Sam Harris on torture

May 2, 2011 • 6:00 am

As I noted yesterday, Sam Harris has taken a lot of flak, and the hottest-button issue for many has been his stand on torture outlined in The End of Faith: his notion that there are times when torture is ethically justified.  From this many people concluded that he favors wholesale torture, or an official government policy of torture, although his writings clearly show those accusations to be false.  The issue still rankles with him, and he re-explains his stand in a new piece at PuffHo, “Why I’d rather not speak about torture.”  His position, which as far as I know has never varied, is this:

While most of my work has been devoted to controversial topics, I have taken very few positions that I later regret. There is one, however, and I regret it more with each passing hour: It is my “collateral damage argument” for the use of torture in extreme circumstances. This argument first appeared in The End of Faith (pp. 192-199), in a section where I compare the ethics of “collateral damage” to the ethics of torture in times of war. I argued then, and I believe today, that collateral damage is worse than torture across the board.

However, rather than appreciate just how bad I think collateral damage is in ethical terms, many readers mistakenly conclude that I take a cavalier attitude toward the practice of torture. I do not. Nevertheless, I believe that there are extreme situations in which practices like “water-boarding” may not only be ethically justifiable, but ethically necessary — especially where getting information from a known terrorist seems likely to save the lives of thousands (or even millions) of innocent people. To argue that torture may sometimes be ethically justified is not to argue that it should ever be legal (crimes like trespassing or theft may sometimes be ethical, while we all have interest in keeping them illegal). . .

. . . My argument for the limited use of coercive interrogation (“torture” by another name) is essentially this: If you think it is ever justifiable to drop bombs in an attempt to kill a man like Osama bin Laden (and thereby risk killing and maiming innocent men, women, and children), you should think it may sometimes be justifiable to “water-board” a man like Osama bin Laden (and risk abusing someone who just happens to look like Osama bin Laden). It seems to me that however one compares the practices of “water-boarding” high-level terrorists and dropping bombs, dropping bombs always comes out looking worse in ethical terms. And yet, most people tacitly accept the practice of modern warfare, while considering it taboo to even speak about the possibility of practicing torture.

Nevertheless, Harris regrets having made that argument, not because he thinks it’s wrong but because it’s been a distraction:

And so, I am now a bit wiser and can offer a piece of advice to others: not everything worth saying is worth saying oneself. I am sure that the world needs someone to think out loud about the ethics of torture, and to point out the discrepancies in how we weight various harms for which we hold one another morally culpable, but that someone did not need to be me. The subject has done nothing but distract and sicken readers who might have otherwise found my work useful.

His piece goes on to justify his position; do realize that it’s not a wholesale endorsement of torture, or even an argument that torture should be legal. His argument is (I hate to use this word) more nuanced than that.  He decries the excesses of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, and addresses the fallacious argument that torture never works.  Harris believes that torture should remain illegal but is sometimes a moral imperative, or at least ethical.  And he offers a challenge to his anti-torture readers, proposing the following “rule”:

We will never torture anyone under any circumstances unless we are certain, beyond all reasonable doubt, that the person in our custody has operational knowledge of an imminent act of nuclear terrorism.

It seems to me that unless one can produce an ethical argument against torturing such a person, one does not have an argument against the use of torture in principle. Of course, my discussion of torture in The End of Faith (and on this page) only addresses the ethics of torture, not the practical difficulties of implementing a policy based on the ethics.

and concludes:

I consider it to be one of the more dangerous ironies of liberal discourse that merely discussing the possibility of torturing a man like Osama bin Laden provokes more outrage than the maiming and murder of children ever does. Until someone actually points out what is wrong with the “collateral damage argument” presented in The End of Faith, I will continue to believe that its critics are just not thinking clearly about the reality of human suffering.

I think Sam has a point here.  I’m not yet sure where I come down on torture in circumstances like the above, but I surely think the issue is worth discussing rather than reflexively dismissing.  And yes, much of the dismissal has been reflexive—almost an excuse to simply reject all of Harris’s views, just as Hitchens’s stand on Iraq has been used to discredit his opinions on everything, including faith.  I can’t help but believe that some of the opposition to Harris’s discussion of torture involves willful misunderstanding of his position, perhaps as an excuse to punish him for his strong critiques of religion.

