December 12, 2005

More thumbs up for torture

from - RSA

[Warning: graphic thought experiment ahead.] Charles Krauthammer wrote an essay earlier this month in the Weekly Standard called The Truth about Torture. He makes detailed and deeply disingenuous arguments in favor of torture under tightly constrained circumstances. This passage captures the moral essence of his piece:

Let's take the textbook case. Ethics 101: A terrorist has planted a nuclear bomb in New York City. It will go off in one hour. A million people will die. You capture the terrorist. He knows where it is. He's not talking.

Question: If you have the slightest belief that hanging this man by his thumbs will get you the information to save a million people, are you permitted to do it?

Aside from stacking the deck by asserting that somehow you know that a bomb is in place, how powerful it is, and what time it will go off, but not exactly where it is (did the terrorists send off a premature email, perhaps?), Krauthammer presents an argument that essentially treats the person to be tortured as someone who deserves poor treatment. You know he's guilty. To see why this can poses a problem, in a world where we have very little that is certain, let's walk through a slightly different scenario to see if we end up at the same place. Philosophy 101:

A terrorist has planted a nuclear bomb in New York City. It will go off in ten minutes. A million people will die. You capture the terrorist, after he has fled into an animal shelter, taking his tiny, almost indetectable countdown device with him. (His device is the only thing that can stop the bomb from going off.) Once you capture the terrorist, he tells you that he has fed his device to one of the dozens of kittens waiting in the shelter for adoption.

Question: If you have the slightest belief that hacking open dozens of adorable kittens with a rusty machete to obtain the device will save a million people, are you permitted to do it?

(Now I realize that I'm playing on people's emotional attachments, but you could substitute babies in a maternity ward in the example, if you like.)

I'll paraphrase Krauthammer for his moral conclusion:

However rare the cases, there are circumstances in which, by any rational moral calculus, [hacking open kittens with rusty machetes] not only would be permissible but would be required (to acquire life-saving information).

My apologies to kittens everywhere for their appearance in this thought experiment.

Afterthought: I just thought of a question I haven't seen addressed by proponents of state-sanctioned torture: What should the guidelines be for compensating victims who have been unjustly tortured?

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Posted by RSA at December 12, 2005 04:28 PM
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