The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

The Ethics of Torture 101

There are two arguments against torture.

The first is ethical: torture is evil and should not be engaged in.  (This is, for the record, my personal view.)

The second is pragmatic: torture doesn’t work, or does more harm than good.

These are separate arguments: you may believe that torture works, but is too evil to use.  You may believe that it’s not evil, but ineffective.

Contrariwise, you may believe that torture is bad, but that the potential good outweighs the potential bad.  You may even, as many people do, believe that torture is something some people deserve (just as rape, according to Clarence Thomas, is part of the punishment of prison.)

Ethical arguments are rarely conclusive: they must start from unprovable axioms.  If someone disagrees with the axioms, it does not matter how tight the logic is, you cannot come to agreement.  It is for this reason that some argue the need for a God—an ultimate authority who lays down axioms.

I am of the school which believes that there are certain things we should never do to other people.  Death, to me, is not the worst thing that can happen to someone—go into a burn ward and ask the people with large body burns if they want to live or die, and understand that odds are you’d be no different.

Torture does horrible things not just to those who are tortured, but to those who torture.  There is often a pleasure in hurting or humiliating other people. Those who pretend otherwise are deluding themselves, most likely because they don’t want to admit that such evil lurks in their psyche.

If you torture, you become a torturer.  This is also why I do not laugh at rapists being raped: whoever did it is now a rapist too.

The counter-argument is simple enough: we do bad things all the time if we think the good outweighs the bad. If a few people’s suffering creates more good (for other people) than their suffering, we should allow it.

This is the dark side of utilitarianism: the greater good can lead to horrible actions.  Yet our entire society is based around such compromises: from industrial agriculture, the use of plastic, widespread automobile adoption; CO2 emissions and pollution caused by activities we value more highly than the widespread harm they cause.

So why make torture different?

If you don’t make torture different: if you don’t red line it, then you are reduced to the pragmatic arguments: does it work, what is the ratio of good to harm, and so on.

The world is a better place if we simply red-line some behaviour.  Thou shall not torture, thou shall not rape, thou shall not use nukes, thou shall use jacketed bullets instead of soft bullets, thou shall treat prisoners of war with decency, thou shall not shit in thy neighbours air so they get sick and their kids have asthma.

Red-lining certain types of behavior creates a better world.

The pragmatic ethical problem is “but if I don’t do it, others will.”

If I don’t torture, those who torture have an advantage.  If I don’t rape, those who rape have advantage (what?)  If I don’t pollute, those who do, have an advantage.

The pragmatic ethical response is “if I do do bad things there are more bad things in the world.”

If America doesn’t have prison rape and doesn’t torture, there is less torture (and a huge amount) less rape.

This is a unilateral action that the US (or any other country which tortures) can take to make the world and their country a better place.

At some point the world only becomes better when we say “no, I’m not going to do evil whether or not I perceive an advantage to it.”

Now a strong argument can be made that treating people better is an advantage, and there are many ways in which you can deny an advantage to those who are evil (generally by refusing to compete with them on their terms.)  That’s another article, so I won’t go into it here.

But I will say the following: personally, I hold torture apologists in the same sort of contempt I hold rape apologists and those who make rape threats.  Such people are worse than animals, and are a large part of why the world has so much suffering.  Their arguments from pragmatics are vile and self-serving.  The line must be drawn somewhere, but no matter where you draw the line, torture is over it. If you torture, or support torture, you’re evil.

That we have to have this discussion is amazing to me.  Torture should be the sort of action which people are ashamed of.  If they support it, if they’ve done it, they should be trying to conceal it, knowing all decent men and women will have nothing to do with them if their vileness is discovered.

That this is not the case is the saddest thing about American torture.


The CIA Torture Report


America’s Depraved Leadership Has Created a Depraved Population


  1. Tom Halle

    “At some point the world only becomes better when we say “no, I’m not going to do evil whether or not I perceive an advantage to it.””

    I would submit that in fact this simple statement forms the basis for all social evolution. It is the bedrock agreement we all make in order to create the modern state and modern human condition, and practical advances in the application of this concept are the mile markers for our social advancement as a species.

  2. bob mcmanus

    “no, I’m not going to do evil whether or not I perceive an advantage to it.””

    I have a hard time finding an great argument against necrophilia. (Bear with me, not long)

    So it is not the violation of a body that is immoral, but of a body connected to a self, and mostly the self. Torture is the violation of a self that sees its body.

    What does it mean to violate a self without touching a body? A self, excluding physical and social aspects, is a aggregation of values, memories, preferences.

    Where can I get the right, the privilege to turn her from “It’s green” to “It’s blue?” What are the justifications but using her as a means to my goals, not hers; or greatest good for greatest number; or “for her own good.” which mostly translate again to my goals for her.

    Persuasion, or the use of my greater facility* with language (or my status, power, or money etc) to use her toward the fulfilling of my own goals is a violation of her self, is never admirable.

    *even if it doesn’t work. The problem is at my end, seeing her as means.

    Torture is seeing Khalid Sheikh Muhammed as a means to our ends. It is more moral to simply shoot him. It is immoral to interrogate him in any way**, or even to speak to him in a friendly manner, except perhaps on his spontaneous request.

    **See conventions about prisoners in WWII.

  3. Albert De

    The purpose of torture is not to gain information (the victim will say anything whether true or not) but to force the victim to confess to something he/she didn’t do.

  4. EGrise

    According to Digby:

    Hayden was on with Blitzer this afternoon and said that “rectal feeding” was a perfectly reasonable way of “getting nutrition” into someone. And he also said that he had no problem waterboarding Americans if they are responsible for killing innocent people.

    And there’s the greatest irony for the torture apologists. Leaving aside the moral, ethical, civil and human issues, one would think that sheer personal interest alone would make everyone oppose sanctioned torture. If we don’t throw some “people” (I use the term loosely) in jail soon, torture will start creeping into our domestic affairs.

    Jesus wept, what is wrong with us?

  5. bob mcmanus

    Jesus wept, what is wrong with us?

    Well, many disagree, but I think the US is much more like 1st Century BC Rome than 4th Century Rome, iow we are at the beginning of Empire.

    And the Fall of the Republic.

    I expect the suspension of the constitution and a dictatorship in this next decade.

  6. vamooooooose

    Utilitarians knew their moral system was flawed, so they came up with rules or act utilitarianism, which essentially created a category of moral principles that you did not violate, even if such an action would bring about “greater good”. Utilitarianism is a dangerous idea, even its proponents thought so, and we can see now that torture is being done in the name of the greater good. Torture is both evil and not effective.

  7. Lisa FOS

    Torture is simply another ‘terror weapon’ to make people comply…with whatever they are supposed to comply with.

    In that sense it can work…until it becomes too widespread then people fight back because there is nothing to lose, if you are going to be tortured anyway then fight the B**tards..

    If you examine the torture regimes of Saddam Hussain and the US, then you see the difference. Saddam’s was carefully targeted, the fear of torture kept many people under control.

    The US, right from the first days after it’s invasion instituted production line mass torture (Abu Grahab was just one of many, many places) . So for people there was nothing to lose.If you didn’t fight against the US regime you would probably be tortured, if you did then you would be…but you would take some of those f**king pigs down with you.

    Remember reading an article by a US (proper) interregator and his report was that the biggest motivation by Iraqi (and foreign) fighters against the US was all the torture.

  8. JustPlainDave

    You seem to be taking the position that an airtight, purely pragmatic, argument against torture cannot be made. I think this is because the dominant public view of intelligence is expressed (consciously and unconsciously) primarily in tactical, even fictional terms (i.e., what folks see in thrillers or read in the hyperventilating descriptions of the commentariat).

    To make an effective pragmatic argument, one needs to take a systemic approach. Yes, one *can* make torture work, in the sense that given sufficient time and resources one can extract usable information from subjects that can be fused with other information to produce intelligence product. The problem here for pragmatics is the “sufficient time and resources”. The resource investment required to verify and fuse information from coercive means is huge, as in orders of magnitude greater than other information, because of the high prevalence of fabrication. Any intelligence organization that engages in torture is wasting resources that could be more effectively deployed other ways – even in edge cases. This is yet another reason why one wants one’s intelligence organizations to be consistently starved for resources – it keeps them focused on activities that have high payoff.

  9. anonone


    Torture is already fully implemented in our domestic affairs as evidenced by the unrestrained use of Tasers on citizens by police to gain compliance.

  10. thepanzer

    Ian you bring up good points up about the problem with unprovable axioms and arguments against torture. I can’t disagree with anything you said in that regard, however I think there’s a huge area that acts as a buttress to the ethical arguments and it’s rarely mentioned in our current discussions. And that’s history. We have literally centuries of documentation on torture, the types of regimes and movements that practice it, the effects in their culture, and the historical record of how the west turned away from torture and viewed it as a taboo over time.

