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Strengthening the Case for Torture

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It’s a useful discipline of thought to occasionally play devil’s advocate, and attempt to make a convincing argument on the opposing side to that with which you agree. This was brought home to me recently when I re-read Michael Levin’s famous essay The Case for Torture. Anyone who’s familiar with this piece will know that it is a disarmingly frank, simple and logical espousal of a very unpopular position: that torture by the ‘good guys’ is sometimes, in extreme circumstances, justified.

I had no idea who Professor Levin was when I was first introduced to the essay a few years ago. My subsequent discovery that his politics are somewhat to the right of Genghis Khan gives it some context other than that of an intellectual exercise. Even so, it’s accepted by most objective authorities that torture, quite apart from its barbarism and cruelty (which is beside the point of the essay anyway), tends to yield information which is dangerously unreliable at best. But can Levin convince us that its use is ever acceptable? To answer that question, we had better be aware that there are holes in his argument so big you could lose a medium-sized town down one of them. So let’s take a closer look and see if we can’t help him out.

From our post-9/11 perspective, it's tempting to see Michael Levin as some sort of visionary. Writing in 1982, he had no obvious real-life examples which were extreme enough to illustrate his thesis. So he hypothesizes two scenarios: a nuclear bomb set to go off imminently, with the terrorist in custody but refusing to give up the bomb’s location; and a bomb on a plane, with the terrorist (again, presumably, in custody) being the only person who can disarm it. These sound compelling, but we must be cautious. Not only do both these scenarios have no parallel in the real world, but also the particular sets of circumstances would be highly unlikely to come together in the way Levin describes.

Levin moves on to an ‘informal poll’ he conducted, asking four mothers whether torture was justified to retrieve a kidnapped baby. All responded that it was. This is a classic example of the argumentum ad populum fallacy: basically, Levin is saying, ‘These people agree with me, so I must be right.’ Because personal opinion is irrelevant to whether torture is morally justifiable, he would have done better to leave out this little anecdote – especially as he later refutes the ‘personal opinions’ of those who feel that torture is barbaric.

The third major piece of supporting evidence Levin offers is in the form of two types of historical event which he claims provide precedent: the assassination of dictatorial figures, and the pre-emptive military strike. But these do not really parallel the torturing of terrorists. The idea of a successful assassination or military attack is that the subject does not expect what is coming. But for torture to be effective, there needs to be an element of anticipation in the mind of the torturee. Not only that, but Levin cannot show that assassinating Hitler would have saved any innocent lives; and he still offers no real-life examples of pre-emptive military action which illustrate his claim.

Levin has set us, and himself, a challenging problem, and he would have better answered the challenge by putting more work into his supporting evidence. Central to his case is the qualifier that torture is only justifiable in cases where it is the only way of preventing large-scale loss of life, and where the guilt of the person being tortured is obvious. He stresses that such situations need to be clear-cut, so to justify his argument he must give examples that are also clear-cut. He fails to do this. Instead he employs hypothetical scenarios and tenuous parallels, and loses himself in a quagmire of logical error.

Strengthening his case is more a question of what should have been left out of the argument than what was put in. At a time when the PLO, Hezbollah, the IRA, the Red Brigade and numerous other terrorist organizations were all at the peak of their activity, Levin could probably, with some research, have found some real-life incidents where the use of torture did or could have saved lives. In all likelihood they would have been less dramatic than his imagined cases, and he probably felt that they would not have provided sufficiently strong support for a claim as drastic as the one he was making. But they would have had the force of factual truth, rather than just being a set of assumptions.

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  • Clavos

    Very well written, Doc, but then I would expect nothing less from a gen-u-wine Brit.

    I’m intrigued that I don’t really find a personal stance on the central issue of Levin’s book in your essay, though I think I can guess your POV.

    Kudos for keeping your discussion objective and delivering on your second paragraph promise.

  • Dr Dreadful

    Thanks, Clav.

    I reckon you guessed right about my personal opinion as to Levin’s essay. His views haven’t made him many friends anywhere on the political spectrum, particularly considering his ethnicity.

    If memory serves me, his name has come up before on BC. I seem to remember Ruvy having some choice things to say about him… but then who doesn’t Ruvy have some choice things to say about?!

  • Doug Hunter

    “Because personal opinion is irrelevant to whether torture is morally justifiable”

    I would differ a bit on this. I’d say morals are are a type of group opinions. Different cultures have used completely different logic to come up with completely different sets of morals historically. (although the world is becoming more homogenized-westernized) They all just KNEW they were right, just like we KNOW we’re right.

