Is torture of a person ever morally justified?

By | December 2, 2012

By Juan Bernal

A corresponding philosopher, call him “John,”  posed the following example of “justified torture”, and followed with a few questions:

Suppose that a kid-napper has taken a child, and holds it for ransom. The kid-napper buries the child in an underground vault with limited air supply. The police capture the kid-napper who refuses to divulge the whereabouts of the vault.

Would Dirty Harry, the detective, be morally justified in using torture, since there is not sufficient time to obtain truth serum, or any other means of obtaining  the information needed to save the child’s life?

Do you believe that the example shows that torture is sometimes justified if done with a good will?

Or is torture always wrong?

Or is torture only justified if the actual results (not the intended results) are good?


I replied with the following remarks:  John, I cannot imagine too many real-world case in which torture of a human being (with or without a good will) would be morally justified.  So, I’m inclined to say that torturing of a human being is not morally justifiable; although it is not always an inhumane or criminal act. 

How’s that for hedging?!

In your example, we have to buy into the premise that torturing the kidnapper will result in the information necessary to save the child.  Then the question is whether this means of extracting the information (torture) is morally justifiable, if it will save the victim, the kidnapped child.  Likely, most of us are inclined to say that  such torture is morally justified; but we’re inclined to do so because of the way the case is presented: The criminal is at the receiving end of the torture; he probably deserves it; and this is the only way of saving the kidnapped child.  What rational, morally conscientious person would ever trade the well-being of the kidnapper for the sure death of the child?  Not many, if any.  But this is a made-up case, probably only good as a classroom example for discussion. It is not the type of case that people are likely to confront.

In the real world, nobody knows at the outset of the torture session that it will result in the life-saving information.  Nobody can even be certain that the child is still alive. In many real-world cases, we often don’t know that the person being tortured is really a criminal or bad person deserving such intense pain. With reference to a real-world case, let’s ask your question again: Is torture of the kidnapper morally justified?  Here the answer is not so clear.  Here we have to make a ‘judgement call’ which may or may not be correct.  Here we cannot be certain that we would be doing the morally right thing, either by torturing the alleged Kidnapper or refusing to torture.

A similar dilemma arises concerning the CIA’s use of waterboarding to try to get information from suspected terrorists.  Is such torture justifiable when the information can only be gotten from that individual?  Is it justifiable when other sources might be available?  Is it justifiable when the information might prevent another deadly terrorist attack?

Of course, philosophers are fond of imagining crazy cases in which one might be inclined to affirm that torture of a person (even of an innocent child) is morally justified.  For example, if by allowing such torture, the suffering of millions would cease and be replaced by great well being for all (a paradise on earth; millions of children no longer suffer sickness, hunger, and cruelty).  Then the questioner, maybe a Utilitarian, will press the issue by pointing out how great the ratio of happiness is gained over the suffering of the one victim, 200 million / one.  Then how could any rational, morally attentive person deny the moral justification of the torture?

Plug in your own answer; but it probably won’t say much about real-world moral dilemma that people often face.

So I will go out on the limb and declare that torturing people in attempts to extract crucial information is not a morally justifiable act.  It might turn out to be a prudent or utilitarian act, one that yields some desirable result.   But in the end, the torturer (if he/she is honest) might have to admit to gaining a desirable result through immoral means.  It is similar to the acts in a war in which our warriors have to kill enemy soldiers.  Is the killing of human beings morally justified?   Or is it merely the prudent, practical thing that must be done when one is a soldier and the nation is at war, with no implication that it is the morally justifiable thing to do?  Or probably a better example is the case of Israeli secret service agents tracking down and killing suspected anti-Israeli terrorists.  They get very good at this and probably do something that reduces the terrorist threat against Israel.  But do they do something that is morally justifiable?  It is likely that some of them conclude that in hunting down the suspected terrorist they (Israeli agents) have had to become terrorists themselves.   That is not a case of moral justification.

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