May 29, 2009

On torture-11: Invoking the extreme hypothetical

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

Let's look at the final excuse on the list put out by torture apologists.

Excuse 11: Finally, the emotional appeal that takes various forms but one of the strongest is: If your children were being held hostage by terrorists, wouldn't you want any suspects to be tortured if that would save your child?

Before I directly address this question, let me make one thing clear. My unequivocal opposition to torture is based on the principle that I will not approve of any measures against other people that I would not accept if it were done to my own loved ones. There is no circumstance under which I would EVER consent to have my own child tortured. My opposition to torture is on the same grounds as my opposition to corporal punishment of children and the death penalty, that whatever I find objectionable when applied to my loved ones is also objectionable when applied to the loved ones of other people whom I don't know personally.

Not only am I opposed to torture on principle, I also oppose it because governments and security services have no compunction about lying about what evidence they have or have obtained that justifies torture, and will try and justify their contemptible actions using such lies. Read this appalling account of how the FBI coerces confessions from the innocent and how the courts help them cover it up.

Furthermore, we should never specify in advance the conditions when things like torture, murder, and corporal punishment are acceptable because doing so inevitably leads to abuse.

To explain, let's take murder, since that case is the easiest to understand but the action itself is the most extreme. We all say that killing someone is bad but we do excuse some people who do it. The mitigating factors may be self-defense or insanity. But such a judgment is always made on a case-by-case basis AFTER the fact of the killing. We should not specify in advance the conditions under which murder will be excused by saying, for example, that you can kill with impunity someone who enters your house. To do so would be to invite people to escape a murder conviction by creating the conditions under which he/she knows it will be excused. We want the system to be such that any person who kills another is never sure if they will be found guilty of murder and will thus hesitate before taking such an extreme step. Of course, psychopaths will kill anyway, as will those who cannot control their raging impulses, and such people will not be deterred by any laws from doing damage. But what we seek to do is to deter cold-blooded killers who try to calculate what they can get away with.

The danger of specifying the conditions under which you are allowed to kill someone leads to things like the tragedy in Texas where a couple shot and killed a seven-year old child who had apparently unwittingly trespassed on their property, though even the fact of trespassing is in doubt. Apparently Texas has a so-called 'Castle Doctrine' law that provides "civil immunity for a person who lawfully uses deadly force in any of the circumstances spelled out in the bill.". The couple seemed to take delight in using that license to shoot and kill the child even though they had to know that the child was not a threat to them in any way.

The only time we issue an almost blanket advance immunity for killing is for soldiers during wars (which can be argued are a form of collective insanity). But since we know that even this license can open the door to the committing of atrocities, we have instituted conventions that regulate even war time killings, setting out limits in conventions and treaties, so that stepping over those boundaries can result in charges of war crimes, though in practice only the losers get charged with those crimes. In World War II, Germans and Japanese were tried and executed for war crimes but not the Allied forces, although the dropping of atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the blanket bombing of Dresden should have been tried as war crimes too.

It is the same thing with corporal punishment. I am opposed to it under every circumstance. Under extreme circumstances some parents will do extreme things like hitting a child. We may judge that such an action was excusable under the circumstances, but only after the fact. But we should never give categories of people (whether parents or teachers or priests or school administrators) advance blanket immunity to administer such punishment or let them know in advance the conditions under which they will escape punishment, by specifying which acts are justifiable and which are not. Doing so inevitably leads to abuse as sadistic people invoke their 'rights' to viciously attack helpless children.

The revelations of the long-term and systematic severe abuse of children by Catholic institutions in Ireland is an example of what happens when people think they have the right to discipline children using force, because they are parents or clergy or teachers. Another example is where people think it is allowed to subject others to humiliation during the process of ritualized hazing, and where some take this license to resort to cruelty.

There should always be a blanket prohibition against corporal punishment and hazing, like there is against killing. People who commit such acts must always have to justify their actions after the fact, aware that they may be found guilty of abuse. Without that restraint, we let loose those sadists who will exploit the conditions.

Next: What if my own child could be saved using only torture?

POST SCRIPT: Lewis Black on politics and religion and torture

From February 2008:


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Hi Mano,

I have been reading your torture series with great interest. I absolutely agree with you that anyone who was involved or was potentially involved should be prosecuted.

I remember when I was in high school - it must have been early 2002 - there was a short article in Newsweek or Time that suggested that it is a good thing that we out-source our torture to places like Egypt. The basic argument was that torture is very useful and indispensable and if we are too squeamish to like it then we should just pretend that we don't do it and send our prisoners over seas.

The piece was so repugnant, let alone the inaccuracy of essentially all of the arguments (that torture is useful for interrogation, etc.), that I assumed that anyone would have issues with it. Yet when I brought this up with my class mates and I encountered all sorts of equivocating. Far too many people thought that there was something to this torture thing. The ludicrous "ticking time-bomb" scenario made a frequent occurrence.

The thing is, once people start accepting that torture can be ok, it is really hard to make any sort of headway in arguing with them. What can you say to someone who thinks that other people's lives have no value?

Even now, all these years later, I find myself feeling very discouraged.


Posted by Jared on May 29, 2009 04:55 PM


I think your frustration comes from thinking that people will concede to you that they are wrong because of arguments you made. This almost never happens. People are very tenacious in clinging on to what they believe.

So, is there any point in arguing? Yes, as long as you realize that the most you can do is plant the seeds of doubt, by pointing out where their arguments lead or giving factual counterexamples, and hope that those seeds will germinate over time, long after the discussion itself has ended.

I recently had a long discussion by email with someone (a high school student, I think) who was defending torture using the same kinds of arguments that were made to you. When I asked whether she would be willing to have her own children be tortured since that was the logical conclusion, she was willing to say yes to preserve her position, but I got the feeling that she was wavering. I think the seeds of doubt have been planted in her mind and we have to just let it go.

It is when you try to force a concession, and don't get it, that you feel frustrated. You have to learn to realize when you have reached the point to let it go.

Posted by Mano on May 30, 2009 07:44 PM

If your children were being held hostage by terrorists, wouldn't you want to seduce and have homosexual sex with any suspects if that would save your child?

Posted by Vincenzo on May 31, 2009 01:08 PM

The level of support for practices like torture is surprisingly high. I don't know whether this is because people do not really understand what they are defending or if they do not care about the effects on others.

Posted by CB Quantum on May 31, 2009 03:28 PM


I think you are right that I shouldn't expect to change someone's mind in the course of a discussion. That would be arrogant of me because I know that I would require a a good deal of thinking for me to change my own opinion. I will try to keep that in mind.

Still, I think my discouragement is more related to the way I feel when I hear or read something along the lines of the Eugene Volokh quote you shared recently. The sentiment is just so unabashedly vicious and malevolent. I can think of where his IDEAS are wrong, but I feel like I can't reason with the real issue, which is the seeming irrational brutality.


Posted by Jared on June 3, 2009 05:16 PM