It is always to our benefit to think carefully about the ethics of things like torture.  And I’m a bit saddened that Sam feels that he should not have raised the issue.

191 thoughts on “Sam Harris on torture

  1. It suggests there is a hypothetical situation where it would be justified. To me, this is like saying there is a hypothetical situation that would justify genocide. I don’t find such contemplation “nuanced”.

    1. But there are hypothetical situations where the ‘least bad’ option would be to do something that is otherwise terrible.
      For example, imagine you were an army commander in New York city on September 11th 2001 and had the control of a surface to air missile. You’ve seen the first plane strike the tower and the second plane is now lining up to strike the second tower.
      Wouldn’t the ethical thing be to fire the missile and bring down the plane before it hits the tower and kills thousands?

      1. The problem is that, in your scenario, firing the missile isn’t going to make a whole lot of difference. The bulk of the plane will still impact the tower, possibly still bringing it down. And now you’re raining flaming debris all over Manhattan and you’re spraying an unbelievable amount of aerosolized jet fuel over the wreckage. The result will be a firestorm not unlike what Dresden experienced. You might even get a kiloton-sized explosion, complete with miniature mushroom cloud. (The chemical energy stored in the fuel in the wings of an airliner is unbelievable. The mechanical / kinetic energy of the plane itself is on a par with a WWII blockbuster!)

        This isn’t meant as a minor nitpick of your specific scenario, but rather as an attempt to point out that the simplistic scenarios almost universally used to justify such extreme actions pretty much never actually work out the way the proponents would like them to.

        In Sam’s case, in order to justify torture, one must concoct a tortured chain of events that simply isn’t remotely plausible.

        For the “ticking time bomb” scenario he and other torture proponents are so fond of using, we must posit the following:

        A terrorist steals or builds a nuclear bomb. Right off the bat, we’ve got a problem: only nation-states are currently known to posses nuclear bombs due in no small part to the huge expense required to produce them. And they’re as jealously guarded as any other insanely-expensive piece of military equipment; you’ll have better luck stealing a fighter jet than you will a nuke. Considering the difficulty even nation-states have in building bombs, it’s pretty much a non-starter to suggest that an individual or a small organization will succeed.

        But, what the Hell. We’re playing what-if games, so let’s pretend that a terrorist somehow acquires a nuclear bomb. Said terrorist now has to get the bomb to its intended target. Again, such a feat would be a challenge for a nation-state. “Suitcase” nukes are great for James Bond movies, but they’re the most sophisticated and expensive variety of nuclear weapon there is. A terrorist would be lucky to get a hold of a WWII-style weapon, which is a large and insanely heavy piece of industrial machinery. That gives off copious amounts of easily-detected radiation.

        And, to be worth the bang-for-the-buck, you’ve got to get this behemoth to the heart of a major city.

        Your best bet is to try to load it on a yacht and sail it up a river, but you’re not going to make it past the radiation detectors. So, you send your yacht to some remote part of the coast, load it onto a U-Haul, and make a trek of hundreds of miles…only to again be stopped by the radiation detectors. Maybe load it onto a plane? Nope — civil air defense since 9/11 means your expensive toy will become a hazardous waste site before it has a chance to go “boom.” What’s left? An ICBM? Yeah, right.

        So, we’ll keep playing out the fantasy. You’ve got your nuke, you’ve smuggled it into the city, and you’ve yet to trigger the radiation detectors. This, presumably, is the point when we’re supposed to start torturing somebody.

        But to what end? As soon as the bomb reaches the target, you’re going to detonate it. There’s not going to be an alarm clock duct-taped to the side with a red wire and a blue wire. There’s not going to be a secret override code to punch in with only four seconds remaining.

        No, there’re going to be at least five total detonation mechanisms, none of which will have an override or “cancel” option: there’ll be a timer set for the maximum transit time — better to have the bomb go off somewhere even if it’s not ideally placed. Then there’ll be a location-based trigger; as soon as the truck gets to within a quarter-mile of the ideal spot, it’ll blow. Next will be a remote-controlled cellphone / radio detonator so that the evil mastermind can make a decision if the news shows Special Forces closing in. The driver will have a similar button, too, of course. And, lastly, there’ll be a dead-man switch: if the driver’s weight shifts too far off the seat, the bomb goes off.