    This isn’t like an ethical argument over some new technology that’s never existed and there’s a relatively clean slate for analyzing it and discussing the ethics involved.

    The weight of history overwhelmingly backs up the ethical arguments against torture on every front. From the Spanish Inquisition to the cruelty of the vikings and their “blood eagles”, the use of torture in medieval courts to extract false confessions, to their modern incarnations under such “enlightened” regimes like the Nazis and it’s wholesale use by the communist world in China and Russia and their various satellites. (we also see shades of this with the domestic surveillance debate, where the mountains of historical evidence of its use, impacts, and negative costs in society are completely ignored.)

    Part of the problem is Americans just don’t give a damn about history, literally have no idea what the history of torture is, and why the western world largely abandoned it as a govt sanctioned practice. As a result, centuries worth of damning conclusions and cultural revulsion gets washed away in the pants-wetting fear-mongering of our current generation of morally rudderless elites and our equally ethically bankrupt population.

    I have had CNN on off and on for the last few days and I’ve seen precisely zero historians on, or any other discussion of the historical use, impacts, etc of torture. It’s like this issue sprang up out of whole cloth with no prior evidence or history of use. As a result it’s just another he-said/she-said debate with the majority of the air time given to torture apologists and their concern troll allies. I swear the same band of apologists must be sleeping on a cots at CNN’s studios, since the same group is on so frequently.

  11. malcontent


    Yes the disturbingly effective management of the public discourse is skewing Joe Punchclock’s understanding of how history will eventually regard this period of American history. Even NPR won’t utter a sentence on this topic without informing its audience that there is a former spook on the line to dispute their airing of the dreaded torture report. Put another way, a master of deceit will correct your impression before you have to jump any thought gears about what is being done in your name.

    History has been recently demoted by the current crop of PR masters and this is an excellent example of the quote attributed to one of them:

    The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” … “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

  12. Ian Welsh

    I think a very strong pragmatic argument can be made, if we agree on what torture and society are for.

  13. Tom Halle

    Ian – likely true, although you may have struck on what the real core issue is here – agreeing on what society is for.

    The post-9/11 national security debate struck me at the time as effectively highlighting the diverging views in on this topic, both within this country and around the world. Are we here to protect what we have (the conservative view), or strive for a better society (the progressive view)? Where folks sat on that spectrum seemed to be a very clear predictor of where they came down on the topic of torture by the US.

    The same seems to be true about many other topics in hot debate today – policing in black communities, gun ownership, corporate influence on local/state/federal government functions, national energy & environmental policy, certain practices in the financial industry, and so forth – what one believes about our national purpose seems to tightly correlate to where one comes down on these issues of the day.

    Speaking as a progressive, I’d love for my counterparts on the other side of the debate to realize that the very “what we have” they are willing to torture to protect is being steadily hollowed out by the same institutions they so strongly support, and that there is precious little left to protect – so they might as well come over to the dark side and help us work each day to build a more perfect union.

    Ah, a boy can dream 🙂

  14. Novelist Teju Cole:

    Let’s acknowledge torture for what it is: It is punishment, vengeance. It’s the kind of havoc you wreak on an enemy or bystander merely because your rage needs an outlet. It has vanishingly little to do with intelligence-gathering. It spreads grief, and though it intends to do so, it spreads even much more than it intends. It destroys the perpetrators too. Rage is not a precision weapon.

  15. malcontent

    Rage is addictive and highly contagious.

  16. Lisa FOS

    Good points all, but I think you are all arguing about the wrong thing. All the issues about the ethics and effectiveness of torture have been done to death for centuries , but that is not the purpose of it.

    It has never been about ‘getting real information’, or ‘saving lives’ or all that piffle.

    It is about terror, about inflicting terror on individuals and society (or at least parts of society). There are multiple but mostly linked reasons:

    Terrorise any opposition (of any kind) to hide away and/or give up. Groping tits at the crack down on the elimination of the Occupy movement is just a simple and mild example (organised gang bangs are a more extreme version of this for females).

    Give a sort of legal ‘cover’ by saying someone, you want to get rid of, has ‘confessed’. Heck waterboard me and I’ll confess to killing Lincoln…

    Generalised terror…in that of you step out of line ‘very bad things will happen to you …and probably your family’.

    All elements of social/political control.

    And it can work for a heck of long time….but…only if applied surgically. The mass (industrialised) torture regime set up by the US in Iraq, right after they invaded and before any fighting back, was so extreme that people fought back because their backs were to the wall. There was no Saddam like ‘contract’ that of you kept you nose clean politically you would be left alone…this was mass scale, everyone (Sunni and/or Bathist) from 15 to 80, torture.

    Americans hate to hear, let alone acknowledge this, that they instituted from day one, what the Germans did to Poland in 1930/40.….Mass terror and mass torture.

    The scale was massive, US soldiers bursting into homes. Taking all the males away (and often stealing money and jewelry) and putting them into holes in the ground.

    Abu Grahab gets all the attention, but they created temporary camps all over the place. Arrive there get a blanket, no shelter, brutal US soldiers, surrounded by barbed wire……dig a hole in the ground and try to survive.

    None of this was accidental by any means, this was a straight brutal colonisation of a country using mass terror to crush the masses (last time was the Philippines)

    It was the brutality and mass torture of Iraqis by the US that created the uprising against them…a real own goal.

  17. JustPlainDave

    A couple of diverse points:

    1) I’m not sure that it is necessary, or even desirable, to closely define what torture is or what society is for in order to make a pragmatic case against it. If argumentation depends on explicit definition, folks will wiggle against the boundaries of that definition to achieve freedom of action (witness the convoluted legal arguments in the various infamous memos). Similarly, definition of what society as for strikes me as an undertaking of some scope – end even then, everything that I know about the plasticity and variability of human behaviour tells me that any given definition will apply to a narrow range of societies, and even then only for a given period in time.

    2) While I see the appeal of moral arguments against torture, I don’t think they work as well as pragmatic ones. Morals are plastic and torture can be quite a seductive option to managers in a jam – particularly when goals are split between parts of the organization. Better in my mind to undercut it in coin that has real value to them – it just doesn’t work when looked at on the scale of the enterprise. The logical extension of this would see torture (and worse measures) placed at one end of a continuum including all coercive techniques and ranging to “sweeter” techniques at the other end. Anything – not just torture – that spikes the fabrication rate would be something to avoid. It isn’t as simple as doing anything short of torture without concern to the downsides.

    3) While “the purpose of torture is to terrorize” is sometimes true, I don’t think it was in this case. If one wants to terrorize, one does not keep it a secret of the highest order. The collateral that I’ve seen indicates to me that this was a very compartmentalized activity, particularly at the beginning (i.e., when the design purpose of the program was “freshest”). Similarly, the techniques would be different (e.g., they wouldn’t segregate their prisoners like they did – that indicates that information extraction was paramount). Torture (like terror) is a set of activities that can serve more than one strategy.

  18. Lisa FOS

    From Ray McGovern:

    “The Senate report is simply the latest study showing torture does not produce reliable information. It is, after all, common sense. One need only be aware that almost anyone will say anything – true or false – to stop being tortured.”

    “But if it’s bad intelligence you’re after, torture works like a charm. If, for example, you wish to “prove,” post 9/11, that “evil dictator” Saddam Hussein was in league with al-Qaeda and might arm the terrorists with WMD, bring on the torturers.”

  19. V. Arnold

    @ Ian
    There is so much I want to say and yet I cannot even begin to feel there would be any point in doing so.
    Your last three paragraphs pretty much say it all…

  20. Formerly T-Bear

    Of your title: The Ethics of Torture 101

    I would observe there being NO ethics concerning torture; torture is the absence of, the failure of or the negation of ethics, full stop.

    Torture has an additional face in that it is also the failure of the art politic to persuade, influence or convince others, relying on force, fear and terror to achieve those political ends.

    Torture is the raw face of power and domination demanding submission to its authority.

    Maimonides is quoted (to the effect): Whatever is hateful to you, do not do unto others. All else is commentary. That is a superb form of ethics to this day.

  21. Formerly T-Bear

    If I had an edit:

    I would insert a short paragraph between the end of “Torture is the raw face …” and the start of “Maimonides …” which would say:

    Torture is the marker that civil society and civilization itself have ceased to exist. Neither have the ability to prevail without existential damage when encountering torture and are destroyed in the same manner that trust is when faced with lies.

    Thanks for the indulgence

  22. V. Arnold

    Formerly T-Bear
    December 14, 2014
    If I had an edit:
    Such an excellent, to the point post.
    Glad to see you active here…
    I’m just numb with the ongoing failure of the U.S. citizens and that leaves me numb…
    I feel stateless with nowhere to go or land…

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