Monday, May 29, 2006

Torture: reply to Joseph S.

Situation A: we have a ticking timebomb planted by a terrorist, but we don't know where. His wife didn't know that he was a terrorist but she does know where he's been spending a lot of time lately. She won't, however, say where until a lawyer skilled both in our law and the law of her native land and religion arrives to witness her statement. We don't have time to wait for this lawyer; is it OK to torture her to get the information out in a couple of minutes?

Situation B: we have a ticking timebomb planted by a terrorist in our hands. Only one person can defuse this very intricate bomb safely. But he is retired now and won't leave the bedside of his dying wife. Can we torture him to get him to leave her and defuse the bomb?

With regards to both A and B, Joseph S. suggests that yes, it is morally permissible to torture the person in question. I disagree. Even if they are guilty of a wrongdoing, it is surely not one that deserves torture. In any case, it is plain that we aren’t considering torturing them as punishment for their wrongdoing, for we’d stop the torture as soon as they agreed to help (and not resume it afterwards), even though the torture might go on for different times at different levels of intensity for different cases, contrary to what we expect from punishment.

Also consider the following case: suppose the terrorist’s innocent wife wants to cooperate but cannot remember where her husband left the bomb. The psychologist says that she’ll remember under torture. She doesn’t submit voluntarily to torture, for she believes it’s always wrong. (Her belief is correct if the argument of my paper is sound.) Surely it wouldn’t be OK to torture her to get her to remember?

Joseph S. also suggested the following: anyway, if we define ‘material aggressor’ as ‘person who is a causal factor in an impending harm, and harming whom could avert the harm’, then they are material aggressors, and the question of guilt does not even arise.

I think, however, that this definition will be too broad. It will certainly include (contrary to the Vatican) babies that are causing their mothers harm, and would include, surely, the fat potholer whose stuck body prevents us from getting out of the cave, or the bystander that is in my way as I rush to escape some harm.

Note that there are other contexts than ones involving agents of the state in which the question arises: suppose that my daughter has been kidnapped and I have captured one of the gang, who tells me that my daughter has been buried alive in an airless coffin and has only hours to live. He refuses to divulge where she is buried. May I beat the information out of him? No, I say.



Joseph Shaw said...

What we need here is some workable principle governing the infliction of pain. If we can inflict it in self defence, how far does this extend and so on.

My suggestion was that, since it seems we can use pain in some cases of self defence, we can use them in all. And self-defence is limited to aggressors, material or formal, who have not surrendered: see my post

Daniel Hill said...

I don't agree that it's legitimate to defend oneself against innocent threats, i.e. threats that aren't intentional, i.e. threats that aren't intended under any dsescription.