Torture, uncertainty, and moral absolutes

Yes, there are almost certainly circumstances in which torture “works.” We still shouldn’t do it.

A reader writes to ask if I’m really certain that torture never produces true and valuable information.

Of course not. Indeed, I’m sure that the opposite is true. It would be astonishing if torture were never effective.

But the fact that torture is often not merely unproductive but counterproductive, and that the instances were it would be beneficial are so hard to pick out from the rest, makes a strong pragmatic case against it to go along with the absolutist moral case against it.

We know that torture greatly damages the victim in one way and the perpetrator in another. We know that torture degrades the institutions that engage in it by making it harder to find decent people to run them. We know that torture is almost impossible to manage or control through democratic and lawful processes. We know that torture arouses hatred of the entity responsible for it. These are all utterly certain consequences of torture that weigh very heavily in the balance — along with the very likely consequences of torture, such as extracting false information — against its possible benefits.

This is a special case of an underappreciated general principle: the difficulty of judging consequences in advance means that we should pay more attention to means, relative to ends, than would appear at first blush. Since it’s easy to know that torture is horribly wrong in itself, and very hard to guess the circumstances in which it would prevent something even more horrible, a flat “no-torture” rule may well have better consequences (putting the moral absolutes aside) than some nuanced rule.

In that way, refusing to consider the use of torture is like respecting the results of legal processes or not cheating to win elections. It reflects not only a decent respect for the humanity of other humans but a sensible evaluation of one’s own ignorance.

Yes, I’m against torture mostly because (as Archie Goodwin says in one of the early Nero Wolfe stories) once you’ve tortured someone any decent garbage can would be ashamed of finding you in it. But if there were a set of easily identifiable circumstances in which its beneficial consequences outweighed its harmful consequences, I’d be willing to listen to the argument that some extreme circumstances call for the violation of rules that we generally take to be absolute, and I might feel queasy in upholding my own righteousness at the expense of the victims of the atrocities that torture could prevent.

Since, however, there are not such circumstances, I’m comfortable sticking with the absolute rule. Isn’t it extraordinary how it’s the people who reject “moral relativism” and insist on the black-and-white difference between good and evil who argue for making exceptions when it comes to torture?

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: