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Is Torture Ever Morally Permissible?

Updated on March 5, 2015

Throughout our history torture has been used as a means of reform, inducing public terror, spectacle, sadistic pleasure, and more recently interrogation. Torture, which is prohibited by customary international law by definition is “the action or practice of inflicting sever pain on someone as a punishment or to force them to do or say something, or for the pleasure of the person inflicting the pain.” (Merriam-Webster dictionary.) For the purpose of this article I will be arguing both sides leaving you to come to your own conclusion.

Before diving deep into the article there are a few phrases that need to be defined for future references.

  • Deontology: The normative ethical position that judges the morality of an action based on the action’s adherence to a rule or rules.
  • Utilitarianism: The theory that the moral action is the one that inflicts the least amount of suffering.
  • Rule Utilitarianism: A form of utilitarianism that says an action is right as it conforms to a rule that leads to the greatest good, or that “the rightness or wrongness of a particular action is a function of the correctness of the rule of which it is an instance.”

When talking about the morality of torture there are two major perspectives that continue to be brought up utilitarianism and deontology, which challenge each other as to whether or not torture can be justified. I will first argue why torture is morally wrong from the deontological perspective.

According to Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher, torture is wrong based on the two universal rules he created that addresses any moral questions. The first rule states, “Act as though the maxim of your action were by your will to become a universal law of nature” and secondly “Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only.”

Using the first rule, we cannot justify torture because we would not accept if it were to be universalized with a possibility of it being used against ourselves. Using the second rule torture is inhumane because using such a method for informational purposes would be to use them as a means only. In this scenario Kant’s logic leads us to presume that torture cannot be universally justified under any circumstance.

However, utilitarnianists believe the act of torture is justified if it brings the greatest good for the greatest number of people. For example, if torturing a terrorist enables us the ability to uncover a plot, which could ultimately save thousands of lives then torture can be justified. Utilitarnianists believe the safety of the many always outweigh the safety of the lesser amount.

While these two perspectives are as far apart on the spectrum of this argument there is another perspective that may be considered the middle ground. Rule Utilitarianism according to John Stuart Mill, a British philosopher believed that sometimes it is right to violate general ethical rules: “Particular cases may occur in which some other social duty is so important, as to overrule any one of the general maxims of justice. Thus, to save a life, it may not only be allowable, but a duty, to steal, or take by force, the necessary food or medicine, or to kidnap and compel to officiate, the only qualified medical practitioner.” This can be interpreted as saying one should keep to the rules unless there is a strong reason for breaking them.

Looking at this topic from a present day perspective we turn to PBS anchor Gwen Ifill who interviewed former CIA Official Bill Harlow, and David Iglesias, a former U.S. attorney and war crimes prosecutor. When asked whether or not torture is useful? Harlow first stated that he disagreed with the term torture and secondly explained, “The enhanced interrogation program used on a handful of top terrorists absolutely produced vital intelligence that helped keep America safe.” (Harlow, Bill)

When Iglesias was asked the same question he stated, “No, It doesn’t work. The problem with EIT’s, which is a euphemism for torture… you always want to get a voluntary statement with reliable information. In every case the Senate committee looked at, the actual evidence came from non-abusive interrogation tactics.” (Iglesias, David) The interview continues with Harlow and Iglesias stating facts as to why their explanation is correct, never coming to a common ground on the subject.

While I have given you three popular and different perspectives (Deontolgical, Utilitarianism, Rule Utilitarianism) as well as two present day individuals on either side of the spectrum the nature of this argument comes down to each individuals moral and ethical beliefs. Every individual has his or her own interpretation of what is morally acceptable and what isn’t. Some individuals may perceive torture as the only way to gain valuable information in order to secure the safety of the masses, while others will argue “an eye for an eye” i.e. torture is a barbaric and in humane alternative. This argument has and will continue to be discussed for years to come, with the possibility and probability of never coming to an agreement, there are too many individual perspectives and ethical morals for there to be a single answer.


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