent people.

But I was curious if perhaps the case for interrogational torture might succumb to an epistemological dilemma along these lines: Brecher notes that the scenario typically comes with many epistemological assumptions.  Here's Coady's reconstruction of Brecher:

Brecher argues that built into such scenarios is information that
is extremely unlikely to be available to the prospective torturers or
their masters in the real world. They are supposed to "know" (or be
reasonably confident) that a bomb has been planted, though they don't
know where, that it is going to explode very shortly (so there is no
time for any remedy but torture), that the prisoner has the information
about the bomb's whereabouts, that the prisoner is likely to yield the
information under torture, and that the torture can be delivered in
such a way that, in the time available, the prisoner will not die or
become incapable of communicating under torture. In the real world of
intelligence fallibility (think Iraqi weapons of mass destruction),
false imprisonment (think Guantanamo Bay) and sometimes fanatically
dedicated terrorists, it is hardly within the realms of likelihood that
these conditions will be fulfilled together. Indeed, it may be rather
more likely that either there is no bomb, or the captive is not a
terrorist, or not the one who knows the whereabouts of the bomb, or
he/she is too tough to yield to torture, or can hold out long enough
for the bomb to explode, or can deliberately give information that
sends you on a wild goose chase so that the bomb explodes, or is
innocent but still gives you false information in order to stop the
torture and so the wild goose chase is again the upshot, or the
prisoner dies or is rendered incapable too soon. Or some compatible
combination of several of the above.

So here's the dilemma I see: On the one hand, these conditions not only need to be fulfilled, but given the nature of torture (its painfulness, etc.), torturers need to to have very strong evidence that they are fulfilled.  I wouldn't go so far as to say torturers must be certain these conditions are met.  But it strikes me as reasonable that the greater the harm or injury we aim to inflict, the stronger the factual evidence we need in support of our moral judgment that justifies the harm or injury. (Think of the 'beyond a reasonable doubt' standard used in criminal trials.) Yet, as Brecher seems to argue, it seems unlikely that torturers would have very strong evidence that a bomb has been planted, that the torturer knows its location, etc.  Hence, torture would not meet the epistemic conditions necessary for it to be morally justified even in the ticking time bomb scenario.

On the other hand, suppose these epistemic conditions were met.  Look back at Brecher's list of what torturers would need to know (or have strong evidence for) in order to justify interrogational torture in the ticking bomb scenario: "that a bomb has been planted, though they don't
know where, that it is going to explode very shortly (so there is no
time for any remedy but torture), that the prisoner has the information
about the bomb's whereabouts, that the prisoner is likely to yield the
information under torture, and that the torture can be delivered in
such a way that, in the time available, the prisoner will not die or
become incapable of communicating under torture."
But this leads me to ask: what sort of intelligence would make it possible to know (or have very strong evidence in favor of) these conclusions but would not also yield knowledge of the whereabouts, etc. of the bomb?  My suspicion is that the ticking time bomb scenario is a work of fiction in that any military agency that knows a bomb has been planted, has a general idea of when it will blow up, etc. is likely to know its location.  I'm not suggesting that it's impossible to meet the epistemic conditions Brecher describes without also knowing the bomb's location, etc. — it just strikes me as a pretty exquisite set of conditions to satisfy.  (It's a bit like having a large jigsaw puzzle and knowing where all but two or three of the pieces fit.) And if so, then interrogational torture is unnecessary because the interrogation would most probably be unnecessary: The would-be torturers are likely to already have the information they need, making torture simply a gratuitous act of cruelty.

So the dilemma: The epistemic conditions for torture to be morally justified are not likely to be met, or if they are met, they make interrogational torture unnecessary.

6 Replies to “A dilemma for interrogational torture?

  1. Michael,
    The argument is interesting but, I think, incomplete. Suppose it is indeed true that, in the vast majority of cases, torture is either ineffective or unnecessary to prevent a sufficiently greater evil from occurring. Still, that leaves us with a very small set of cases where torture would be in fact both effective and necessary. Why aren’t these cases, however infrequent, sufficient reason to have laws permitting torture (only in such cases)? (Must crimes be expected to occur sufficiently often in order for us to be justified in having laws against them?)
    I think what is doing the supplementary job here is the tacit assumption that permitting torture under certain conditions will likely cause officials to torture under different but sufficiently similar conditions. Assuming that cases in which all the conditions you list are sufficiently similar to cases in which most but not all are, the argument would then be that, if we permit torture only in the few cases when torturing would be justified, there will be several unjustified acts of torture per every justified one. (Perhaps it is an argument of this sort that you are assuming when you write that “The would-be torturers are likely to already have the information they need, making torture simply a gratuitous act of cruelty.”)

