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Debating Torture

The following is an email discussion between myself, my brother Chris, and my friend Nathan on the subject of torture, from January 7-9, 2006. I have made some minor edits to make it more readable and to make it easier to tell who is saying what. This being a conversation between my friend and brother, I have also excluded a very small number of side comments that referred to irrelevant things or ‘inside’ things others probably wouldn’t be able to relate to. Lastly, I’ve corrected for spelling.

This debate began in reference to a humorous clip from the Comedy Central program, The Colbert Report regarding torture, but quickly resulted in an actual debate between the three of us. Readers may want to view that link provided in Nathan’s first message if it is still active...

This is a pretty funny debate (regardless of your views on the topic) about torture and the Bush administration:
Link Here

That's not only funny, but interesting as well. I'm curious as to what everyone's position on torture is. To tell the truth, I'm a little divided. Obviously it would be great if America held itself to a higher moral responsibility that excluded torture and inhuman treatment in anyway, but reality doesn't always allow that. The example he gave was extreme, but obviously possible in today's world.

There are two things the example reminded me of. One is 24, the show. The Counter Terrorist Intelligence Agents always fall to torture, murder, and the most immoral actions justifying along the way that they are saving many more lives by doing so. When Kiefer Sutherland executes a criminal just to use his head as a gift to another criminal to gain information on a possible terrorist attack, the audience generally feels like it was extreme, but worth it when the mom's and their children are all saved from the chemical or nuclear attack in the end. Was it?

The other thing it reminds me of is the bad guy on the movie Serenity. He said that he was fighting for a perfect world, but that he didn't belong there because he was a monster. The things he did were horrific and evil, but for the purpose of protecting a perfect society that he didn't belong in. This is pretty much the same thing isn't it? Why isn't this guy considered the hero of the film? He's doing the exact same thing as Kiefer Sutherland's character, breaking laws to protect the nation that defines them.

Is a hypocritical action like torturing a person to secure a nation that is for human rights worth committing? I'd say in some rare cases, it has to be. But it also has to be regulated in a way that torture or murder becomes the very last resort and results in a good chance that many more lives can be saved.

Torturing someone to find out where a drug dealer keeps his stash isn't a good enough reason. The threat has to be immediate and devastating. Torturing someone to find out where Bin Laden is might be justifiable considering the threat he is to our nation, even if the threat may not be at the moment immediate.

Here's a solution. Create a group in congress that has to approve the use of torture, inhuman acts, or murder. The group must be equally bi-partisan and requires a majority of 8 out of 10. The group and its cases are considered top secret, but will be checked by 5 Supreme Court judges with a unanimous vote. There will be standards set up for extreme emergency situations that will allow special agents the right to commit these acts without pre-approval only if time is a crucial issue and is subject to approval after the fact. If not approved by the group, the ones responsible for the act, including every official who approved it officially or unofficially will be held for trial.

This is the only realistic option I see. It would be in my opinion, immoral to not torture a person if it meant very clearly that you would save many more lives by doing so. If killing one person saves a hundred, I believe it is wrong not to do so. I assume the argument against this would be similar to the one used against the death penalty. That taking a life, no matter what the potential threat if allowed to live, is still immoral. I don't think that that argument is well thought out. That assumes a morality that is set not by the consequences of an action, but by the action itself. When considering the morality of an action, every aspect of it must come to play, including the consequences.

Therefore Kiefer Sutherland's character on 24 is a moral person. I would argue that the "bad guy" on serenity is actually bad however, because he seemed to enjoy his job, or rather, was indifferent to it. Not to mention that his actions killed innocent people, even by his own nation's standards I'm sure. This is the type of person that would be tried and imprisoned by the congressional group, whereas Kiefer Sutherland's character would be commended. What's everyone's thoughts on this?

...(in my opinion at least), the argument against torture (and the death penalty) is NOT about the general "morality" of it, but the thought of how much chance are we willing to take that the wrong person be subjected to it.

In other words, is torturing people who are keeping valuable information from us worth it when weighed against the possibility that the guy being tortured really doesn't know anything about what we are asking him?

Say we decide to go ahead and torture people. Now (by logic) we can assume that somewhere along the lines an innocent person will get tortured. Of all the people we torture, the vast majority of them will probably be trying to hide information from us, and by torturing them we may get that information and save many more lives. Does that justify the fact that a few innocent people will get tortured along the way?

Since you mention the guy on 24 (who killed a criminal in order to gain favor with a different criminal), let's go one step further. What if he needed to kill a TOTALLY INNOCENT PERSON in order to gain favor with this crime lord (and ultimately get the information that would save thousands of lives). Should he do it? Is it worth sacrificing 1 innocent life to save many?

