On Torture and Humanitarian Intervention

by Roger Alford

In the tortured debates about torture, one rarely hears something new. But last week I was having a wonderful discussion with some prominent international law thinkers and one of them said something quite thought-provoking that I had never heard before.

“If you think torture is wrong then you should also conclude that humanitarian intervention is wrong. Humanitarian intervention is just a variation of the ticking time bomb scenario. Both trade in the currency of human life and assert that a greater good can justify the taking of life.”

This person took an absolutist position against torture and argued that a consistent position should be taken with respect to humanitarian intervention.

Although it is an intriguing argument, I do not agree with the conclusion. But before I give you my reasons for disagreement, I would be curious what others think.


13 Responses

  1. I would think neither argument actually ‘trade[s] in the currency of human life.’ The prohibition of torture does not protect human life (torture may not in fact endanger the life of the victim), but human dignity. The prohibition of the use of force, for its part, protects the territorial integrity etc. of the victim state (Article 2(4) of the Charter), and only by necessary inference ‘protect[s] succeeding generations from the scourge of war’ (Charter, preamble).

    This being so, the close analogy between the two prohibitions falls to the ground; they protect different things, and accordingly have different purposes. Therefore, the two rules may also be different as regards the absoluteness of their protection. Of course, they needn’t be; there is no logical relationship one way or the other.

    But I am curious as to your views.

  2. There is no form of torture that I would not consider a threat to the life of the recipient. Aaron Nimzovitch said of Chess, “the threat is stronger than the execution”. How much more worry do you need in your own life exactly?

    Trying to help someone and trying to reduce them to the status of something you can flush down a toilet are not equivalent tasks, and the moral value of an act resides in the purpose that it serves.

  3. I’m not sure that this position is sound at all. It seems to me that the problem with torturing is that there is no way of knowing whether the victim is in possession of information; one can only speculate that he or she is. Humanitarian intervention, by contrast, can perhaps be justified by verifiable facts on the ground. This leads to a second difference: in the ticking time bomb scenario, no harm has yet occurred; there is only a fear that a bomb will go off. However, in situations calling for humanitarian intervention, atrocities have already taken place. Furthermore, I think there is a level of sadism in the victim-torturer relationship, due to the inherent vulnerability of the victim, which is absent in a military strike against another state’s armed forces. This is one of the reasons torture is so abhorrent. This is not to say that I am for humanitarian intervention. I just don’t think the comparison between it and torture is a particularly good one.

  4. Charles,

    you seem to put the threshold of the definition of torture much higher than I would. For example, I would be prepared to regard rape as a form of torture, depending on the circumstances. Many other “classical” methods of torture also do not cause any real danger to the victim’s life; I might mention the pulling out of fingernails here, but shirk from thinking about a list of other depravities.

    Threatening someone with death may certainly amount to torture, and the threat may perhaps be taken as pointing to an actual risk of being killed, but torture can also take many more forms. Even the Bybee memo seems to agree, and that surely is ‘anti-authority’ on the question of the lower end of the torture scale.


    I’m afraid there may be situations where it is known that someone possesses crucial information. Disputing the facts strikes me as a risky way of dealing with a scenario.

  5. Roger,

    I guess that the point your friend was trying to make is that the justifications for both torture and humanitarian intervention have been made on utilitarian or consequentialist grounds, i.e. the view that the morality (or legality) of a particular action depends on its consequences. In that way, a consequentialist may argue that that the added good of a humanitarian intervention – saving human lives – outweighs the bad – dropping a bomb or two on on a few innocent civilians. In that same way a consequentalist might argue that torturing a person, or subjecting that persons to some lesser form of inhumane treatment, could be justified if the consequences of this action produce a greater good.

    So, I guess that your friend’s point is that it is not possible to defend humanitarian intervention without descending from the lofty perch of deontological ethics to the quagmire of utilitarianism, where the morality of any action is relative, as it is dependent on its potential to achieve maximum utility or whatever. This of course is the stuff from which moral philosophers have earned their bread and butter for centuries – when may we do evil in order to do good – &which causes the minds of the uninitiated to explode etc.

  6. Marko,

    Yes that it the essential argument.


  7. Right, so then one possible answer to the dilemma posed by your friend is to dispute his basic premise – that there is, in terms of deontology, an absolute moral rule which prohibits any action which might result in the incidental loss of innocent human life, no matter the purpose of the action. From the perspective of the international law on the use of force, that premise is demonstrably false.