        So who is it you’re going to be torturing, and what is it you’ll be trying to gain from torture?

        Ultimately, all moral questions aside, this is where Sam’s torture arguments ultimately fall flat: it only works on paper-tiger strawman enemies too incompetent to pull off the attacks you think you’re trying to prevent.

        In the real world, torture is always used for the exact same reasons it was in Abu Ghraib: as an instrument of terror, as an expression of power. Trying to suggest otherwise is as useful in realpolitik as observing that you could use nuclear bombs as engineering explosives so maybe they’re not so bad after all.

        Any argument for torture can just as easily be used as an argument for rape. This woman, see, has a rare mutation that’s the key to curing cancer — but she doesn’t want to let us impregnate her. So, you strap her to the table while I grab the turkey baster — don’t worry, sweetie-pie, it’s been sterilized. There, that wasn’t so bad, was it?

        Was that manufactured scenario absurd? Of course. But no more so than the “ticking time bomb” scenario.

        Cheers,

        b&

            1. You’ve provided a blizzard of detail all of which have to do with that pragmatics of torture and none f which address Harris’ central concern.

              Harris has been very clear on the fact that he is not advocating the legalization of torture, and that the essence of his argument has to do with torture in theory, not in practice. Unless you can negate the use use of torture in principle you won’t have a categorical argument against it.

              Therefore, none of what you said is really a challenge to Harris’ view.

              1. But your statement could be just as true if you had said:

                “Harris has been very clear on the fact that he is not advocating the legalization of forcibly turning some individuals into lollipops and distributing the tasty result among the populace in order to increase the greater good, and that the essence of his argument has to do with lollipopping in theory, not in practice. Unless you can negate lollipopping in principle you won’t have a categorical argument against it.”

              2. The question of legality has been addressed elsewhere in this thread.

                In short, we have legal exceptions to the general legal prohibitions against killing people. If there is a moral case to be made for torture, then the law should make similar exceptions for its application. If the case for torture is not sufficient to encode it into law, then the theoretical moral argument is clearly insufficient in the extreme.

                Sam might as well state that rape should remain illegal, but that there are circumstances in which the most moral course of action would involve forcible sex with a person that would still remain illegal. (Ooh! I know! You’ve been abducted by aliens, see, just before they destroyed the Earth, and they captured this woman, and you’re supposed to be the breeding stock for the new planet, only she doesn’t want to have anything to do with you….)

                After all, unless you can negate the use of rape in principle you won’t have a categorical argument against it.

                Cheers,

                b&

        1. I don’t know why Harris specified that it had to be nuclear. That’s naive and improbable for of the reasons mentioned above.

          The Thanksgiving Day terrorist plot in Portland, OR is a more likely scenario involving regular explosives and a few middle-men for the FBI to coerce.

          Can’t these hypothetical situations scan a little closer to reality?

        2. I agree that it is far fetched in the first place.

          Moreover I think I have seen claims to the effect that research (behavioral & statistics, as I remember it) shows that it doesn’t work anyway.

          So while there are morals around it (taboos, willingness to use for gaining & showing power), it isn’t necessarily a test for an ethical system. It is a gray zone for them, because the correct response is probably justifiably preempted by other considerations.

      2. Actually, no. Not unless you knew where it was going to end up. Fire the missile and it ends up killing a couple thousand people elsewhere in the city?

        1. We are talking hypotheticals here. Of course one could miss or wait too long so that when it explodes it’s over another populated building. Those are technicalities that deflect from the question of whether it is ever the better option to do something that involves the death of innocent people.
          Shooting down a hijacked plane (lets say you could hit it over the water with a 99% chance of accuracy – probably not unlikely given current missile technology) is one such scenario that is hard to argue against. The passengers are going to die anyway, you are only hastening their demise by a few seconds but you are saving thousands.
          By the way I don’t see this argument as a justification for torture – that is a completely different question that, outside an episode of 24, is never so clear cut.

          1. Thinking a little more on the subject I guess I am arguing in favor of the occasional justification for collateral damage rather than the occasional justification for torture (I had not specifically mentioned torture but I guess it’s important to place ones cards on the table in this sort of debate.)