I'm not 100% sure myself. It's worth discussing. I will say that as far as I'm concerned, if a person IS hiding information that could save many lives (i.e. he is a bad guy and was part of the plot to kill the people, etc.) then I have no problem at all with torturing the dude. The only problem is that, when asked the first time, EVERYONE will say they don't know anything (the innocent and guilty alike). So by torturing them, you run the risk of torturing an innocent person who genuinely does NOT have any information that we are seeking. Is this justifiable?

That's a good point, and also the only reason why I'm against the death penalty. I'm against it because I don't believe that our current judicial system is as accurate as most... That despite Law & Order, every prosecutor isn't a strong moral character concerned with what's right and what's wrong, but some are shady opportunists willing to prosecute innocent people for their career.

In the case of torture though, I believe that my solution would fix a lot of that. First, unless it is an extreme situation (such as terrorists will blow up New York in 2 hours) intelligence agencies would usually have enough intel on a person to know that they aren't completely innocent. Of course there was the German guy who was held and tortured for 5 months and was innocent. Things like that can happen, but I wonder if there was a congressional group, would they have authorized torturing this person? I would hope not, but no system is perfect.

As for the moral question, is killing one innocent person worth saving many more? I'd have to answer yes. In fact if you chose not to kill that person knowing that a hundred other innocent people will die if you don't, I would say that you are as guilty of those deaths as the one's who killed them.

Isn't that why killing other soldiers in a war isn't considered an immoral murder? You're killing those soldiers so that you can bring democracy, or save lives, or save your buddies next to you from dying etc. If a suicide bomber is running toward you and your troop, is killing him wrong? The suicide bomber isn't innocent of course.

If you as an Agent catch two guys in a car and you know for sure one of them is a terrorist who knows where the nuclear device is hidden in New York and the other is just an innocent person with no knowledge of any of it, wouldn't you still chose to torture both until you found out where it was? How could a person not?

If killing one innocent person led to stopping 9-11 from happening, would you have done it? I would have. It wouldn't have taken a second thought. Thousands of innocent lives, or one innocent life. I can't imagine not making that choice. I would never want to be in the position where that was my choice, but I think I'd be partly responsible for all those deaths if I didn't chose to sacrifice one.

Boy, so many issues involved in this. Those are all good points, but I think there are things not being considered here.

This is, of course, an ethical matter. I think you have both read my article on Natural-Objective Ethics. In that line of thinking, ethics is what we use in order to promote a set of behaviors by which our collective survival and prosperity is enhanced.

As is the case with any question of "does the ends justify the means", what we have in the question of torture is a conflict between two ethical principles: the value of human life, and the principle of humane treatment of our suspected (and actual) enemies. Answering which is most valuable principle is the key to determining whether the ends justify the means in this case.

There is something implicit in your responses so far that bothers me: we should make sure we don't fall into the easy trap of thinking of lives as the most valuable thing in the equation.

We've already decided as a people that some things are more valuable than lives (for example, liberty). Death happens, for one reason or another, to everyone eventually. If we are willing to sacrifice lives to protect the our liberty, then is it unreasonable or unthinkable that we might sacrifice lives for other principles? Naturally, some principles will not be worth lives but others may.

Chris suggested that the consequences of the action is what's important, not the action itself. But this ignores an important fact about our actions (which I've been reminded of through my recent readings on Buddhist Karma).

When we perform certain acts they have an affect on us besides the mere consequences of the act. They shape us, form our character, and make us who we are when it comes time to make future decisions. This works the same for a nation as it does a person. To me, the decision not to torture is not so much about the possible recipient, as Nathan suggests, but more about protecting ourselves - who we want to be as people and as a nation.

Not to discredit consequences altogether. I think Chris is right about consequences having importance, but we must look at ALL the consequences, short and long term. The sort of body he suggests setting up would take us down a dark path in my view. Governments and corporations have a tendency to get away with as much as they can, slowly creeping precedent after precedent to stand upon. Witness the acts that were passed to allow spying on foreigners, which have now been turned inward to American citizens. Or, the very threat of nuclear destruction we're hypothesizing comes from development of the A-bomb for what we once thought of as our best solution to another problem. What we think is a good weapon today often turns out to haunt us later. The government has consistently been broadening its definition of what a 'terrorist' is, so that it may use powers intended only for terrorism on a wider and wider group of individuals. Likewise, 'institutionalized terrorism' is also a threat to those who employ it.

Of course, if our very civilization and survival as a species were in danger, then the stakes shift dramatically and the equation for extreme actions will shift, according to even my own N-O Ethics model. But suppose a city is destroyed and multitudes die. This would, of course, be a disaster - but not an unheard of one. Cities have perished from natural disasters before. Three thousand died in the 9/11 attacks, but 50,000 or more die EACH and every year in the U.S. alone from automobile accidents. This is a sacrifice we make, not for our principles of decency or even for our freedom, but for convenience of travel.

So, let's make sure we are looking at this without being alarmist or disproportionate. Are we willing to sacrifice who we wish to be as a people and risk our own freedoms out of a frenzied response to only those deaths that the media have called our attention to?