    I’d suggest researching Native Americans and torture for some differing cultural views of the practice.

  • Torture results in false information as often as, if not more often than, accurate information. This is the rational reason to oppose it.

    And any country that believes itself to be what used to be called a ‘liberal democracy’ soils its own principles by using or condoning torture. If once they were ‘good guys,’ they cease to be so once they start down that slippery slope. This is the moral reason to oppose torture.

    Of course there is the doublespeak alternative, currently in use by our resourceful White House and Pentagon. They use and condone torture in fact, but deny it outright every chance they get. This takes them even farther away from the possibility of being ‘good guys.’

  • Zedd


    Brilliant! While I’ve not read Levin’s assessment, I enjoyed your evaluation of the argument. Very well presented. I feel smarter.

    Thank you.

    You have a new groupie. Did I spell that correctly?

  • Zedd


    One would have to consider whether the end justifies the means. If torture is not known to produce reliable information, then it would be immoral to torture for the sake of torturing.

    What makes us different from previous cultures is what we have come to know. Torture was used because it was thought to be a reliable tool. Utilizing it as a means to save lives could have been considered to be moral. But we now know that it doesn’t work so we label its use to be immoral.

    Blood letting was also used as a reliable tool. If a doctor utilized such a practice today, when other less “inconvenient” placebo could be utilized, we would tag his actions as immoral.

  • Dr Dreadful


    Thanks! You did indeed spell “groupie” correctly. However, because I’m several glasses down a rather excellent bottle of wine this evening, we will spell it “hghru’ppi” for now…!

    I recommend that you click on the link in the article and read through what Levin has to say because it really is a challenging essay.

    If you try to look at it from the perspective of 1982, when it was written, and then from today’s perspective, it gives you a lot to ponder.

    1982 was a time when the weapons of terror were less deadly, but the level of terrorist activity was very high across the world (except, notably, in America). It must have seemed to some back then, as it did after 9/11, that the sky was about to fall.

  • Clavos

    Those glasses of vino have you seeing double, eh Doc?

  • Dr Dreadful

    My vision is just fineMy vision is just fine, Clavos.


    I guess I’m just impatient with my browser’s loading speed… Although not quite as impatient as certain avian species of the genus corvidae

  • Clavos

    What was that shadow across the moon just then?

  • Zedd

    You guys really have it for MR don’t you?

    Doc I was just kidding off course on the spelling thing, lest the British feel even more justified in their attempts to dominate the Southern hemisphere.

  • RJ

    “Torture results in false information as often as, if not more often than, accurate information.”

    Probably true. But in a truly drastic scenario, information that is 50% likely to be true and 50% likely to be false is certainly better than no information at all…

    Let’s say Mr. Mohammed Durka Jihad has been arrested by the feds. They know he was planning on placing a suitcase nuke somewhere in the Sears Tower on a certain date, and they captured him on that date leaving the Sears Tower. They also know that this nuclear device is timed to go off 90 minutes after it has been set.

    So, the feds now have less than 90 minutes to find out exactly where this devastating device is located, before it goes off. The Sears Tower is huge, and they are unlikely to find it themselves within that time frame by sheer luck, even if they flood the building with hundreds of agents (agents whose morale is kinda low because they know they are gonna die unless the device is found ASAP).

    Oh, and Mohammed isn’t talking. He’s offered cigarettes and coffee and even immunity from prosecution (a lie). But he refuses to talk.

    Thousands of civilians are in the Sears Tower, as are hundreds of law enforcement agents, and tens of thousands more innocents are located in the immediate area. Almost all of these individuals will die unless the device is found and disarmed in less than 90 minutes.

    And the only person who knows the location of this device ain’t talking.

    Now let’s pretend that you are the senior Homeland Security Department official on the scene. What do you do? Do you offer to call this man an ACLU lawyer? Or do you threaten to stick a lit cigarette in his eye unless he gives you information RIGHT FUCKING NOW?

    Remember: Thousands of innocent American lives are at stake, including scores or hundreds of subordinates who are person friends and acquaintances of yours.

    Sure, there’s a chance he’ll give you false information under duress. But there’s also a chance he’ll give you correct information. And the odds of him giving you correct information are likely to increase if you use the “carrot and stick” model. As in:

    – Carrot: “If you tell us where the bomb is planted, we won’t prosecute you” (a lie, but one he might believe)

    – Stick: “If you refuse to give us any information, we will melt your eyes with a zippo” (not a lie)

    – Bigger stick: “If you give us sny false information, we will saw off your balls with a rusty bread knife, run it through a blender, and make you drink it” (and then show him the knife, the blender, and the sippy cup)

    Improving your odds from 0% (he ain’t talking) to 50% (he’s spilling his guts) is obviously advantageous in such a scenario.