  2. “. . . ‘that a bomb has been planted, though they don’t know where, that it is going to explode very shortly (so there is no time for any remedy but torture), that the prisoner has the information about the bomb’s whereabouts, that the prisoner is likely to yield the information under torture, and that the torture can be delivered in such a way that, in the time available, the prisoner will not die or become incapable of communicating under torture.’ But this leads me to ask: what sort of intelligence would make it possible to know (or have very strong evidence in favor of) these conclusions but would not also yield knowledge of the whereabouts, etc. of the bomb?
    I’m not sure I see why this case is so implausible. Assume that we have a particular form of torture that we know to be extremely effective; very high percentages of all who undergo it confess, and confess truth. Additionally, this form of torture poses a low physical threat to the prisoner, thus preventing the prisoner from being incapacitated. Now assume that we have a prisoner who was caught (or began after s/he was caught) bragging about having been involved in a plot to plant a bomb somewhere. The prisoner brags, further, that
    s/he is willing to share the exact time of the explosion, because “we’ll never find it in time.” If we set aside concerns that the prisoner is posturing or insane*, which we would hopefully be able to do with a reasonable amount of certainty, doesn’t this case meet all the criteria? I’m not saying it is going to happen often, but I don’t see anything particularly far-fetched about it.
    *Actually, I’m tempted by the idea that we need only worry about insanity. If someone claims that s/he is endangering lives and challenging us to do something about it, if we can rule out insanity do we really need to be sure s/he isn’t also lying out of bravado before acting?

  3. Gordon Graham makes a similar argument to the one Michael is making in the second edition of Ethics and International Relations (Blackwell, 2008).
    He argues that there are unjustified assumptions in the argument for torture. The pro-torture argument he bases his cases on is Seumas Miller’s argument (in Miller’s entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia on torture, but also present in Miller’s recent book on terrorism). To be fair to Miller, his argument, as I recall, as that torture can be used in exceptional cases but should not be institutionalized, so as to avoid Pablo’s worry.
    The gist of Graham’s counterargument (pp 148-149) is that Miller’s argument makes two explicit assumptions:
    1. That the suspect has information about the ticking bomb
    2. That the information is vital
    And an implicit assumption:
    3. That the vital information can be extracted, using torture, in time to be useful
    Graham claims (without any specific citations to back this up) that “empirical evidence suggests that none of these assumptions is satisfied in real cases” which seems in line with the epistemic problem you raise.
    Graham’s own motivation for this decision is his defense of a form of political Legalism (instead of Moralism or Realism) that asks nations to maintain agreed-upon standards, which would include the prohibition on torture.

  4. What do you mean by torture? Does “torture lite” count? (Threats, sleep deprivation, etc.)
    Are you familiar with Mark Bowden’s “Dark Art of Interrogation”? He gave a real life example of how a murderer was threatened to give the location of a kidnapped child. Is this kind of example too rare, or does it not justify torture for some reason?

  5. James’s worry is right. It’s not that such cases are extremely rare (although they are), but that even in these cases, where the epistemic conditions absent from “traditional’, or “trolley-problem style” cases such as that of the so-called ticking bomb, torture remains unjustified. On broadly consequentialist grounds (which is a fair place to begin, since those who would consider torture justified in a case such as that of Giefgen think so on account of the consequences of not employing torture) the institutionalisation of torture that this would require would – as I argue in my book – outweigh even the death of this particular child. On the other hand, and perhaps because even talking about the case in these terms might be thought a reductio of consequentialism, a consideration of what torture is is already enough to rule it out. What I think is important is that torture remains unjustifiable on either a consequentialist or a deontological approach.

  6. I wonder, too, if the way that ticking bomb cases are framed doesn’t make already make them morally ‘loaded’. John Parrish makes an argument that the presentation of moral dilemmas in the show 24 presents these kinds of cases (not just torture, but that would clearly be one of the common ones) into parodies of actual moral dilemmas.
    I enjoy 24, but I think John is right.
    The article can be found here:
    http://www.humboldt.edu/~essays/
    I look forward to reading your book on this topic, Bob.

Comments are closed.