Let's also remember that the case we're using in our hypothesis is extraordinarily rare. We are ruling out any possibility that other people involved or other clues will be found (usually these operations are multi-faceted). We're also assuming that the person in question will be of a sort that would destroy millions but yield accurate information when tortured. Given the type of mindset he would likely have, combined with our knowledge that torture is unreliable for getting accurate information in the first place, it's quite a leap. Yet, this one, sole, extreme hypothetical example seems to be the only one in which we can form convincing arguments that torture may be ok?

Just as the ideal 'we want to be free to vote' is worth lives, I think the ideal 'we want to be a decent and humane people' might be worth lives in some cases. But more important than simply 'who we want to be' are the consequences we enjoy (or suffer) because of who we have made ourselves to be.

The problems I outlined above regarding a weapon or action coming back to haunt us comes about because we imagine ourselves (or our nation) as an isolated entity. This is a delusion. Instead, we are part of a complex network - a whole with other nations, groups, and even our enemies. Our actions also affect who they are.

There is a general ethos about various things that individuals have, based on the overall impression they have learned from the society they grew up in. It is common for churches, governments, and even corporations to actively seek to mold these cultural conceptions over time. This can be done for good or for ill.

If we, as a nation, took the high ground more often, we would garner a reputation of such in the international community. We would influence other nations to follow suit. This impact has a normative effect on the overall global culture. It puts out a general overall impression people have concerning various concepts. Right now, we are putting out the general impression, "yeah everyone says torture is bad, but they all do it behind the scenes, and it's necessary sometimes". This attitude affects how likely it is that each individual will partake in such actions, join groups that do, and justify them to himself. If we instead promoted, along with other nations, the general ethos that torture was monstrous, inhumane, and unthinkable, we would eventually shift the overall perspective (memes) being carried throughout the globe. Individuals growing up in such a world would be far more likely to find the thought of torture disgusting. They would be far more likely to reject it as a tactic and far less likely to join groups that do.

I think working toward that kind of world may, in some cases, be worth our lives.

I agree in many ways, but I think there are still some things not brought up. If we allow lives to be sacrificed in order to preserve an ideal or morality against torture, keep in mind that those lives are not the only thing that we lose. Having a city destroyed would hurt us again economically, morally, and strengthen our enemies' resolve.

Think about the affect that 9-11 has had on our nation already. A President has gotten away with a war on a nation that might not have passed otherwise, passed an unconstitutional act (Patriot Act), and has shaken everything we as a nation were before 9-11. The corruption between politicians, media, businesses has increased and strengthened. The cultural change alone is astounding.

I don't think you can say that the loss of life is the only consequence. I was focusing on that simply because it's the most immediate and alarming portion not to mention the most easily measured. The affects of 9-11 have been devastating to this nation and still affect us today. This torture issue is more than likely another symptom of it.

I also don't believe that the U.S. setting examples will have as much an impact as you believe. First, no one will ever believe that we don't torture. No matter what laws we pass, no matter what we preach, our enemies and even our allies will believe it still happens behind closed doors. Even our own citizens won't believe it. Also, so much of the way other nations see us is dependent on a theocracy that dislikes us despite what we do or accomplish. You can't fight that with reason and logic.

When you say that we sacrifice our lives for freedom or liberty, keep in mind that in this country those lives are usually volunteers. Of course we've had the draft and citizens have died, but for the most part when we think of people dying to defend our rights, we think of troops. Is sacrificing children, and innocent people not even aware of the situation worth it now?

When in a war, which we are, you have to fight fire with fire. I know how dangerous this idea can be, but it's true. I can't think of a battle where one side fought unusually and lost or didn't do better than expected. When gorilla warfare started being used instead of the old line-up and shoot at each other, the other sides had to go to gorilla warfare too. Torture might be unreliable, immoral, and in most cases impractical, but it might also be the last option we have to stop another 9-11.

Let's look at the ways you've mentioned that we are harmed by terrorist killings...

1) lives lost
2) economic damage
3) moral hurt (?)
4) strengthening of enemies' resolve

We've already discussed (1). As for (2), this too is a sacrifice, but one I don't think is necessarily beyond the value of our principles. I'm not sure what you mean by (3), but I think it's addressed below.

As for (4), it may encourage our enemies, but we can only defeat our enemies directly some of the time. And, even when we do, we often suffer other consequences later for our acts (such as other enemies wanting to take down the #1 spot, or effects such as the nuclear cold war following our defeat of Japan, as mentioned).

With this being the case, I find that there are ways to diffuse an enemy in more indirect means - isolate them, remove the force of their position, undermine their power base, etc. It's sort of like a martial art that uses the enemy's momentum against themselves by being more elegant. Simpler situations such as disagreements between individuals can often be diffused by making unexpected motions of generosity or understanding. These often engender similar behavior in others and, when they don't, will often bring so many onto your side that enemies are cowed (as was the case immediately after 9/11, when other nations were waving our flags. We missed the opportunity to use this as a rallying point to usher in a new cooperative international community).

