Is Torture Always Wrong?
Jeremy Waldron continues to do incredibly interesting philosophical work on questions surrounding torture. He recently posted a short, accessible piece on moral absolutes that is a joy to read. What I love about the piece is that he embraces the absolute prohibition against torture, but then is brutally honest about how hard it is to defend that position. “The real difficulty with moral absolutes … is not the difficulty of imagining the commandment. It is the difficulty of making sense of our sticking with the commandment even when so much of value is stacked on the other side.” He offers Jeremy Bentham as the author of the supreme ticking time bomb hypothetical:
“What Bentham does is wait until the absolutist has given his best and most horrifying characterization of the evil tat he has set himself absolutely against, and then Bentham takes that very description and puts it in the scales on the other side. Torture is forbidden because it is so brutal; but what about instances where it is necessary in order to prevent a hundred cases of exactly such awful brutality? Violation is awful, but what about cases where violation is necessary in order to prevent a large number of exactly such violations?”
In other words, if torture is so bad, then should we commit one act of torture to prevent a hundred, or a thousand, or a million acts of exactly that same torture? Moral absolutists, Waldron argues, must “explain how those who take seriously the alleged prohibition are to be relieved of the burden of responding to the cases on the other side, cases that seem to involve exactly the same concerns as those that motivate the absolutism.” If we want to get all fanatical about torture, then what should we do when the scales tip so strongly toward torturing to prevent more torture? That is the ultimate challenge for moral absolutists.
He then presents five possible responses to this ultimate ticking time bomb scenario, all of them tentative and inconclusive at best:
(i) “You Leave it to God” –We have been commanded not to do this, whatever the consequences and one should let God or whoever the commander is take care of the consequences;
(ii) “Other people’s responsibility”–Responsibility for the consequences that tempt us away from the moral absolute is properly assigned to those who set up the situation;
(iii) “Tainted goods”–A violation of the absolute rule against torture means that the goods we secure thereby are objectively tainted on account of the immoral methods used to achieve them;
(iv) “Rules of the game”–We insulate the rules from goal-based considerations and thereby treat the rules of the game as absolutes;
(v) “Threshold deontology”–Certain moral rules are near absolute but one may abandon them when the consequences piling up on the other side pass a certain threshold.
Good stuff. It’s a nice short piece that complements his other work on torture, that is worthy of serious deliberation. He admits there are no easy answers to these questions, but I’m thankful we have folks like Waldron analyzing them.