March 04, 2005

Torture – Immoral? Useful?

A post I wrote on another forum on the issue of torture:

In any given case one cannot know whether or not useful information is being withheld or not with full certainty. The best you can do it to take a probabilistic approach. Firstly consider the likelihood that a given person is likely to be holding information. For example, [Another Member] highlighted the fact that someone caught in a building with bomb making equipment is more likely to have information about the project than a guy who lived next door. Secondly, consider the potential benefits from that information. These benefits revolve around the damage (in all senses) that would be prevented. If expected returns are above a certain threshold, torture could be employed.

However, a simple calculation of the expected return from torture is too simplistic. For a start, intelligence organisations arenít known for their ability to determine who is likely to be holding information, how likely any information is to be useful, the likelihood of planned terrorist activity actually taking place, and the social costs of terrorist activity should it occur. Lack of information may mean decision makers effectively act in an arbitrary manner.

Additionally, factors such as advanced technology mean that potential damage from terrorist activity is immense both in the short and long term. The potential losses of human life though biological or mechanical weaponry are immense. As such, payoffs yielded by information cause decision makers (quite rationally) to engage in torture even when the likelihood of obtaining accurate information is low. With the spread of knowledge and technology, the number of Ďpotential terroristsí will increase as will the opportunity cost of not extracting information. We end up in a world where it is nearly always socially beneficial to engage in torture.

The alternative is to renounce the use of torture all together. In a sense this is foolish given that torture can yield results. Still, itís inefficient and violates international law. Iím not too sure which way to go at the moment.

- 3 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. I wrote a short article about torture that addresses some of these points.


    You might not agree but I do make some attempt to specifically address your point about the potential loss of human life being enormous. My conclusion is that no country should legalise the use of torture because you can't just restrict its use to these extreme circumstances, but that there are extreme circumstances in which as an individual you might morally correctly use torture as long as you take personal responsibility for the consequences.

    04 Mar 2005, 16:54

  2. Nice article Don. I hadn't thought about the issue of torture being punishment before any establishment of guilt. I'm inclined to agree with you about the moral implications and potential for abuse outweighing the real benefits.

    04 Mar 2005, 19:30

  3. Thanks. It's quite a big issue at the moment, it seems as though torture is becoming ever more acceptable in the eyes of most people.

    07 Mar 2005, 04:23

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