      3. As if you’d have a clue what was happening. The speculation after the first hit was an accident. When the second hit, the immediate speculation there was something wrong with air traffic control.

        Took a bit longer, in the real world, to figure out what was happening. Which, of course, is the problem with superficial hypotheticals… They’re just too damn easy…

        And even if it were zone where you could legitimately anticipate hostiles, there are issues. For example, mistaken identity happens, even with well-trained personnel using the best equipment available.

        Which is why we shot down the Iranian passenger jet back in 1988. According to the US government, the crew of the Vincennes identified the Iranian Airbus A300 as an attacking F-14 Tomcat fighter-jet. Even though an Airbus A300 looks nothing like an F-14 Tomcat…

        290 fatalities were the result.

    2. sam harris is making perfect argument – people just cannot think streight whencertain words trigger “knee jerk” reaction

      it is unfortunate sam had tio succumb to the pressure of the crowd that does not get it and now regrets that he made that argument

      there are so many other things that should be braught up into discourse among those who can think streight but because very few of us actually understand how science will determine everything in the future (including morals) very few of us want to risk their comfortable life and “well-being” to serve humanity at large

      i want to extend sincere “thank you” to sam for what he has done already and whant to say that even if he now regrets that argument i think he did the great favor to mankind at large by doing it

      sam: keep on doing good job

  2. From my reading of The End of Faith and the HuffPo article; Sam was presenting ethical/moral dilemma arguments to illustrate that ethical/moral intuitions(reactions/reflexes)can often be mistaken or wrong.

  3. Jerry, why do you say that torture never works is a fallacious argument? Can you provide with specific examples of torture that have resulted in valuable information that has saved innocent lives?

    Thanks,

    Adriana
    PS: Full disclosure: I grew up in a country were torture was practiced by the government under the argument that it would prevent a communist takeover and therefore, grave damage to national identity and the citizenry. It is possible that my view on torture is biased because I witnessed first hand through people I knew very well, the devastating effects that endorsing the practice had not only on those directly affected, but on the moral stature of an entire nation. Torture is the deliberate infliction of extreme cruelty and from all the literature I read, it only leads to the moral degradation of everyone involved, and yes, it never produced useful results. Since Harris and you deplore collateral damage (and so do I), what is fallacious is to consider torture in a vacuum, without considering the collateral damage it causes (one could be torturing innocent people, for example, or accepting once can lead to an inevitable slippery slope, or many people can die as a consequence of the torture of some individuals, if revenge is taken, etc.). Violence cannot prevent or cure violent acts. I am disappointed that you agreed with Sam’s argument. I respectfully, and with a heavy heart, disagree with both of you.

      1. Hi jerry, thanks for replying so quickly. Yes, I saw that. The kidnapper was NOT tortured; he was threatened with torture; it was a BLUFF (I’m not against threatening with torture, it probably means the person is weak to begin with, but a hardened terrorist willing to be tortured is a whole different animal. And in any case, just one example, and not even a good one, makes the argument fallacious? And it did not help the victim; it was in vain in the end. The kidnapper had already killed the child before he was captured. I’m a scientist, when I’m making “my case” for a finding I just made in the lab and its importance, I show the best example I can come up with, to strengthen my point, in addition to the rest of the data. If that’s the best Harris could come up with, to prove that torturing someone never works, is certainly a lone, very weak example which does not help his case very much: the subject was NOT tortured, and the victim was NOT helped. Here is the link to the example Sam cites in his HuffPo article:
        http://www.nytimes.com/2003/04/10/world/kidnapping-has-germans-debating-police-torture.html

        1. “And in any case, just one example, and not even a good one, makes the argument fallacious?”

          Yes, if the argument has the word “never” in it, as in, “Torture could never be justified”, or the much more modest claim of “Torture has never happened to have been justified in human history (yet) (that we know of)”.

          One example would be sufficient to disprove such sweeping claims.

          1. One example would be sufficient to disprove such sweeping claims.

            Recall: “the plural of anecdote isn’t data” and “even a stopped clock is right twice a day”. This is a profoundly anti-scientific approach to knowledge.

            Data says that torture generates bad intel. No one is going to use torture unless they believe it would work. Which means that (a) they have chosen to put ideology and BELIEF ahead of science.

