Philosophers are particularly good at untangling unclear concepts; they are experienced at the task of formulating problems clearly and logically; they are ready to unmask the hidden presuppositions underlying a particular formulation. This is the kind of work Wittgenstein describes as "letting the fly out of the fly bottle"; it is what J. L. Austin does so well in "Three Ways of Spilling Ink." Drawing distinctions and formulating ideas clearly — these are core intellectual tools, and they lie at the root of philosophy Understanding Society.
Everyone would agree that torture is deplorable, perhaps the most abominable in human behavior. Are there circumstances, however, under which it might be justifiable or permissible?
That’s one important question which seems to exercise the finest minds of late, both on the national stage and our little microcosm here on BC. A further-reaching question perhaps, though rarely if ever asked, might be put thus: Do the very same acts, which under normal circumstances would undoubtedly constitute “torture,” deserve this most abhorrent of epithets when performed under circumstances or conditions that are, by anyone’s estimation, unusual?
Consider the following, rather astute observation to serve as our point of departure:
"If we look at torture in civilian life we never see cases where torture is employed to elicit information. Torture is employed for personal amusement by twisted personalities."
In a sense, the aforementioned remark hits the nail on the head. It comes awfully close to what Wittgenstein called a “grammatical remark,” a remark whose express purpose was to elucidate the key concept (torture). In the first part, we learn that under normal circumstances, (civilian life), torture rarely has anything to do with eliciting information; in the second, that it’s associated most often with “twisted personalities.”
The notion of cruelty that comes to mind first and foremost, is intentional cruelty, cruelty to animals being one example. The act seems to serve no discernible purpose other than to satisfy one’s sadistic impulses and feed the crazed personality. That’s the core of the concept as far as I’m concerned: the association of torture with cruelty and the connotation of the term, only confirms that. Torture is a taboo – more of a taboo perhaps, than incest, rape, even murder.
It would seem convenient, therefore, to leave matters at that, arguing that’s the purpose behind the strongest possible language and its highly evocative quality: namely, to guard against any and all instances or incidences of torture under “normal” circumstances.
But this cannot be the truth or the whole truth, since it would mean a near-total misuse of an otherwise perfectly functional moral language: for it’s not morality or moral rebuke that are likely to be effective in preventing someone from pursuing their perverted inclinations to acts of cruelty and the like, but therapy, or lock & key . All of which seems to suggest that the intentionally strong language associated with such terms as cruelty or torture is designed with an entirely different purpose in mind; to deal with extraordinary cases.
What cases, one might ask. Precisely the kind of cases excluded from consideration in the first part of the subject remark – i.e., “where torture is [being] employed to elicit information.” Indeed, it’s only because anything that even smacks of torture or cruelty is an utter abomination that extreme safeguards must be in place to prevent any such act, not out of sickness, but for a reason, whatever the reason! And this brings us to our first question: Are there circumstances under which acts of torture might be permissible, let alone justifiable? What sort of circumstances might they be?
Consider the following "ticking bomb" scenario (and its “milder” alternative):
An innocent's life is at stake. The bad guy you have captured possesses information that could save this life. He refuses to divulge. In such a case, the choice is easy. Even John McCain, the most admirable and estimable torture opponent, says openly that in such circumstances, "You do what you have to do." And then take the responsibility.
The second exception to the no-torture rule is the extraction of information from a high-value enemy in possession of high-value information likely to save lives. This case lacks the black-and-white clarity of the ticking time bomb scenario. We know less about the length of the fuse or the nature of the next attack. But we do know the danger is great. (One of the "torture memos" noted that the CIA had warned that terrorist "chatter" had reached pre-9/11 levels.) We know we must act but have no idea where or how — and we can't know that until we have information. Catch-22.
As far as I am concerned, both situations can be reduced to one: one life versus the many, and absolute knowledge versus knowledge that is imperfect, aren’t sufficient enough differences if getting bogged down with them would mean losing sight of the main point. And that point seems to be that one way or another, act we must. Lives are at stake, along with a reasonable assurance that direct action might prevent a catastrophe.