Monday, 2 May 2011

The death of Bin Laden and the justification for torture

As Richard Rorty and Judith Shklar, amongst many others, articulated: cruelty is the worst thing we can do.

As such, even a good liberal - who will otherwise tend to avoid moral certainties - can contend that torture is absolutely wrong.

By being absolutely wrong, this means that in all places and at all times there is no justification for torture.

There are no exceptional circumstances - no beneficial outcomes - which can justify its use.

This goes both for imaginary situations (the "ticking bomb" scenario beloved by first year philosophy students) and practical predicaments: torture is always wrong, whatever the "greater" suffering which could supposedly be avoided by its use.

However, it would appear that it is possible that the killing of Bin Laden was made possible by the use of information extracted by torture.

If this was the case, would that be an exception to the otherwise absolute rule?

Or are liberals bound to say that such torture should not have been used, even if it meant that Bin Laden would have stayed at large (as far as he could) and free to engineer another 9/11 or 7/7?

Is this a difficult real life counter-example?

Or can it be safely disregarded as an attack on the absolute principle that torture is wrong?


No purely anonymous comments will be published; always use a name for ease of reference by other commenters.


mendax said...

The torture was undertaken without certainty of getting useful information. Bin Laden may well not have been able to plot another 9/11 or 7/7. There are too many uncertainties to make torture the morally correct choice before the action, and so i don't see how the pure chance that it all worked out well can make it the moral choice even in hindsight.

Andrew Hickey said...

Given that as well as being opposed to torture most liberals are also opposed to the death penalty, to execution without trial, and (in the general case) to sending troops across the border of other countries to commit acts of violence, I don't see any contradiction.

Fiona Hanley said...

Does the end justify the means? No. Ethics aside, if anything, the length of time it took to find Osama proves the inefficacy of torture at Guatanamo. It should be closed now, and any human rights cases arising out of it be dealth with honourably.

@alexiarowan said...

I'm not going to mourn his death but I also don't subscribe to the view that it's a cause for celebration. I'm not convinced that it has achieved anything more than giving those who agreed with him more perceived ammunition against the West.
America are fighting a "war on terror" which I don't really think is possible to fight against anyway, but does anyone really believe his death hasn't just inflamed the situation?
Anyway, I digress. If we're against terror what is torture other than terrorising another person? I fail to see how this can be right. Isn't it what we're supposed to be fighting?

Spiritualess said...

Your post is based on the assumption that there is no justification for torture. But it's very easy to imagine circumstances where torture would be justified, a ticking bomb being a good example.
I don't think the killing of OBL is justification for torture, he's no longer important enough. But there are others out there that might sanction it. Torture can include actions that have no lasting effects, such as water boarding or sensory deprivation. Are they always justified? No. Are they never justified? No.
Also you mentioned on twitter that you are not upset by the killing of OBL, but presumably would be if we had to punch someone in the nose to find out where he was? I find that reasoning absurd.
So unless you can demonstrate why Torture is never justified to any degree, I think this is a waste of time.

Spiritualess said...

Sam Harris talking about torture last week.

Artemis said...

Even if you're reasoning is correct - and I don't think it is - how many people were tortured for this one piece of 'useful' information? How many innocent people have been implicated, and arrested or incarcerated, in the search for this information? The harm equation isn't quite as simple as it first appears.

Ricardohere said...

Hmmmm... Methinks Jack of Kent is dancing around a few philosophical points (& maligning philosophers to boot! ;o))to get our danders up here...

1) Was the killing a direct result of torture-acquired information?

2) Even if the information was extracted by torture, do we know how many innocents(?) were tortured BEFORE any useful information was gleaned and how many were tortured AFTER the useful information was gleaned but before the killing was carried out?

3) Even IF you accept that the end does justify the means, are you sure that the 'end' was what you first thought it was?

By analogy:
We think that drug X saves 1 million lives, but we also suspect that it may cause irreparable mental harm to 1 thousand other people who subsequently (and 'unpredictably') decide to blow up all pharmaceutical companies.

Is it morally right to administer drug X?

The death may have inflamed the situation somewhat; it seems to me that the triumphalism & its media saturation will give far more ammunition to those who may want to take up OBL's banner

ColinG said...