            When you put a dubious tool in the hands of a believer, odds are they aren’t going to approach the results with healthy skepticism. So they’re MORE likely to believe a lie than they would under other circumstances. Which makes them more likely to do the WRONG thing.

            No one endorsing torture has any right to call themselves a skeptic or imply that their beliefs are data-driven.

            1. We also have to realize that torture isn’t the only option on the table. Simply letting the captive take a hot shower before giving him clean clothes and a good meal has often been a much more effective intelligence-gathering technique than near-drowing and electrocution. Follow up by putting him in “private” with a sympathizer (or an actor playing a sympathizer) and he may well let slip whatever it is you wanted him to tell you without him ever realizing that he’s spilled the beans.

              There are very good reasons why some of the most vociferous opponents to torture are military or ex-military. We would be wise to give their advice careful consideration.

              Cheers,

              b&

              1. “We also have to realize that torture isn’t the only option on the table.”

                We also have to realize that the options on the table aren’t mutually exclusive.

                “often been a much more effective intelligence-gathering technique than near-drowing and electrocution.”

                First of all, the word often is key here. If often it is more effective, but often less so, who is to say that we will never have the ability to distinguish among cases, even if we can’t now? This is a failure of imagination, nowadays we are predicting success of athletes based on their levels of trust as revealed in their word choices! http://www.slate.com/id/2292312/

                I’m also hung up on the identification of torture with drowning and electrocution. I wouldn’t even say near drowning, it is drowning by the usual sense of the term. (I’m thinking about this as honestly and objectively as I can, there’s no profit in trying to imply waterboarding is less harmful than it is because I am not out to win a debate about torture, just to find the truth. waterboarding is exactly as bad as it is and not a hair less.)

                (If it helps you understand, I do reject the idea of the null hypothesis as inferior to Bayesian updating…so I am anti-science. Science depends on scientists generating useful hypotheses to test, which scientists are good at to the extent they use good Bayesian thinking, and it follows by crudely using null-hypotheses so that there can be tiny p-values for communal regulation of beliefs.)

                Out of all the torture methods used ever, I understand that the null hypothesis is that none work until shown otherwise. This is not a logical argument that shows torture is wrong, it is an assumption, and not on the same plane as Harris’ argument that torture may be justified in some circumstances, which has to do with consequences of actions and how we describe them as “good” or “bad” and (implicitly) “torture” or “not-torture”.

                I’m prepared to say it would be wrong to legalize torture, or perhaps say that any agent who deems it necessary to torture should be imprisoned and/or retired, not as punishment, but as a deterrent because the evidence does show that people are inclined to use torture more often than it should be used, and more often than it is expected to work.

                I most dislike the current system of posturing ideals under which we pretend torture is wrong and that we don’t do it and follow by outsourcing prisoners to the governments of Jordan and Egypt.

                Osama Bin Laden was not given a fair trial, not given an opportunity for a fair trial, killed in an extra-judicial killing potentially illegal under normative international law, in violation of the sovereignty of Pakistan, in a military raid that killed a (probably) unarmed woman, and you damn well know that he was not coming back alive under any circumstances at all.

                In other words, it was perfectly moral, and absolutely the right thing to do. I have some obscene things I’d like to say about any moral posturing against it.

                “Rules” are made to be broken.

              2. First of all, the word often is key here. If often it is more effective, but often less so, who is to say that we will never have the ability to distinguish among cases, even if we can’t now?

                If you’re going to pounce on one word such as that, I’m going to turn it around.

                I am unaware of any well-established examples of torture providing good, actionable intelligence. Your statements and your entire position can only make sense if you know of cases where torture did work.

                Care to cough up some specific examples, citations and all?

                Not anecdotes — those are at least as common as sightings of the Virgin Mary on toast. But specific examples from case law, the findings of an official military investigation, the conclusion of a Congressional inquiry — that sort of thing.

                I’ll give you a head start: Educing Information, a report by the National Defense Intelligence College.

                Cheers,

                b&

              3. “…some actions are so heinous that no consequentialist argument…”

                People drown every day, it’s much like waterboarding. We don’t shut down pools and beaches. Society has decided that the benefits of fun for many are worth the actuarial inevitability of the drowning of some innocents, and you would prevent the drowning of one suspect even if it would save the lives of a beach full of people?