    For example, there is total agreement that is legal for a state to respond in self-defense against an armed attack, even if it knows that its response might endanger innocent lives, so long as the state’s response is proportionate and necessary to repel the attack. There is no serious dispute, for instance, that the first Iraq war was legal, either if it’s seen as an exercise of collective self-defense, or as collective enforcement pursuant to a Security Council resolution. Most people, acting on the basis of their moral intuition, would also say that conflict was moral, since it saved the country of Kuwait from obliteration by Saddam Hussein’s regime, even if it invariably led to the loss of some innocent life.

    So, one way to answer your friend’s argument is to say that he presumes an absolute moral duty where there is none. Another would be to say that in cases of humanitarian intervention there is a conflict between two moral duties – to refrain from doing harm to others on the one hand, and to prevent harm that may befall others on the other, and that there must be recourse to a higher principle in order to resolve this conflict of duties. Either way, deontological ethics does not require that every moral rule or duty should be cast in absolute terms, and that consideration of consequences of one’s actions is entirely left out of the picture. That’s not how life works, and that’s certainly not how international law works.

    (This of course doesn’t mean that there actually is a rule of international law permitting humanitarian intervention absent UNSC authorization, or that such a workable rule could even exist.)

  8. Tobias,

    I don’t see where a threshold even enters into it. Simple assault is just as much a wrong as torture is, and torture is essentially an aggravated assault on the victim’s personality and volition: the torturer aims to attack the mind of the victim by using their own body as a weapon, and the while the mind tends to adapt to an injury, it tends to multiply threats. The effectiveness of the injury depends on the perception of more to come. On the other hand, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a good faith effort to aid someone in distress per se — that’s merely a question of what’s lawful and prudent under the circumstances.

    You wouldn’t claim an allied soldier providing a concentration camp survivor with food was on a moral par with the Nazis gassing people even if it inadvertently caused a prisoner to die because his body was unable to properly digest food, and the difference is intent. There are gray areas; the soldier might have been disobeying a direct order not to feed the prisoners, or might be negligent, but he could not be fairly accused of murder.


  9. Charly,

    I’m afraid we may have been talking past each other. I don’t know, but if that is the case, I’m sorry. Here’s how I understood your comment, and my reaction to it:

    I’d said that torture wouldn’t necessarily endanger the victim’s life (as where the actual physical violence wasn’t all that severe, and wasn’t the worst part of the treatment). I then took you to dispute that, in saying that no form of torture would fail to present a threat to the victim’s life. That’s how I took you as setting the threshold much too high. But I suppose that wasn’t what you were addressing.

  10. Tobias,

    You understood me correctly. It seems you mean “a threat to END his life”, and I am indeed saying that I don’t see any significant distinction in this context between a threat to end my life and a threat to torture me.

    A threat to vandalize my house doesn’t endanger it as much as a threat to burn it down, but it’s still a threat, and if you feel free to threaten that much, what reason do I have to suppose you won’t go further?

    If you put out someones eyes, castrate them, amputate their arms and legs, and cut out their tongue they might very well prefer to be killed outright: you have certainly ended their life as the knew it. They might have simiolar feelings about a threat to gang rape their five year old daugther.

    The line is crossed the instant you subordiante my life to your purposes: the threat to dispose of my life entirely is implicit just as soon as you violate my right to autonomy. As Kant said, we are each an end unto ourselves: a person is not a thing or domestic animal to be used for purposes against their own will, and to use a person in that way is to deny that there is any basis for society — you are the enemy of their life, and that is all that you are: a threat.

    The history of torture is not obscure, and there’s no doubt about it’s effectiveness if you consider how many people have confessed to heresies, witchcraft, or crimes against the state under torture. We know exactly what it’s good for, and that’s why it’s a crime against humanity no matter how sanitized it is. The crime is in the intent to inflict suffering and degradation on another human being regardless of the motive or the method used to inflict it.

  11. All concerned parties might be interested in the recent online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on “Torture” by Seumas Miller: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/torture/#Rel

    I’m not suggesting it will resolve any questions or debates above, rather that it is a helpful introductory yet sophisticated treatment of most of the salient issues. It also has a helpful bibliography and links. Ethically speaking, I think the literature on “dirty hands” is also invaluable for putting the discussion in a wider context.

  12. Charles,

    Thank you. I can agree with that, taking a broad interpretation of the word ‘life’ (as meaning not only the physical condition of being alive, but also the sum of all the personal characteristics and circumstances that make up ‘our lives’). I hadn’t used the word in that sense before, and hence only spoken of the risk of death, which, of course, torture does not always entail.

  13. You’re welcome Tobias, and thank you too. 🙂

    Miller’s article is very good. One point I’d raise is the use of torture against suspected heretics and witches…

    What ticking time-bomb or war is as much of a threat as eternal damnation?

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