Even madmen and zealots have to consider their political image before the world. This is why they put out tapes and how they recruit followers, by painting the US as a villain. This can be defused but, just as with an individual, it takes long time to build such a reputation, and dedication to maintain it.

Of course, tactically, we have to do what we can to prevent attacks and use other military means to protect ourselves so the enemy isn't emboldened. I'm just saying that your #4 does not mean that such a cost can't be countered by a more sophisticated method of diffusing an enemy.


You say that one of the 'effects of 9/11' was that the President got away with a war he might not have otherwise. I'll defer debate on that for the moment, but assuming it's true, there is a problem with this perspective.

Our decision as a nation (the majority at the time), as a government (the majority in Congress) and the President's decision to go to war with Iraq were just that: our decision. We cannot view our reactions to events such as 9/11 as the 'effect of 9/11'. They are the effect of our choices.

Stoicism teaches that others cannot 'make us upset'. Others simply act. It is then our decision that we have been harmed and that we will be upset over it. Only we can upset ourselves. This principle is the same on a national level as well.

When 9/11 happened, we decided that we would give up some of our rights and we decided we would go to wars. This, in fact, proves my point that, faced with the challenges in our hypothetical situation, it is only we that will decide whether or not we will become a nation that tortures people. Just as before the Patriot Act was passed and before we invaded Iraq, we stand now at a crossroads and we must decide who controls our actions; our enemy or ourselves.
You also say that those who die for causes are usually volunteers. This is true, but not always. A more huge percentage of the original American colonists were against rebellion and no doubt suffered as a result. But we have leadership structures because decisions must be made. Furthermore, you were willing to say just prior that you would sacrifice the life of an innocent person to save multiple other people. I believe the sort of things I'm talking about will, indeed, save many more in the long run as well, only more so and meanwhile in a better world.


It is true that, right now, most would suspect we torture regardless. But many more today now suspect it that didn't before precisely because of the President's obfuscation on the issue. Furthermore, the longer and stronger we maintained the moral high ground, the more confidence we would build between nations. It takes a long time, but it's time well spent.

You're also right about those who hold theocratic or fascist philosophies. Their minds are so gone that force may be the only way with them. But remember that a much smaller percentage of people are actually of this ilk, and a small percentage of them actually go out and conduct acts based on that. This core is surrounded by an increasing number of political radicals who are drawn to such movements precisely because our immoral actions make the rhetoric of fundamentalists sound reasonable and their cause sound just. I’m not saying that we don’t defend ourselves militarily or let down our guard, but the best way to fight extremists in the long run is to make certain that the world has the impression that they are lunatics by proving them wrong. This will isolate them and muster support on our side.

You say that setting examples won't have as much impact as I think, but I think you would be surprised what acts of justice, kindness, understanding, sacrifice, and compassion can do. These are extremely powerful tools that have profound impacts on the human psyche.

Remember the scene in the 1981 film version of Excalibur, when the young King Arthur was fighting his first enemies who denied his rule? He told his enemy to kneel before him, sword at his throat. When he refused because Arthur was not a knight, many might have slit his throat. But Arthur could see that the man was doing what he thought right and was willing to die for it.

Arthur gave him Excalibur and said, "you're right, you must knight me" and kneeled before him. He literally placed his life in the hands of his enemy, who could have beheaded him instead of knighting him. But his enemy was so amazed at his act of courage, integrity, and humility that he knew this must be the rightful king and became his loyal servant.

This is more than a fairy tale. If you try this on a smaller scale you'll see that it works powerfully. Even in minor conflicts in the grocery store for example, when we respond with humility and kindness where others expect us to respond in kind, they are taken aback and the tone of the entire encounter changes quickly.

No one wants to think of themselves as a bad person, even (in most cases) fundamentalists. But to put them in a position that will affect their mindset so takes a bit of confidence, perhaps even faith, in human nature. Like Arthur in a less literal sense, you have to be willing to stick your neck out a little. But I have noticed through direct experience, and believe from my reading and thinking on the matter, that the results are often astounding.

You say that we must "fight fire with fire" but a person who does this will likely end up with a house doubly burned. Water is generally a better countermeasure.

I don't think that you are wrong in these beliefs, but I do think that you are confusing idealism with reality. First saying that our enemies don't "make" us do these things is true, but never the less their actions affect the nation. Rather it is us choosing to react in a certain way, or them making us do something is irrelevant when considering what the outcome is. Either way their actions cause a decision to be made and experience has shown that the wrong decisions will be made.

Also, the King Arthur story is fine, if it is told. The problem is that no matter what we do as a nation, other nations' propaganda will always dismiss or twist it around. We can't sacrifice possibly millions of lives in hopes that everyone will like us for it.

