2 January 2006 - Monday

Categorical imperative

I hesitate to post this, but I think I need to speak up.

The ticking-bomb scenario is frequently seen as a plausible justification for torture in certain circumstances. Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer recently said it shows torture to be not only permissible but also sometimes "a moral duty." (You can find several Christian reactions to that article here.) The story goes like this: A terrorist act is imminent. Hundreds or perhaps thousands of innocent people will be killed. If a counterterrorist agent manages to capture one of the conspirators, would he not be justified in using torture to get information about the strike so that it can be averted?

Such a situation is rare, of course; usually, if the authorities already know that much about the strike, they have enough time to intervene with less extreme methods -- or else nothing would work anyway. But we can put that aside for the sake of the hypothesis. The point of the scenario is merely to show that torture does not have to be thought of as evil; it is theoretically possible for torture to be morally justified.

The scenario is based on the idea that one life (or one person's physical or psychological comfort) may be sacrificed to protect the lives of the many. This is a very common idea, after all; it is a key factor in most people's attitudes toward war.

I admit that this is a powerful argument. But now I would like to present my own version of the ticking-bomb scenario.

We begin, as before, with the imminent destruction of many innocent lives. Somehow our hero (let's call him Jack) knows that this destruction is about to occur, and that it is going to occur so soon that all normal methods of intervention are useless.

This time, however, none of the terrorists responsible for this upcoming carnage has been apprehended. There is no one to torture for information. There is no way for Jack to avert disaster.

But wait. Jack has been able to identify one of the conspirators. He not only knows who this terrorist (let's call him something foreign-sounding, like Nigel) is, but also where he lives -- although Nigel, unfortunately, is abroad. Furthermore, Jack has Nigel's mobile phone number, so while he cannot capture him, he can contact him.

In my version of the story, Jack still embraces the basic ideas of the normal scenario. He believes (a) that one life may be sacrificed for many; (b) that torture may be justified in a few cases.

Therefore, Jack goes to Nigel's home and takes prisoner the terrorist's family. Jack then sends Nigel a message promising that his youngest child will be killed if the terrorist act is carried out.

Nigel, unfortunately, is made of stronger stuff than that. First, he shares the belief that one life sometimes must be sacrificed for a good cause. "Collateral damage" is nothing new to him. Furthermore, he doesn't mind thinking that his child will join him as a martyr. He refuses to desist.

Jack, therefore, turns up the pressure. He tells Nigel that his child will not only die, but will die slowly and painfully. At regular intervals, Jack will send Nigel graphic evidence of his progress.

Eventually, Nigel, unable to bear the pain of his child, caves in and calls off the terrorist strike.

Which of you would condone torture this time? And if you truly believe that torture is justified in the earlier scenario, why not this one?

| Posted by Wilson at 12:57 Central | TrackBack
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