A man has information that could prevent an imminent terrorist attack. Under normal interrogation he refuses to talk. Is torture an option?

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If it were that black and white, the question would be a lot simpler. However, that's not actually the way it works out.


Let's say that there is a situation where you have a prisoner, X, who you suspect has knowledge of a group that is planting a bomb in an unknown location for the purpose of killing a lot of people.


If you do not torture X, an undetermined number of people might die. The bomb threat may or may not be real. If the bomb is real and not a false alarm, it may or may not go off. It could be discovered by other means, it could be poorly made, it might go off at the wrong time and not harm anyone but the bomb makers. Or, it could go off and harm or kill a number of innocent people. All of these possibilities have to be taken into account. It's not an episode of 24 where Jack Bauer is the Only Possible Way to save the day.


If you do torture X, again there are several possibilities. X may not even know where the bomb is. If X does know, X may be willing to remain silent as a martyr for the faith/cause. X might give false information which would not only stop the torture, but also misdirect resources away from the actual bomb site to a dummy site. (This is the most likely scenario in my mind, particularly if time is short.) Time spent torturing X could be spent on other methods, ones that are less likely to give false information. X could be completely innocent of the plot and a victim of circumstantial evidence or mistaken identity. Or X could be involved and might give accurate information.


The circumstances are not black and white, yes or no. If it was a case of 'X knows where the bomb is and is guaranteed to provide said information if tortured, which would then save a lot of people', then you're in a badly written fiction novel.


I am always suspicious of any argument which contains the concept of 'at any cost'. It reeks of fanaticism and absolutism to me, and should be regarded with the distrust one gives to politicians, used car salesmen, and preachers. Such unwavering purpose raises the shades of past atrocities. We should always doubt, always be ready to ask ourselves 'How far am I justified in going?'

So, you would rather have a bunch of people killed (it's one of the possibilities) just so you wouldn't be a hypocrite? If you are wrong and all those people die, how many rights have you violated then? Is that worth it? Would you feel better?


Sure, it is possible that the guy with the information might just be the terrorist's cousin. But it is also possible that the cousin is not involved and is afraid for his life and maybe for someone else's life (possibly someone close to him). So he is picked up, he knows about the plan, but he is not involved. He is afraid to speak. I think it is understandable, you know, being a terrorist's cousin... you're entitled to be afraid. I think this is a plausible scenario that shouldn't be left out.

their death aren't our choice - their death are the effects.


as you said, there are many options as well as different possible outcomes for each option. so, whether or not we torture X, if they die, they die. but that blood surely shouldn't be on the hands of the people who did or did not torture X. you might say it's the police's incompetence. you might say it's the government's. but surely it's the terrorists' themselves who are at fault.


doing the right thing doesn't always entail the best outcome, but that shouldn't stop people from doing it.

You have a guy that might know something that can save let's say 5,000 people. It is immoral to torture him for the information.

You have 5,000 people that might die. It is immoral to just stand and watch them die.


Whose rights are you going to defend and whose rights are you going to violate? Are you going to protect 5,000 people's right to live or are you going to protect one guy's rights?


Forget for a few moments the fact that information obtained by torture is inaccurate and then answer this question. I would really like to know what you have to say, and what do you think it is the moral thing to do.


It seems like you guys avoid to talk about the possible casualties. They have rights too, no matter if they are your family, your friends or simple strangers (in a more plausible scenario you would not even know who they are until after it happens).




EDIT: After reading your last post I have to make my question more clearer. Whose rights are you willing to violate (you have to risk in a situation like this)? Are you willing to risk the lives of 5,000 people or are you willing to torture the guy?

Why forget that information gained by torture is often inaccurate? That's a key aspect of the situation? I wouldn't use information gained by a Ouija board or from a cold reading of the subject either, as they're also highly inaccurate.


If the answer were guaranteed accurate, and the subject was guaranteed to know the answer, and the subject was guaranteed to respond to torture with the answer, and the answer was guaranteed to save 5000 innocent people, then yes, I may well torture him for the answer, but I would still consider it an immoral act, albeit it one that I committed to save those people.The end does not justify the means, but it does inform it.


Of course, in this case we're no longer realistically talking about torture, we're talking about choices. Moral philosophy. The scenario you are proposing is essentially the second train track problem, as illustrated here, although the impact is lessened somewhat by the fact that we are talking about causing pain and not causing death.

Ok. The information has more chance to be inaccurate. Are you willing to risk even a single life? Like you said, the bomb may not even exist, it may not even go off, etc... but it is also possible that the bomb indeed exists, and it will go off. So, you don't really know what's true and you don't know that the information is guaranteed to be accurate. Are you willing to risk even a single life just so you can go to sleep a moral man?


And, again, how are you moral if you don't take into consideration those people's lives/rights? What, you can be moral for one guy, but when it comes to a group you're too busy?

And are you willing to torture an innocent man, just so you can say 'I tried'?


I'll tell you what. I'll guarantee that there will be no bombs or terrorist attacks that harm even a single citizen. Of course, I'll have to monitor everyone 24/7, implant trackers into every single person, and have audio/visual recordings of everything you ever do or say, in public or private. But think of all of the lives that will be saved. No more premeditated murders, no more crime, etc.


The ends, as I said, do not justify the means. If you have to use torture to achieve your ends, you have already failed.


If morality and ethics can be discarded whenever it is convenient to do so, then what good is it?


And, speaking for myself, if I am in danger of being blown up by a terrorist bomb, I'd rather not be saved if it requires torture to do it. If I discovered that someone was tortured to save me, I'd feel severely ill.

Ok, Dave. You have made some good points and I admit that I have played the devil's advocate from the beginning, but just to get some good arguments. I still think it's a tricky situation and, like in almost any situation, you can't be 100% moral (by any moral standards, yours or other's).


Dave, you don't know that you are torturing an innocent man, and you don't know that you are saving any lives. I was interested in the choice you would make and whether you would risk a bunch of people's lives or you would risk torturing an innocent person.


And I wouldn't want to be saved like that either.

Quite so. Like any moral dilemma, the devil is in the details. And if it were easy to resolve, it'd hardly be a dilemma, would it? :)


I certainly hope that I am never in a position where I had to make such a decision, but if I ever am, I hope that the decision I make is one that I can live with.

Masochist: Beat me, beat me, please, please!


Sadist: No!

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