You're speaking about an ideal world where world peace and full understanding is possible. I'd like to think that is possible some day, but that day is centuries away. You'd have to get rid of all religious power in nations and groups, have one single minded government, melt cultures together into one, and have a singular belief structure that fits all. We are far from this.

A lot of what you say is "would be nice" kind of stuff but just isn't so. No matter what laws are passed we will still torture. No matter what we do, the rest of the world will still think we torture, thus making your example that you are willing to sacrifice millions of innocent people for useless.

Perhaps in 300 years taking a position against torture today will be a huge influence on mankind, but leaders of today can't make decisions based on what might happen 300 years from now at the expense of what is happening now. In my opinion, it is still immoral to sacrifice a hundred lives for the "possible" affect you as a nation might have by not torturing one person.

Suppose you are the head of the CIA and an agent calls you saying that there is a nuclear bomb going off in three hours in New York and they have the man who knows where it is. Would you really tell them not to torture him to get the information? The affects of a nuclear bomb going off, not even counting the deaths, would forever change the direction of this country. Do you really believe that we would still stay on such a moral level after that? We would degrade even further. Ideally we shouldn't, but in reality we would just as we did from 9-11.

You're talking about what people "should" do versus what people will actually do. Government can't pass laws based on what could hopefully happen over laws based on the facts they're given and what possible outcomes there are.

You can't sacrifice hundreds, thousands, or even millions of innocent civilian lives based on the hope that your moral decision will affect the future in a positive way. The reaction from a nuclear attack will negatively overshadow any positive affects a "non-torture" policy will have.

If we take a non-torture policy and nothing happens, sure, the affect will be a positive one for mankind. But if we take a non-torture policy and millions die that could have been avoided by the use of torture, the affects will be so devastating that the non-torture policy will be useless and work against itself. Other countries will never say "that was the right thing to do, a good sacrifice for what is right".


Chris wrote, “I don't think that you are wrong in these beliefs, but I do think that you are confusing idealism with reality.”

I thought you'd think so. :)

Chris wrote, “First saying that our enemies don't "make" us do these things is true, but never the less their actions affect the nation. Rather it is us choosing to react in a certain way, or them making us do something is irrelevant when considering what the outcome is. Either way their actions cause a decision to be made and experience has shown that the wrong decisions will be made.”

But see this is my point. This is our same situation now. Their actions are causing us to consider torture, and you are right - it's most likely that the wrong decision will be made (to do it). My position is to point out why it is the wrong one.

Chris wrote, "Also, the King Arthur story is fine, if it is told. The problem is that no matter what we do as a nation, other nations' propaganda will always dismiss or twist it around. We can't sacrifice possibly millions of lives in hopes that everyone will like us for it."
I think your conception of the balance of things is colored by this particular period. It wasn't always the case that America was despised so. Furthermore, there are other nations that have good reputation for peace and fairness because of their actions, and people all over the globe respect this.

In terms of individuals, Jimmy Carter has an excellent reputation for being a fair minded negotiator, which is why he's able to achieve so much with nations where our State Department has failed. Nations with such leaders enjoy the benefits thereof. But, as I said, the sort of thing I'm talking about takes many, many years to develop (but not nearly 300). I'm not saying that Bush could come out with some lovy-dovy pansy speech tomorrow and all the terrorists would go home and the world would love us. I'm just saying that, as a nation and individuals, you reap what you sow.

Chris wrote, "You're speaking about an ideal world where world peace and full understanding is possible. I'd like to think that is possible some day, but that day is centuries away."
No I'm not talking about world peace. I'm talking about being generally better off for being a generally better nation, and that is not an 'ideal world' that's how the real world works, and always has.

Chris wrote, "You'd have to get rid of all religious power in nations and groups, have one single minded government, melt cultures together into one, and have a singular belief structure that fits all. We are far from this."
I don't think that will ever happen, and I'm not sure I'd even like that.

Chris wrote, "Suppose you are the head of the CIA and an agent calls you saying that there is a nuclear bomb going off in three hours in New York and they have the man who knows where it is. Would you really tell them not to torture him to get the information?"
This one singular scenario, with all its conditions making other options impossible, is the one we're using to justify torture. Then, once we've done so, we then move to something like you suggested where it is institutionalized and normalized into a process? Consider again the numbers we're talking about and the actions you'd be taking because of this imagined solitary scenario and you'll see that your whole evaluation here is out of wack. This sort of thinking is an example of letting fear and reactionism be in control.

Perhaps I, as a person in that position may decide it's worth it in some extreme scenario, but if I am to do this, it should be a sacrifice that I personally make, knowing I may have to answer for it later. That should be the choice of that individual to make that sacrifice. But for us to institutionalize it would be unfounded. Better for us to make it illegal, prosecuting those who do so. If an individual feels that the scenario is so important that it trumps our principles of humanity, then that person should be willing to sacrifice themselves, rather than ask the whole nation to sacrifice its soul.

