Torture and capital punishment

1. Some people enjoy thinking about inflicting pain, and don’t feel guilty about that enjoyment as long as they can imagine that the pain is being inflicted on bad people for good reasons.
2. Supporting torture demonstrates that a candidate will do ANYTHING to fight terrorism.
3. Supporting torture demonstrates manliness.
The consequentialist arguments are afterthoughts. Just like the death penalty.

If, as seems to be the expert consensus, torture doesn’t work (except to extract confessions, both true and false), and risks all sorts of blowback, then why is there such enthusiasm for it on the Hard Right? Is this just a difference of opinion about consequences?

I doubt it. Partly, fantasizing about torturing terrorists gives some people ethical license to indulge their sadistic fantasies. But even people who take no personal joy in imagining the torture of enemies may take support for torture as a positive sign in evaluating a candidate. A candidate who supports torture (1) displays an unlimited, as opposed to a merely conditional, willingness to fight terrorism and (2) displays andreia, “manliness.”

As in the largely parallel case of the death penalty, the consequentialist arguments (the death penalty deters/torture extracts useful information) are largely afterthoughts.

That does not, of course, prove that the consequentialist arguments are false; it’s quite likely that the death penalty does deter. But no voter who demands that a candidate support the death penalty would be satisfied if the candidate supported some other program that would reduce homicide to a greater extent. For both torture and capital punishment, it’s the means, not the ends, that carry the emotional voltage.

Update A reader puts the entire argument above in one neat sentence: “Brutality is a feature, not a bug.”

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: