The five millionth attempt to put the ticking time bomb argument out of its misery by mattsteinglass
July 3, 2009, 8:24 am
Filed under: Human Rights and Torture

People seem to have trouble understanding something about the reason why the regimes we think of as extremely evil tortured people. Here’s the thing: they tortured people because they really, honestly believed that those people were mortal threats to the general welfare. So when you, present-day American or anyone else, say “Yes, it’s wrong to torture, but it’s morally excusable if you really believe the victim is a mortal threat to the general welfare…” One sees the problem here.

Why do I bring this up? Because, on Andrew Sullivan’s blog, Chris B. recently got himself in trouble by writing:

Khamenei torture is on a different level than Cheney torture. For the crime of getting caught on camera holding a bloody shirt, Ahmand Batebi was whipped with cables, beat in the genitals, and basically waterboarded in human excrement.  But more to the point: he and his fellow students were tortured for their political beliefs, not their perceived ties to terrorism.

A reader countered: “Their perceived ties to terrorism are Cheney’s political beliefs, surely. But that’s beside the point too. Torture is torture is torture is torture.” And Chris responded by digging himself in deeper:

…while I’m firmly anti-torture, I actually think the ticking-time bomb scenario can be justified. But my take is very different from the likes of Krauthammer; I think the TTB scenario can be ethically justified, not legally justified. Torture should always – always – be illegal. But in the infinitesimally small chance that someone is put in the situation where he or she is convinced – convinced – that a captured terrorist will prevent the deaths of countless people, torturing one person would be the lesser of two grave evils.

There are two things to say here. The first is that the Ahmadinejad regime does torture people for “their perceived ties to terrorism”. To them, the demonstrators they face in the streets are traitors, foreign agents, saboteurs, and so forth — mortal threats to the Iranian people. Are such beliefs ludicrous? What then do we call the beliefs of the American officials, up to and including Cheney, who believed that the Uighur detainees at Guantanamo were “tied to terrorism” or in any way posed a threat to the US? More importantly, how can the degree of horror of the act of torture rest on the degree of accuracy of the torturer’s assessments of the victim’s political beliefs? Who is empowered to decide how “convinced — convinced” the torturer is? Do people who are more “convinced” of their own correctness have a greater right to commit acts of violence against others?

The answer is obviously no, which leads us to that second point, which I mentioned earlier: we have to understand that the people we condemn for committing horrific acts usually believed those actions were morally right, and justified in self-defense. Lenin really believed that the tens of thousands of Whites and White sympathizers he and Dzerzhinsky tortured and had put to death during the Civil War were mortal threats to the welfare of Russia and all humankind. Hitler really believed that Jews were parasites who posed a mortal threat to the German people. And many of the police in modern autocracies who proclaim their political opponents to be “terrorists” really believe what they’re saying. That doesn’t give them the right to torture anyone, and no similar reasoning can give us such a right, either.


3 Comments so far
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These article details what we face when we do something to anger and/or frighten one of the countless Americans walking around with a concealed gun.(s)
The ‘certainly’ of being right explains why it is fruitless to debate and/or attempt to comprise with someone from the far right and even ‘righter’ fundamentalist.

Comment by eddie stinson

UK law does allow that either necessity or duress of circumstances can be a defence in, for example, the hi-jacking of a plane. It has also been used in the the case of conjoined twins who needed to be separated in order for one to live, even if this resulted in the certain death of the other. In the case of the hi-jackers, they inflicted a terrifying experience on the pilots and passengers of the planes they seized, but did so in order to save their lives and the lives of their families.

When you consider the kinds of moral dilemmas such circumstances might push someone into, the TTB scenario becomes a bit more understandable – but only where there is a genuine ‘ticking time bomb’ of some sort. The facts are that in no instance has this actually happened. There is no certainty of death, and therefore there can be no driving necessity or duress.

Comment by FOARP

I suppose the essence of the TTB problem is that it presumes a scenario in which the would-be interrogator actually has no choice anyway. This renders discussion of the problem pointless.

Comment by FOARP

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