Chris wrote, "You're talking about what people "should" do versus what people will actually do. Sometimes people 'actually' do what they 'should' do, and to their benefit. When they do, it's because they were influenced by people who talk about what should be done. You can't sacrifice hundreds, thousands, or even millions of innocent civilian lives based on the hope that your moral decision will affect the future in a positive way. The reaction from a nuclear attack will negatively overshadow any positive affects a 'non-torture' policy will have."
Only in that one particular scenario, IF it ever even happens in that particular manner. Most of the time, and most likely, this situation will not be exactly like that, and to set a policy based on one imagine scenario is reactionary and dangerous. Some things should be maintained as decisions individuals have to make as exceptions.

Besides that, everything you're talking about is also a 'sacrifice made in exchange for what you think will effect the future in a positive way'.

Sacrifice: Many lost lives in a few unlikely scenarios.
Future effect: better situation resulting in far more lives being saved.

Sacrifice: principles on humane treatment of prisoners.
Future effect: saving of lives in a few unlikely scenarios.

The only difference here is that, in my view, you are underestimating the effects and reactions of the world if we were to take on a more amicable approach (not just 'non-torture' but a host of changes in our approach). Secondly, you are over-exaggerating the effectiveness, utility, and likelihood of needing torture. Thirdly, you are underestimating the negative effects of an official torture policy. That's in my conception of course.

We seem to agree on the details of the situations, but our 'weighing up' of the different causes & effects in proportion to one another are based on different general impressions of the world we live in. These sorts of debates are the most difficult to get anywhere with because we can't present one piece of information that changes these general impressions. We're talking about the effects of a highly complex chain of events on a global scale.

All I can say is that, from things I've seen and read on history, culture, and personal experiences, the overall impression I have is that steps taken in good faith encourage the same in more cases, and in more profound ways, than is generally understood and appreciated by most people. This is probably why so many don't take those steps or approaches.

agree that our "weighing" of things are different and therefore causing the debate. And yes, it is difficult to change those positions because of that. The reason why I thought of the congressional group is simply because no matter what the outcome of this, the U.S. will still torture. Maybe not as much (which would most probably be a good thing) but it will happen from time to time. I thought of the group so that thee could at least be a system that can help prevent the over-use of this sort of thing including torturing innocent people. I understand though that having such a group is officially say that we condone torture. That's the problem I see. How do we regulate the torturing that will happen without saying that we are for it?

You're scenario where a person sacrifices themselves and orders a torture to save millions and deals with the consequences shouldn't happen in my opinion. And if the idea that this sort of thing can happen, I think it's a cop out to the responsibility of those that have to do it. "We don't condone torture, but if you do it to save lives good... we'll prosecute you afterwards though to seem self-righteous". This isn't a good system in my opinion.

I most certainly agree that this power can be abused just as the Patriot Act has been abused already. That's why I think a separate judicial group should maintain a check on the congressional group. Checks and Balances isn't perfect, but it is our best system so far. The Patriot Act isn't checked by anyone and that's the problem.

I think I got off on a tangent with most of the effects on the world stage. Mainly, I think it damages us to take on such a program. Consider that the situation where torture is ethical is so rare, and the costs so severe for officially doing it so high, that to build our system around it may be unjustified and do more harm than good. Besides, I'm sure anyone sacrificing themselves by making the situation to torture would have the situation taken into account by the jury. If it really was such an oddball position, then he'd probably be excused (just as some murders have been excused in the past as a 'service to the community').

I understand the concerns of having such a system, I'm only acknowledging that torture will take place in any case and with such a system, we can regulate it more.

...I think there's a little too much that's been said already for me to jump in and respond to all point, so forgive me if I don't address something specifically.

Actually I have a question for DT. I am intrigued by your responses, and I want to clarify something about your position (to make sure I understand you completely). You are saying you oppose torture. If I am not mistaken, you SUPPORT the death penalty (at least what I remember from prior conversations and so forth, not just from these last few e-mails).

My question is, how do you rationalize that? It would seem to me that all of the arguments you are using to object to torture could just as easily be used to refute the death penalty couldn't they? It lowers our stock in the court of world opinion (and helps shape the way others view us and what we stand for).

Hypothetically (and granted, this is an unique case) if we caught a guy and we knew he had placed a bomb in the city somewhere that would detonate in a few hours, and he refused to tell us where it was, then we SHOULD NOT torture him? But after the bomb goes off, and millions die, then he SHOULD get the death penalty for his heinous crimes? If putting him to death for killing all those people is ok, then why not torture him before the bomb goes off and try to save the millions?

I assume an argument can be made for justification of a death penalty because the person is found "guilty" of committing the crime. But if this guy is indeed "guilty" of murder once the bomb goes off, then he is guilty of at least attempted murder before it goes off. Doesn't that give us some sort of justification for torture (the same justification used for the death penalty)?

Of course, this means nothing if I am wrong about your stance on the death penalty.

What do you think?

Also, to Chris (and DT): We have looked at the hypothetical case of torturing an innocent person if we KNOW there is a bomb somewhere, and we THINK this person could know where it is (you said it was worth sacrificing the life of an innocent to save multiple innocents).

What if we only SUSPECTED there was a bomb somewhere, but we weren't really sure? Say an informant comes in and says "Hey, Joe X has a bomb hidden in the city". Of course, we get Joe X and ask him about it, and of course he denies it. Do we begin torture? There's not much evidence there, but if we are in this mode of "sacrificing innocents for the greater good", then shouldn't we hit him with everything we've got to find out for sure what he knows? That seems pretty bad to me.

Also, forget torture for a minute. What if we learned that there was some guy who was totally immune to cancer. Something in his genetics or whatever makes him that way. Say also that doctors can discover how to cure/prevent cancer completely, if this guy allows himself to be killed and discredited for research (hypothetically, let's say that doing so has a 100% chance of resulting in a cure). The guy isn't down with that, and refuses to give himself up. Are you saying that it is OK for society to just go get him anyway and cut him up for the greater good? What if the chance of a cure resulting from his dissection weren't 100%? What percentage is acceptable to kill him for the greater good?

On your question about the death penalty, this relates to what I said about thinking I went off on a tangent a bit.

First, as a side note, let me say that I am for the death penalty in principle, because I believe it is a just penalty for murder. But, in practice, I think in this particular nation at this particular time needs a moratorium on it because our system is simply far too inaccurate and inequitable. Based on what we've discovered through DNA analysis, our error rate (probably 1 in 6 wrongly executed) is too high to condone a death penalty. Nevertheless, since I'm for the death penalty in principle, your question is still relevant. So, back to that...

In my tangent, I didn't mean to give the impression that we should do things just because its some sort of social tactic or scheme to manipulate world opinion in our favor. What I mean mostly is that, when we act inhumanely we damage ourselves - our own sense of humanity. And, that will come back to haunt us in many ways (internally and externally). The inverse of that, on the external side, is that when we are decent, we enjoy benefits such as better relations, but that is a byproduct of the main point.

You both are thinking far too much in terms of actions and results in my view. When we put someone to death, it is a fairly straightforward process and then its over. When we torture, it has a further effect on our sense of humanity. It damages our sense of empathy and our standards and our character (as individuals and as a nation). It is a unique, visceral activity inflicting suffering directly (as opposed to suffering as a byproduct of capturing a military target or carrying out justice). Because of this, it affects us and our perceptions and perspectives in ways that are more damaging than simply putting someone to sleep. I don't just mean the person carrying out the torture, but members of a society that condones it are similarly affected.
These are similar to the reasons why terrorism is wrong, even though there are known cases where terrorizing a population through killings of civilians and children did indeed strategically work.

Again, I have to emphasize that this myopic obsession with life and death (as implied in your question on capital punishment and as implied in the 'terrorist with a nuke' scenario), is quite pervasive, but it is misleading and destructive. It is this same sort of obsession that causes people to think that life isn't worth living or that ethics doesn't matter unless one can survive forever in a supernatural realm.

We are all just temporary aggregates of particles and in a hundred years we'll all be as dead as the people who died on 9/11, as will Bush, as will Bin Laden - our matter back into the cycle of Nature. I'm not saying that life and survival isn't important (it is central to the basis of my ethics), but it is such only insofar as it allows us the experience of true contentment, and that is only possible through a life of character and virtue.

Instead, more focus on the quality of our character, and on principle would serve us better in the long run. As a result, we would (ironically) tend to enjoy more survival too in my view. This is not 'idealism' - this is reality. This is the way the world works. It is the belief that actions and results, scratching for immediate selfish survival at all costs will result in lives worth living, that is the fantasy.


What you mention to Chris is graying up some of the scenario we've been using that would seem to make torture reasonable. In all likelihood, any real life situation would be much more messy - more like what you propose. So begins the slippery slope.

Chris suggests that an organization to issue permission to torture would be a good idea, and I appreciate his sentiment and reasoning behind that. But consider the inevitable shifting of policy in the many things we do as a society, including some I’ve mentioned.

Like corporations or any multi-person operation, Governments are notoriously nonsensical and slippery in this manner and what starts out reasonably is corrupted beyond belief eventually. Nathan's question which makes the scenario fuzzy is just the tip of the iceberg in this slide. It is only matters of principle that maintain borders to this.


Nathan's question about sacrificing the guy with the cure for cancer is similar. Every person who would be cured of cancer will die eventually anyway. But, having consumed their extra years like an obsessed alcoholic licking up spilled liquor off the floor, they will leave behind a world where individuals are treated like drones to be processed for the 'greater good'.

In the end, principle and character are what matter most, and I simply can't find any rational reason why that axiom doesn't apply in the case of torture as well.

I have the same feelings toward the death penalty. Of course my scenario with the congressional group and judicial group can end up with abuse of power, any group as you mention can. However I do think that such a system would be better than individual agents making that call. In my opinion a bi-partisan congressional group with a judicial group checking their decisions would be a much more stable platform than "Special Agent Smith thinks that you're lying, so here come the electrodes". There will be torture, no matter what the laws are because there are people out there willing to do whatever it takes to stop terrorism, just as DT said he might choose to break the law and save New York in my scenario.

There is an affect on society with the death penalty. Other nations mock that the state of Texas puts more than double the amount of people to death than they as a whole nation do. I think we don't notice the affects simply because we have lived in those affects our entire lives. I don't see a difference between the death penalty for "guilty" and torturing the "guilty". Your (and my) belief that the system isn't secure enough to know who is guilty and who is innocent to give out the death penalty isn't comparable however to the belief that we don't think the system is strong enough to decide who is guilty enough for torture.

Death is forever. Torture (depending on what kind) can be recovered from (although psychologically it may take a long time). Also, there are more humane ways of torturing (yes I know how silly that sounds). There are temporary methods such as sensory depravation or manipulation, drugs, etc. A person can be given a drug that causes great pain. This doesn't physically damage anyone, but of course the memory and experience of such a trauma can be hard to get over. I'm not justifying some methods of torture, only specifying that the affect of the death penalty and torture can be very different on an individual.

Also DT, the idea "We are all just temporary aggregates of particles and in a hundred years we'll all be as dead as the people who died on 9/11" is very true, but hardly applicable when governing. As I said in reality a governing body has to worry about al of those deaths. That's their job. They can't say "well, they're all going to die someday anyway". I don't see this as a viable argument against torture.

The scenario Nathan brings up that DT called "graying" it up is very possible. In fact it happens today. There is no governing body to stop it from happening right now. I'm suggesting one that can. People are being grabbed who are innocent and tortured. The governing body would have a set of standards or burdens the agents must meet in order to torture or obtain people without rights. These standards could be overlooked of course in times of emergency like New York's going to blow, but that's extremely rare and there would be standards as to how and when those could be broken.

Sorry I jumped around back and forth a little.

Yes, I'm sure that there are effects on our diplomatic standing from having a death penalty, but I don't think that our diplomatic standing should override our decisions. If it were right to have a death penalty at this time then our diplomatic standing would just have to be as it is.

Same thing with torture - as I said, I'm not saying that we shouldn't torture because it will hurt our diplomatic standing. I'm saying that we shouldn't torture because it will hurt us directly. It will change us for the worse and make our own nation worse off. I'm not simply talking about changing our laws and freedoms - I'm talking about it changing US - our being, our essence, the way we look at the world, our psychology, our minds (some would say our soul). As a side effect, it will also cause international problems but that's a side effect to what I'm saying.

There is a specific difference between the type of person who will put someone to death for murder in a painless way, and a person who will torture another person. Just as there is a difference between the kind of person who will kill an animal for food and the kind who will torture and animal. These are different types of people and that's because these are different types of actions with different requirements and effects on our character, our sense of empathy, and our social instincts. It's not about death or life, it's about our actions and what part of our minds they spring from and what that does to us psychologically. A world of people who grow up thinking that torture is ok is a darker more sinister world and that will branch out to affect all other areas of humanity and the world.

These are the very same foundations as to why targeting soldiers in war and targeting busloads of children must be kept categorically separate, regardless of the cause or the ends. It doesn't have to do with the fact that the children are innocent. Innocent children die in legitimate war actions too, but it is unintentional. The allied soldiers in WWII fighting against Nazi and Imperial Japan attacks were innocent too, yet they were legitimate war targets - so innocence isn't the point when it comes to terrorism. The point is this: a standard that accepts terrorism is a lower one that has a big impact on what kind of people we become and what kind of world we live in.

This is why terrorism is bad and, ironically, terrorism is the very thing involved in our hypothetical scenario which seeks to justify torture. A world with human beings who see terrorism as a legitimate war tactic is a darker world that we can't allow. If torture is ok then so is terrorism, they are both just tactics - it's the ends that matter right?

Remember the difference in the portrayal of humanity as presented in the opening sequence of Enterprise's usual opener and the one they showed on the Mirror Universe episode? The only sliver of difference between which universe we live in are those little choices we make when matters like this come up. All else flows from that.

As for it being the governments job to protect lives, that's true. But it's also a legitimate governments job to uphold the principles on which our laws are based, and those principles come from the people and who they are. Otherwise, one could argue for all sorts of police powers to search or even to execute people on the street as part of the government's mandate to 'save lives'.