    Of course, I will cede that such a scenario is highly unlikely. But in such a scenario, threatening to torture one terrorist would certainly be preferable to thousands of innocent American civilians being slaughtered.

  • Not that I would want to be the one to advocate torture here, but by all accounts the assumption that torture produces bad or false iformation is popular, but not necessarily true.

    The quality of the information produced by torture seems to depend a lot on the type of torture and how skillfully it is applied. If the person administering the torture has a good handle on how to psychologically manipulate the victim, the results can be much more definitive.


  • Doug Hunter

    In any event I don’t think torture needs to be legalized in any fashion. If an extreme example presents itself where its employment might be beneficial it will probably occur to the people at the scene. For example, if a nuke is about to go off and vaporize a city including the police interagator, he’ll probably throw the rulebook out the window and do whatever he believes will get him the best information. In the aftermath, the justice system will find a way to excuse his actions if, in the sober light of reality, it appears it was indeed necessary.

    I don’t think it’s worth legalizing and having trained torturors roaming throughout society for the remote chance they’ll be at the right place at the right time. The risks outweigh the benefits.

  • In a totalitarian police state, the crime rate is very low. But few of us would be willing to make that trade-off.

    And I think indulging in extreme scenarios and distorting logic [and morality] to justify torture is similar. We’re still talking about immoral and anti-democratic acts that lower us to the criminal level of the terrorists we would allegedly be fighting.

  • bliffle

    “The quality of the information produced by torture seems to depend a lot on the type of torture and how skillfully it is applied.”

    “Seems”? Really? Does someone have solid information about this, or is it just a theory?

  • I seriously doubt that any of the “extreme” scenarios noted above were in play at Guantamo, Abu Garib or anywhere else since 9/11 – or before for that matter. As Doug suggests above, such extreme situations would likely result in throwing out the rule book, which most people would not quibble too much about.

    But what useful information may have been acquired through torture of captured supposed terrorists is likely relatively small. Also, as noted above, both a rational and moral take on torture render it unacceptable in our society. People are people. While a number of other countries and no doubt most terrorist organizations employ torture as a matter of course (As reported in George Crile’s book, Charlie Wilson’s War Soviet soldiers captured by tribesmen in Afghanistan were routinely and repeatedly raped anally, tortured in a variety of heinous ways and, apparently while still alive, would have their skin cut at the waist and then pulled up and tied over their heads before being deposited somewhere they would likely be found by their fellow Soviet soldiers,) the U.S. is supposed to be above that. We supposedly recognize the inherent dignity of any human being. Obviously, under the Bushies, we are not and do not. The crap is oozing out of the administration’s drawers.


  • bliffle

    Years ago I read a report that said the Marines and the FBI had concluded that torture doesn’t work and that empathic methods were better. Sounds good to me. Did the Viet Cong get anything out of McCain after extensively toturing him? I don’t think so. It just stiffens resolve against the enemy.

    Besides, it sounds bad to have official Civil Service designations for the hierarchy of torturers. Just think of missing a promotion becuase your colleague has better torture skills.

  • RJ

    “Did the Viet Cong get anything out of McCain after extensively torturing him? I don’t think so.”

    Actually, they did.

  • Dr Dreadful

    I’d need to go to the library and dig out that old article from US News and World Report to be sure, but it doesn’t sound as though McCain gave them much they didn’t already know, other than a few generalized “confessions” they could use as propaganda.

  • moonraven

    Nalle as usual is telling us that HE knows more than the “experts” and more than logical analysis can produce.

    Torture is something that nasty little boys do to cats and dogs and frogs and they believe it is part of the rite of passage from childhood to manhood.

    Wrong. It is part of a singular rite of passage from childhood to sadism.

    That being said, in most institutionalized cases of torture–which the US government has bankrolled gleefully in cases such as Argentina’s Dirty War, Pinochets reign of terror in Chile, and its own disgrace to the human species in Guantanamo–the objectives are to get the victim to admit to crimes that he or she did not commit (there is a rule of law available regarding crimes he or she DID commit, after all) and to extract information about political and ideological opposition.

    Seldom have I read such a crock of cynical shit as what I read on this thread by Nalle.

    Torture is always wrong, as it never supports the rule of law, but subverts it.

  • REMF

    I don’t know anything about torturing prisoners, but I’m guessing the ultimate torture for a chickenhawk would be to make them serve in the military.

  • marry

    i have no ideal