Are you one of those who ended up feeling sympathetic towards Rio when he was tortured? Or in case you aren’t that much into movies and web series, just ask yourself whether it is morally justified to torture criminals or suspects in order to obtain information critical to the interests of society at large. A question like this assumes great importance in today’s world of warfare simply because information has become a key weapon in the wars against crime and terrorism. Where on one hand we see a number of international and national laws prohibiting such torturous treatments, on the other hand governments all over the world keep indulging in such activities, often shrouding them in secrecy. Does that mean it is an inevitable evil? If we leave aside legal aspects for a moment, do you think torture is morally justified? Let’s explore.
Imagine a person like Osama bin Laden sitting chained up in front of you. You have reason to believe that he has information about a bomb set to go off in the city of Delhi tomorrow. He denies having any knowledge of the bomb’s whereabouts. He even refuses to admit to being a terrorist. But you on the other hand have sufficient reasons to be sure of his involvement. Would you consider it justified to torture him until he tells you where the bomb is and how to defuse it?
The moral case in favour of torture rests on the principles of utilitarianism, which advocates ‘greater good for greater number.’ Here, we ascertain the morality of an act on the basis of the consequences it will bring. If inflicting pain on one individual can prevent death and suffering on a large scale, then definitely doing so makes sense. Turning coat, the case against torture stands on the principles of individual rights. According to this, each one of us is entitled to certain human rights and torture not just violates these rights, it fails to respect the intrinsic dignity of human beings. But is it really that simple? At this point, many of you might be tempted to prefer the case in favour, or so to say many of you might decide to torture bin Laden. That might also actually be the right thing to do. But allow me to point out how that is in direct contradiction to your sympathy for Rio. Intriguing? Let’s explore more.
Out of all those who favour torture on utilitarian grounds, some still oppose it on practical grounds. Information extracted under duress is often unreliable. So pain is inflicted but there is no benefit to the society. One major issue of concern is that if we allow moderate physical pressure, it is very difficult to know where to draw the line. If sleep deprivation or stress positions do not work, who gets to decide when/whether to go for waterboarding and disfigurement? Another point of concern is the limited information that criminals possess w.r.t. the hierarchy in their organisation. In many instances, criminals have very little information to offer because of their low hierarchical positions, so it’s hardly any use until you get hold of the kingpins. These considerations may or may not be true. However they aren’t in contrast to the utilitarian principle, for they just highlight the practical downsides. They still do not indicate that torture is intrinsically or outrightly wrong in principle.
Do numbers make a moral difference? In the bin Laden situation, they surely seem to do so. If for a moment we assume that the bomb is expected to cause death to just one person, we see that any advocate of human rights will vigorously defend his stance against torture. But what if the stakes are high? What if there are hundreds of thousands of lives at stake, like in case of a nuclear bomb. I think even an ardent human rights patron would find it difficult to defend his stance if the stakes are such. Thus some may argue that such kind of situation is an inappropriate way of judging the morality of torture. It forces us to acknowledge that numbers count and that if enough lives are at stake, we should forget our qualms about rights and dignity. But is morality all about a cost-benefit analysis? If that is so, why isn’t it moral to kill a healthy person and extract his organs to save the lives of five others waiting for an urgent transplant? Clearly there’s much more to morality than just weighing costs with benefits, and rights and dignity do play an indispensable role.
We can get a deeper insight by asking ourselves a very basic question: Why does torture endure at all? Probably because it works sometimes. But is that it? Some believe that at times, it isn’t much motivated by the need to extract information but by sordid things like the urge to inflict pain, feelings of vengeance, or sometimes even just for fun. Moreover the moral case for torturing bin Laden depends majorly on the assumption of his involvement and his possession of vital information through which the preclusion of such a disaster is possible. Or if he is not responsible for this bomb, we automatically assume he has committed other heinous acts that make him deserving of torture. The use of bin Laden’s name in the hypothetical example is also one of the reasons why people tend to incline towards the idea of torturing him. Perhaps had ‘x’ been used instead of his name, any pre-conceived notions associated with the name would have been eliminated, and you would have been in a better position to judge. Moreover, the world of entertainment we live in has also contributed to the notion of torture being ‘mostly successful’, which isn’t true on ground. This is just a slight indication to the fact that there are a multitude of factors that influence our decision and consequently shape our perception of morality.
Thus the moral intuitions at work in our hypothetical example are not only about costs and benefits, but also about the non-utilitarian idea of terrorists being bad people who deserve to be punished. However, we would be in a better position to judge the morality of torture if we could somehow eliminate any element of presumed guilt. Suppose that the only way to induce the terrorist to talk is by torturing his innocent young daughter, who doesn’t have the slightest of idea about her father’s atrocious activities. Would torture be morally justified now? Most utilitarians might squirm at this point.
But where does that leave us in our expedition to ascertain whether torture is morally justified? Well I never promised to walk you to a conclusion, did I? It is true that the bomb scenario is not very conclusive as far as our agenda is concerned. And there may be innumerable other situations where making a hardline choice may seem extremely easy or exceedingly difficult. But the reason why such scenarios are studied is because they shed light on how the moral compass of people, as well as society as a whole, behaves and evolves in a dynamic world. It is also true that such issues, even if found to be, cannot outrightly be adjudged as right or wrong, for the world supports and opposes them simultaneously. Contemporary moral debates like these are difficult to look at in black and white, especially for common people like you and me. After all, it is philosophers’ field of play, to assist humans in understanding themselves. Here, my goal is not to show which side of the argument weighs more, but to invite readers to contemplate their own views and subject them to critical analysis, to figure out what they think and why. Here, my goal is to ignite reason.