Sunday, February 10, 2013

Justifying torture

A recent discussion at work regarding the movie "Zero Dark Thirty" (I have yet to see it) brought up the subject of torture. Specifically, the discussion centered on if it is justifiable and if so, under what circumstances. Having thought about this a bit before, I was able to offer my view on it. Basically, I believe it boils down to a four-pronged test:

  1. Immediacy of Need/Imminence of Threat
  2. Certainty of Material Knowledge held by the tortured
  3. Certainty of Success in Averting Threat with Material Knowledge
  4. Exclusivity of Foreseeable Alternatives
The only conceivable circumstances under which torture could be justifiably used are basically analogous to a peace officer shooting a threatening hostage taker when it is highly likely that the hostage taker is immediately about to commit a grievous wrong and when there are no reasonably foreseeable alternatives to prevent the grievous wrong from being committed. Thus, it does not seem realistic that all or even two of the criteria could be met.

It is amazing to me just how simplistic, naive, and morally shallow some perhaps many can be on this issue. Yes, this is the natural and generally rational position for us to take in most circumstances, but that defense is weakened on this issue because of its general importance combined with its relative straightforwardness--emotional baggage usually used to rationalize torture aside. Unfortunately this is not too surprising given that we live in a world where the President of the United States can unilaterally order "targeted killings" of both foreign nationals and Americans he deems an imminent threat. It seems to get to a convenient theory of justice we have started with ethics and taken away reason and accountability.

In a relative-ranking sense America should strive to have the highest human rights standards in the world, and the absolute level of those standards should be quite high in its own right.