Is it actually known that torture was necessary to find Bin Laden?
Could the same information have been extracted using other means?
One of the best liberal arguments against the use of torture is that it doesn't actually work; the tortured prisoner will invent plausible stories to please his captors, and because torture sends people mad, he may end up actually believeing in them. A lot of the "intelligence" acquired at Guantanamo was complete bollocks.
Also, of course, if we torture prisoners (some of whom will inevitably be innocent) it will give moral justification to our enemies, thus making us more vulnerable to further attack, not less.

Nettie said...

Is all torture the same?

Would waterboarding to get a certain result be unethical but white noise and sleep deprivation for 72 hours ethical?

If not, why not?

Stephen said...

The ticking time bomb is a rubbish example. It starts off "suppose we have someone in custody who we definitely know is a terrorist who definitely has information about where a bomb is and we definitely won't find the bomb before it blows up and he definitely will break in time for the truthful information he gives us to be useful" and gets even more precise from there on.

Given how much you need to know to justify torture in the ticking time bomb scenario the absurd thing is that you don't already know where the bomb is.

Ellie said...

'It would appear...'

Not the same as a fact, really. I doubt we'll ever know if the claims that torture led to the identification of OBL. And given his body was jumped at sea, we can expect Elvis and OBL to be anywhere in the world, at any time, reportedly talking over the good old days or planning a comeback tour.


Torture is wrong. Always wrong.

James said...

Never mind torture surely the killing is wrong, what right did the US have to kill him without a trial.

It didn't even sound like he was killed during an attempt to capture him.

Geoffff said...

Are you familiar with Philip Bobbitt's discussion of torture in Terror and Consent? The best treatment I'd read so far.

His conclusion that torture should never be legal under law - even with a ticking bomb scenario - but adds the proviso that in the ultra-rare circumstances that such a scenario presents itself an official would torture anway and there would likely be jury nullification.

HIs discussion of the less clear circumstances - the purpose of torture i.e. punishement, political, evidentary, intelligence is illuminating. With him concluding, I think I'm right in saying that there is an argument for aspects of enhanced interrogation for intelligence purposes only. It's hard give this argument an adequade treatment in a blog comment, but it's chapter "The Strategic Relationship Between Ends and Means" which is of note.

Nescio said...

Whether torture was influential in this specific case is discussed here:

In general I would like to refer to the Spanish Inquisition. The results there should convince you of the efficacy of torture. Beyond that, if you feel you need to torture then you should accept the consequences. If I believe I need to get to hospital fast I accept the speeding ticket, which is a small price to pay being in time to save somebody. So, do torture but be a man and stand trial for it!

Tony Lloyd said...

Stephen is right that the "ticking bomb" is utterly unrealistic. As such, it's a diversionary tactic: justifying one thing (actual torture in actual situations) with something entirely different (that you can imagine a situation where...)

But even then the ticking bomb does not justify torture. Under the scenario X, who is in custody, has information that would help us prevent a crime by Y (the chap who planted the bomb). We would be torturing X for Y's crimes. This is, obviously, unjust. (It's also the case here: Osama was not in Guantanamo. It wasn't Osama being tortured. In many cases it was the innocent, and known to be innocent.)

Even we're we to add to the ridiculous list of certainties the certain knowledge that the particular terrorist in custody is the same one who planted the bomb we still do not justify torture. Torture is, per definitio cruel and unusual punishment. Unless we admit its use for punishing crimes that have been committed we cannot use it when no crime has been committed. Even if we are sure that this chap is the one, that torture will be effective in losening a tongue, that the toungue will speak only the truth etc etc etc

Anonymous said...

I think I'll second ColinG on this one...

Probably the most important question is whether torture is an effective means of extracting information, and from what I hear, it isn't.

Given that it isn't effective, then there can never be a situation when it's use can be morally or ethically justifiable (even asform of punishment).

The last big story I heard coming out of Gitmo was the giant fight that the FBI interogators were having with the Army interogators, who were advocating, respectively, modern interrogation techniques (FBI) vs. torture (Army). The FBI were marginalised, and torture was the order of the day.

What I really want to find out is: Which method is actually effecacious.

If torture has efficacy, then, and only then, is it worth having a discussion about whether we are prepared to condone it's use, and i what circumstance

billynojob said...

I can see no particular reason why "liberals [are] bound to say such torture should not have been used" as opposed to anyone else. I doubt I'm a liberal in the sense that you mean the word, but I am absolutely clear that torture is at all times, in all places, and for all reasons, wrong, unacceptable and unjustified.

But then I also believe that the summary execution of anyone, guilty or not, along with random relatives, is also wrong at all times, etc. Pity you seem to be so in favour of this particular suspension of the rule of law.

Rebellionkid said...

The ticking time bomb is a far better counter-example. Killing Bin Laden *may* help matters, but not by much, if at all. The ticking time bomb at least has the advantage of very clear harm.

I'm a utilitarian with some quibbles and wiggle room, as I think almost any sane person should be. I find it very hard to applaud someone with a moral absolute. It sounds too much like someone with an absolute about science. I.e. dangerous.

James Firth said...

Certainly not! If our aim is to promote humanity and democracy as an effective method of government then torturing people sends out completely the opposite message.

I've only seen one textbook case attempting to justify torture. The classic Jack Bauer "A man who, with certainty, knows how to stop other people dying refuses to impart information that will stop these people dying."

OBL case is nothing like this. To start with, how do we know for sure the person we're about to torture has the information we want?

Secondly, is it worth potentially radicalising a whole new generation by maltreating people just to kill one person, who only happens to be a figurehead? Especially given that an Eye for An Eye is meant to be a lesson in proportionality:

OBL was clearly a destructive force and perhaps deserved to die. But we really need to reconsider the importance of proportionate responses.

Lesson from history: Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

The end goal is a peaceful, humane and stable civilisation. Please, let's never forget this.

<a href=">@JamesFirth</a>

Tony Lloyd said...

"I find it very hard to applaud someone with a moral absolute."

You're not entirely clear here in a distinction between a fact and an opinion on it.

If x is absolute then x is independent of anything else, including your and my opinions of x or even if we exist. Understood in this way no one can be said to "have" or "be with" an absolute. People do not have facts.

People do have opinions which they can take in various uses of the word "absolute".

But that is not the question. The question is whether torture is absolutely wrong not whether you are absolute in your opinion of it.

It's a fine point, but an important one. If you have an absolute opinion you will not admit contradicting arguments, no matter how well evidenced or cogent. But if you ban opinions on absolutes you sink into relativism. Decrying absolute opinions is scepticism, decrying absolutes is relativism.

Relativism is a menace, scepticism is right.

Spiritualess said...

You're all talking about moral absolutes in an irrational world and claiming that torture doesn't work when it can very easily be shown to work.
For example; hands up who wouldn't give me your cash card pin number with a gun to your head?
Anyone with their hand in the air is pretty dumb. Anyone who still thinks you can't get useful information is plainly wrong.
You could give me false information just to get me to stop torturing you/lower my gun, but I know this. Professional interrogators know this too, they ask questions to which they already know the answers so they can verify the information. The euphemistic "advanced interrogation techniques" is exactly what torture is (in these cases), it’s not the dumb brute beating someone for kicks. It’s building pressure and releasing it in order to manipulate the subject, the best interrogators are psychologists.
The ethical question is best answered by Sam Harris;
[you are invited] to produce an ethical argument that takes into account the realities of our world—our daily acceptance of collateral damage, the real possibility of nuclear terrorism, etc.—and yet rules out a practice like “water-boarding” in all conceivable circumstances. No one, to my knowledge, has done this. And yet, most people continue to speak and write as though a knock-down argument against torture in all circumstances is readily available.
You may claim that the ticking bomb scenario is too “Hollywood” and it is, but just a day ago, a group of Navy Seals kicked a door down and caught Osama Bin Laden with a female hostage. They double tapped him then went back to their base to drink beer and sing songs. The world does occasionally get quite Hollywood.

Uncle Petie said...

I'm utilitarian enough to say that, if torture actually did stop Osama from carrying out some evil master-plan that would have killed millions of people, then it would have been justified in that particular case.

But it's important to remember two things:

1) The information that (for the sake of argument) might have led to bin Laden's death only came about as part of a generalised policy of torturing people, largely with no justification at all. Even if safety were the only thing we were interested in, it's incredibly unlikely that that policy has done more good than harm.

2) Stephen covered this above, but the whole point of torture is to get information that you don't have. If you know for sure the person has valuable information, you will likely know what that information is (how else would you know it was valuable). Thus, outside of philosophy thought experiments, there is no way to limit torture to only those cases where it's likely to work. Or there is, but it's called not torturing people.

Basically, using the ticking time bomb to justify torture is a bit like using the fact that Hitler did deserve to die as a justification for the death penalty.

Ben Murphy said...

Jack is claiming that torture is an intrinsic evil - a type of action that is bad, whatever the circumstances. I hope we can at least agree that if anything is an intrinsic evil, torture is.

The concept of intrinsic evil was defended by Elizabeth Anscombe in her celebrated paper 'Modern Moral Philosophy', in which she urged members of the Voltaire Society who rejected a religious basis for morality to return to Aristotle. From an Aristotelian perspective, the worst thing that can happen to me is that I cease to be a virtuous person - any amount of physical harm is a price worth paying in order to maintain my virtue. (The opposite of a virtuous person is a 'vicious' person - someone who has vices). We can encourage other people to become vicious or virtuous, but ultimately, our status as vicious or virtuous reflects our own choices. If I perform an action that is intrinsically evil, then I thereby sacrifice my own virtue. I may, as a consequence, prevent other people from suffering physical harm, but my vicious action cannot be a way of protecting their virtue, and if they were truly virtuous, they would choose to experience a painful death rather than have an individual sacrifice their virtue.

Of course, in practice, the dividing line between vice and virtue is difficult, as Anscombe and Aristotle recognize. An action like "killing" for example is not a candidate for being intrinsically evil, since sometimes it may be an act of virtue to kill someone. Anscombe suggested that good candidates for intrinsic evil would be actions like "treachery" - betraying the trust of a friend. It is easy to tell whether an action fits the description "killing", but it can be much harder to tell whether it fits the description "betraying the trust of a friend." Who are my true friends, and what kind of deception constitutes a betrayal of trust? In order to apply a description such as 'treachery' to actual cases, we need to develop and exercise 'phronesis', aka 'prudence' or 'practical wisdom'.

One of my favourite examples. In the film High Noon (spoiler alert) the character played by Gary Cooper risks his life rather than shoot his enemy in the back, because cowardice is intrinsically evil. A few minutes later, his wife, played by Grace Kelly, shoots a man in the back - but in her case, the action is courageous, not cowardly. Her husband is a sheriff, she has never fired a shot before. As Aristotle said, a healthy diet for Milo (famous wrestler) is not healthy for other people.

Aristotle's example of an action that we should never perform was adultery. A virtuous man, he said, is not someone who performs adultery at the right time in the right way, he is a man who refrains from adultery. But, we might ask, what constitutes adultery? Sometimes a kiss may be a betrayal. But if it is obvious that the relationship I was in has broken down irretrievably, perhaps sexual intercourse is no longer a betrayal.

So far, I've been discussing this at the individual level, but this way of thinking can be applied at a social level as well.
(To Be Continued...)

Ben Murphy said...

Arguably, people in a healthy society have a clear idea of the values that they expect this society to promote - e.g. "What unites us all is the desire for freedom and justice." We make sacrifices to support the state in the knowledge that our co-operation will secure certain values that cannot be achieved by an individual acting alone. When we fight, these are the values we are fighting for. The end that thus justifies the means also limits them. If we say that we are fighting against terrorism, then we are thereby claiming the moral high-ground: we, the non-terrorists, are pledged to fight against people evil enough to use terrorist tactics. If in the process of fighting terrorism I myself become a terrorist then I have already lost the struggle.

Of course, we can define the opposition between ourselves and our enemies in different ways. A fight against someone who uses terrorist tactics is not necessarily a fight against terrorism. But once we define ourselves as engaged in a fight against terrorism, there is an implicit commitment to refrain from using terrorist tactics ourselves.

Of course, nothing is easier than making public announcements about values which you have no intention of upholding. It is called hypocrisy. Individuals and governments engage in hypocrisy all the time, and there's very little that can be done about it. But anyone who really does believe in the values that their society is supposed to live up to should be on the lookout for such hypocrisy: a state or an individual can become corrupted, betraying the values they are supposed to uphold.

The end justifies the means. When the means adopted is such as to undermine the end itself, justification becomes impossible. This is intrinsic evil.

Ben Murphy said...

What we saw with the Bush administration was the attempt to define torture in such a way that they could claim they never used torture while still using techniques that, by any traditional standard, constituted torture. In Aristotelian terms, this is a deliberate attempt to repress phronesis - a desperate desire both to have all the advantages of wickedness while still maintaining the moral high-ground. It is a particularly insidious form of corruption.

Have things improved under Obama? Gauntanamo is still open, and the treatment of Bradley Manning leaves room for doubt.

In any case, there is another moral dilemma. If I know that someone else obtained information immorally, but I can use that information for good, should I do so? The bad has been done, and I had no part of it. Perhaps I could have acquired that information without engaging in evil. To willfully ignore it seems perverse.

I understand that for many years, the only x-ray images of moving limbs were those taken by Nazis in concentration camps, exposing prisoners to high doses of radiation. Should doctors have refused to study and learn from these images?

Now, I see Cheney and co using the death of Bin Laden as a retroactive justification of their policies. It is like a cancer that refuses to die.

Lloyd Jenkins said...

@Ben Murphy

As a Kantian I'd never found the time to read much about virtue ethics. Your posts were really interesting.

As to your final dilemma (using information that has already been immorally obtained), I'd suggest that complicity might be a useful criterion. If someone is tortured to give X information so that X can achieve some end then by using it X is playing some role in the justification of the torture: but for X's potential actions the torture wouldn't have taken place. The Nazi example doesn't fit in here- the Nazis probably didn't plan on future doctors using their research.

uksceptic said...

Perhaps there is an unspoken false premise here? That the information that lead to the killing of Osama Bin Laden could only have been obtained through torture. Since we don't know what they tried first we'll never know.

Mark Taylor said...

What is more important is that Bon Laden was assassinated, without trial, on foreign territory, without the knowledge or permission of that government. This looks to me like international terrorism. And no-one seems to be concerned about this.

Robl said...

I think before you can discuss this you need to define torture.
I think any sensible person will understand the need to interrogate a suspect, and we all know that criminals are not as a rule forthcoming with answers.
So, there needs to be some method of extracting this information.

I'm sure there are many different interrogation methods that work on different people.
Threats, aggression, friendliness, deprivation, sensory assault and so forth.
Torture (of any type) or the threat of torture is just one of the interrogators options.

Robl said...

Mark Taylor Said - This looks to me like international terrorism.

Mark, I'm afraid your mistaken.
International Terrorism is flying planes into the World Trade Centre or Blowing up the London underground killing hundreds of civilians.

Kimpatsu said...

If you torture, you are no better than the bad guys; you have ceded the moral high ground and, instead of a battle of good vs. evil, you now just have competing claims wrestling for control. As such, torture is never acceptable. Further, it is all to easy for the torture victim to lie simply to make the torture stop; as such , information from torture is unreliable. That negates the "ticking bomb" scenario. So, in short, no to torture, under all circumstances, and forever.

Schroedinger99 said...

I don't think there is any real dilemma here.

You can't have moral absolutes. Clearly there will be highly contrived examples we can construct (at least in thought where we don't need to be entirely realistic) where torture could be morally justified - or at least the lesser of two evils.

Laws, on the other hand, often have to be absolute. I see no contradiction in supporting an international ban on all torture (which I do) and being grateful that (in some highly unlikely circumstances - as it happens I don't think the tracking down of Bin Laden qualifies here) someone might choose to break that law.

Lloyd Jenkins said...


Aren't you going down the 'no true Scotsman' route with your assertion that 'any sensible person' will consider torture as one in a series of morally acceptable options for an interrogator? The acceptability of torture is the very thing at issue here.

Robl said...


I think you misread my comment.
I said that any sensible person sees the need for interrogation of suspects.

The moral dilemma is what form the interrogation takes.

Robl said...

Kimpatsu said;
If you torture, you are no better than the bad guys; you have ceded the moral high ground and, instead of a battle of good vs. evil, you now just have competing claims wrestling for control.

I don't disagree at all.
But as I see it, it's not a battle of good vs evil or holding the moral high ground..
It's a battle of those that want to kill us for being infidels vs those that just want to tax us.

I want my Government and my countries armies to keep me and the rest of the population safe.
If they do bad and immoral things to achieve this goal then that's just the way it is.

Mike Young said...

Mike Young
I believe the use of torture should always be illegal. But if somebody wishes to use torture to extract important information, then they must realize they are doing so illegally, and know that they face the wrath of the law for so doing. This does not mean that that it would never be moral to do it, only that you should be so self-sacrificial in doing so and so certain that the torture is being done for the greater good that you are willing to risk prison yourself for doing the torture.

David H said...

Firstly, I have to state that I'm happy OBL/UBL is gone - he was an enemy in every sense of the word.

Having said that, there is a disturbing sense that torture has been justified in many people's minds not because there was useful information to attain, but as punishment of those who have wronged us. This is an understandable human feeling, but people should come out and simply state "I enjoy the idea of my enemies in extreme pain and distress", rather than "... ticking bomb ... emergency measures ..."

Secondly, there is the social cost of creating a role in society for torturers. I don't like the idea that someone who has had this role given to them by the government then has to settle in to normal society. Brutalising members of your own society is never the path to happiness.

Uncle Petie said...

It's a battle of those that want to kill us for being infidels vs those that just want to tax us.

Whether or not that's an accurate characterisation, it's important to remember that there is a massive difference in the capabilities of the two.

The British State has the SAS and a bunch of nuclear warheads, whilst Islamic extremists have to make do with jokers setting their crotches on fire.

It makes a lot of practical sense to have more safeguards on one than on the other.

Steve said...

I don't think you can simultaneously believe that "cruelty is the worst thing we can do", and also apply the kind of utilitarian calculus which says that failing to prevent X atrocity, by failing to torture someone, is a worse outcome than torturing them and preventing the atrocity.

I suppose we could try to hold both simultaneously, by playing some semantic games about cruelty only being the worst thing we can *do*, and there being worse things we can *fail to do*. But that's really just saying that watching TV, or whatever it is we'd be doing if we weren't torturing prisoners, in fact *is* worse than cruelty under the circumstances.

So pick one - this is the fundamental basis from which you construe morality, it's not about the details of the case. If you're not going to make a utilitarian judgement at all, then any suggested benefits of torture really don't matter.

If it were the case that the killing of bin Laden was done on information obtained by torture, the liberal can still ask: "could the information have been obtained at that time in any other way?", "could bin Laden's influence have been neutralized by any other means?", "are we certain that killing bin Laden by using and endorsing torture is of net benefit?", "if we hadn't tortured anyone, would we eventually have found out about this Abottabad compound anyway?"

I think one could consistently believe that there is harm done by practicing torture and assassination of our enemies, and thereby (to a liberal with any intellectual honesty whatever) endorsing also the torture and assassination of ourselves and our allies by our enemies. This harm is not so easily measurable as the we'd consider the harm of an assumed terrorist attack masterminded by bin Laden, and so I think it is often ignored in attempts to perform the utilitarian judgement.

One might also observe that no huge attack has been successfully masterminded by bin Laden during the time he was holed up in Abottabad, and that most regional al-Qaeda affiliates appear to operate fairly independently, albeit with some kind of encouragement from him and his close associates. So the premise that killing him prevented any huge atrocity is in any case very hypothetical, I don't think assuming it as the basis for an assessment is all that far from the "ticking bomb".

I entirely agree with mendax that if the torture was performed, then it was in any case not performed in the certainty of thereby killing or capturing bin Laden, at least not if we are to believe the US assessment that the mission was "50/50 whether he'd be there".

At best therefore the crime of torture can only be weighed against the *possibility* of eliminating a *probable* threat, *possibly* of great magnitude. I don't think this offers the kind of "ticking clock" moral conundrum that gives a liberal anything to worry about in opposing torture.

JohnH said...

Information leading to Osama Bin Laden's death was not obtained by torture, that's Myth #3 here.

Sourced on Daily Kos here, revealing the ultimate source to be Donald Rumsfeld.