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Torture: In Theory vs. In Practice

Below, I have detailed an argument about torture in theory versus torture in practice.

Following September 11th, governmental policies and discussions about torture have been misled by panic and fear, lacking the distinction between the theoretical and practical nature of torture and its use. In principle, I contend that torture can be morally permissible in hypothetical extreme situations where rights are either surrendered or overruled to ensure self-defense against impending doom. However, in practice, torture should, without exception, be banned because torture policies are unnecessary, ineffective, and impractical under an obscure legal system driven by impulsive corrupt human nature. To set precedent against torture and establish high stakes, torturers should be subject to legal prosecution and punishment.

Regarding the use of torture in theory, I argue that there exist situations in the infinite theoretical universe in which torture, an evil act, is morally permissible. Suppose the police have successfully captured a man who planted bombs in major cities worldwide. The police are certain the man is the bomber and harbors knowledge on how to stop all the bombs. Torture is the only method of extracting truthful information that will absolutely save billions of lives.[1]

Intuitively, committing the morally repugnant act of torturing the bomber seems acceptable in service of protecting the world-wide population. As Michael Walzer describes, in moral dilemmas of different contexts, it may be possible to “get our hands dirty by doing what we ought to do” (164). In our hypothetical scenario, most people would agree that torture may be admissible because we ought to protect ourselves, our loved ones, and the world, which constitutes self-defense from horrendous harm. Although torture “will leave [the police]...guilty of a moral wrong,” many would agree that the police should successfully save themselves and the world from impending doom (Walzer 161). The moral question remains: why, how, and when is it permissible to commit an immoral act—torture—at the cost of dirtying one’s hands?

I contend, agreeing with Jeff McMahan, that torturing the bomber is permissible because the bomber is held morally accountable for enacting an evil plan and intentionally threatening innocent lives. As McMahan illustrates in Torture in Principle and in Practice, the culpable terrorist—blameworthy and guilty of a sinister act—has now “made himself liable to be tortured,” surrendering his right to humane treatment (117). The bomber’s previous actions catalyzed a series of events that justifies defensive violence to properly allocate the inevitable harm upon the bomber (the culpable party) rather than upon the innocent (McMahan 118). By proportional and distributive justice, torture would not abuse the bomber’s rights because the bomber, morally responsible for impending doom, relinquishes his right to not be tortured.[2]

McMahan’s liability principle is compelling precisely because we are obliged to recognize how the bomber’s own culpable decisions and past actions directly bring about his liability, loss of rights, and ultimately, his own torture.[3] In our hypothetical scenario, the bomber merely needs to release information to end his torture. Instead, he “chooses to be tortured rather than to stop himself” from being tortured (McMahan 119). Due to his choices, the bomber has decided to endure the suffering of torture and cannot claim to have been unjustly treated.

Those who still oppose torturing the bomber, even in the face of extreme threat, reject fundamental notions of justice and moral responsibility, failing to recognize that the bomber must be held accountable for violating moral norms. Such exceptionless anti-torture principles often champion the natural rights of the tortured and pursue simplified, isolated views of torture as immoral acts (Sussman 8).[4] However, given the stakes of our hypothetical scenario, it is highly implausible to conclude that we should sacrifice billions of innocent civilians (and their right to life) to protect the relinquished rights of a liable bomber.

Although opponents are keen to point out that any responsible criminal, according to the liability principle, can be tortured, I argue that the degree of rights forfeited must always be proportional to the severity and heinousness of the wrongdoing. The actions of drug dealers, although criminal, are not nearly as deeply atrocious as the bomber’s intended massacre of innocent civilians. Although a drug dealer may lose certain rights, the right to humane treatment cannot be proportionally forfeited on the basis of selling drugs. On the other hand, the bomber’s large-scale mass-murder plan clearly warrants the retraction of his right to not be tortured.

Although certain hypothetical situations may not fall under the liability justification, torture may still be morally permissible. Suppose the bomber will only comply if the police torture his child.[5] Although the child is innocent, most would agree it seems wrong to sacrifice the lives of billions of equally innocent children and civilians to prevent the temporary torture of a singular child. Facing truly horrendous consequences, although the liability principle remains important, the innocence and rights of the child may be overruled because the stakes are so high (McMahan). Here, I emphasize that there must be an extraordinarily high threshold of impending harm to justify the torture of the terrorist’s child and overcome the constraints of the liability principle.[6] Although some contend that the threshold of seriousness is imprecise, I maintain that there will certainly be at least a single scenario in moral imagination that presents a substantially grave degree of harm.

While torture may be theoretically permissible, I argue that, in practice, the United States’ legal policy should unconditionally ban torture. Legal policies must distinguish between theory and reality. The concept of the “ticking time bomb” is merely a hypothetical situation framed “for public consumption” (Rose). In practice, the extreme criteria of our far-fetched bomber scenario are rarely satisfied with complete certainty.[7]

Furthermore, there is clear evidence that engaging in torture is certainly not necessary or beneficial to ensuring national safety. Although pro-torture policy advocates believe torture will divulge crucial information necessary to protect citizens, enhanced interrogation techniques have gained “no actionable intelligence...that wasn’t, or couldn't have been gained” through proven-to-be-successful traditional interrogation techniques (Soufan). Instead, torture backfired by extracting unreliable intelligence that merely “[squandered] resources on a massive scale” (US Congress 2; Rose). For example, President Bush in his memoir, Decision Points, falsely believed that torture was “highly effective,” forcing Abu Zubaydah (a high-value detainee) to “[reveal] large amounts of information” (Bush 169). However, we now know that the use of torture caused Zubaydah to stop cooperating and lie under duress (Soufan). In the long run, torture only damages national principles, impedes collaborative efforts between intelligence agencies, and makes society more vulnerable (Soufan; McMahan 126).

Additionally, legal implementation of torture is impractical because the use of torture demoralizes and corrupts individual interrogators, society, and the rule of law. In constricted, high-pressure environments, the fickle and distrustful “all-too-human characteristics'' result in unreliable decision-making and expansive moral constraints (Waldron 1717). When contrasting initial anti-torture sentiments to the later unregulated interrogation programs, we can easily see the corruptive nature of torture in practice. In 2005, Krauthammer’s The Truth About Torture promoted a fixed ban on torture with narrow exceptions for ticking time bomb scenarios and high-value terrorists authorized only by “the highest political authorities.” However, exceptions are easy to generously interpret and exploit. Years later, in The Truth About Torture, Revisited, Sullivan criticized the erosive nature of torture, which led to a full-fledged interrogation “program that violated all of Krauthammer’s rules” and the desensitization of citizens. Investigations on the government-endorsed interrogation programs reveal layers of miscommunication, obstructed oversight, flawed management, and unfounded torture authorizations based on false premises orchestrated by corrupt government officials and lawyers. Although the administration claimed detainee treatment was necessary and humane, the legal memos endorsed torture as “extreme acts...of an intensity akin to...death or organ failure” and the CIA falsely promoted torture’s effectiveness (Guttman & Thompson 63; US Congress 2). The web of loopholes and lies proves that torture policies cannot be effectively implemented because even the highest national authorities are simply humans easily influenced by innate corruption.

To set precedent against torture, torturers should receive clear, official consequences through legal enforcement of prosecution and punishment. While some believe targeted punishment is merely vengeance, I argue that conviction against criminal acts is necessary to institute accountability and responsibility. Because humans cannot be trusted to self-induce their own suffering and values, extreme penance is necessary to set “the moral stakes very high” and “appeal to our capacity for suffering” (Walzer 179-180). As such, legal prosecution and punishment are necessary to enforce laws and prevent torture from becoming an accepted norm.

As I have defended, torture is morally permissible through the retraction or overrule of rights in exceptional situations only imaginable in theory. However, in practice, the United States should pursue an absolute ban on torture, a morally corrosive and ineffective action that would be impractical to realistically implement. To ensure the policy success of a ban on torture, torturers should receive prosecution and punishment for committing grave crimes.

Footnotes: [1] The postulated hypothetical is inspired from the infamous ticking time bomb scenario found in several philosophy works (as listed in the Works Cited section). Torture is only morally permissible when we are absolutely certain the bomber is culpable and liable, the information extracted will successfully avert the threat, we have perfect access to the situation’s facts and information, and we can track that we know everything that the bomber knows. [2] Distributive justice entails fair allocation of the consequences of the bomber’s actions, including loss of rights (McMahan 122). [3] We are certain that if he confesses, the information will be truthful and successful, thus ending the bomber’s torture. The bomber is aware that providing information will end his torture. [4] Some claim that torture abolishes the bomber’s autonomy and dignity by using the victim as a means to an end to achieve an objective. However, I disagree because the bomber brings about his own torture. The bomber simply needs to do what he morally ought to do: release information. Thus, he becomes an “accomplice to his own violation” (McMahan 119). [5] The dilemma regarding the torture of the bomber’s child is inspired by McMahan. [6] If only one life (or a few lives) are at stake, torturing the child is not permissible because the threshold is insufficient. Allowing torture in low-threshold situations would lead to extensive, almost limitless allowance of torture. [7] As McMahan outlines, in practice, laws that attempt to outline “ticking time bomb” conditions “would not be enforceable” because governments would abuse their authority, leading to “terrible effects overall” (McMahan 125).


Works Cited:

  1. Bush, George. Decision Points. New York, Crown Publishers, 2010.

  2. Gutmann, Amy, and Dennis Thompson. Ethics and Politics: Cases and Comments. Belmont,

  3. CA, Thomson Wadsworth, 2006.

  4. Krauthammer, Charles. ‘The Truth About Torture.” The Weekly Standard, 5 Dec. 2005,

  5. Accessed 16 September 2020.

  6. McMahan, Jeff. “Torture in Principle and in Practice.” Public Affairs Quarterly, vol. 22, no. 2,

  7. 2008.

  8. Rose, David. “Tortured Reasoning.” Vanity Fair, Dec. 2008,

  9. Accessed 16 September 2020.

  10. Soufan, Ali. “My Tortured Decision.” New York Times, 22 April 2009, Accessed 16 September 2020.

  11. Sullivan, Andrew. “The Truth About Torture Revisited,” Dish, 10 Dec. 2014, Accessed 16 September 2020.

  12. Sussman, David. “What’s Wrong with Torture.” Philosophy & Public Affairs, vol. 33, no. 1, 2005.

  13. United States, Congress, Feinstein, Dianne. “The Senate Intelligence Committee report on torture: committee study of the Central Intelligence Agency's Detention and Interrogation Program,” 2014.

  14. Waldron, Jeremy. "Torture and the Positive Law: Jurisprudence for the White House." Columbia

  15. Law Review, vol. 105, no. 6, 2005.

  16. Walzer, Michael “Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands.” Philosophy & Public Affairs,

  17. vol. 2, no. 2, 1973.


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