                I understand, people are prone to bias and thinking a consequentialist argument applies when it actually doesn’t, so you attempt to wall off a section of serious consequences to others as wrong to ever do to others. In point of fact, it may well be that when a person thinks the benefits to the many outweigh the costs to the few, they are usually wrong, and systematically underestimating the cost to the few and overestimating the benefit to the many.

                I don’t doubt that the world would be a better place if more people believed deontological untruths. Ironically, fleeing from the bias against believing what is true in favor of believing what is useful is what makes it useful to reject consequentialism as a basis for thinking, but it’s also the bias that makes people think the rejection of consequentialism in favor of other systems is based on truth rather than usefulness!

              4. People drown every day, it’s much like waterboarding. We don’t shut down pools and beaches.

                And in most ethical systems there is a difference between taking action against a person versus that person experiencing the outcome unintentionally. Indeed, I’d say that’s a cornerstone of most ethics.

              5. Out of all the torture methods used ever, I understand that the null hypothesis is that none work until shown otherwise. This is not a logical argument that shows torture is wrong, it is an assumption

                If the aim is not evidence-based truth but merely the logically sound, then you have a point.

              6. “If the aim is not evidence-based truth but merely the logically sound, then you have a point.”

                It goes further than that. Science isn’t in the business of telling us what is most likely true about each phenomenon. It is in the business of preventing us from believing conclusively in false models of reality, even at the cost of not believing many true ones, and amassing facts known to be true so conclusively that even scientists have to admit to them.

                It’s similar to the legal process in which we have built in an assumption of innocence. If the jury concludes there is a 99% likelihood X committed a crime, they are to rule “not (proven) guilty”.

                Torture arguably hasn’t been shown as ever the best method in extracting information in controlled studies. There are only anecdotes in which it worked after other methods had failed and showed no promise, but *perhaps* those would have worked if they had been tried longer. (Could the obstacles to crafting a traditional experiment be more obvious than they are here?) Perhaps torture works only on some people, and science will *never* be able to distinguish among people to make its use *ever* most likely to glean information, even after all other methods have been tried repeatedly.

                The notion in the previous sentence is outlandish and probably wrong, it is due all the respect of any null hypothesis that is almost certainly wrong. That the formal public model of science prevents us from declaring a matter settled until it is well over 99% certain should not delude us into thinking a merely 99% certain proposition is without merit, or any bit less likely to be true than it is.

            2. “Data says that torture generates bad intel.”

              Data says invasive brain surgery generates bad health outcomes…unless you strictly discriminate among people such that only people with brain diseases are getting the surgery, rather than people with broken bones or healthy people, for example.

              “When you put a dubious tool in the hands of a believer, odds are they aren’t going to approach the results with healthy skepticism…No one endorsing torture has any right to call themselves a skeptic or imply that their beliefs are data-driven.”

              My perspective is that anyone who says they know that no circumstances can ever warrant any one of this very generalized class of actions has both a weak imagination and an unhealthy confidence in it.

              1. My perspective is that anyone who says they know that no circumstances can ever warrant any one of this very generalized class of actions has both a weak imagination and an unhealthy confidence in it.

                Or a belief that some actions are so heinous that no consequentialist argument is sufficient.

              2. It’s not that a hypothetical scenario can’t be imagined; it’s that in all likelihood the chance of such cases is vanishingly small, and in the real world it opens the doorway to torture as a method of oppression and reign of terror instead of a life-saving technique.

                Yes, in one instance torture could lead to positive results, but the chances are too small, and the system cannot be trusted to act responsibly, not even close.

                It’s like killing a healthy person for the organs to save 5 people. Obviously a good idea in a vacuum, but in the real world it would have far-reaching effects that would be devastating.

              3. “Yes, in one instance torture could lead to positive results, but the chances are too small, and the system cannot be trusted to act responsibly, not even close.”

                Hence: it should always be illegal, and even finding that it was apparently right needn’t save torturers from punishment as a deterrent to others.

                Harris is not saying that the system could be trusted to act responsibly. He’s saying that there is a responsible way to act that we can’t trust the system to do.

    1. I don’t disagree with you and I am sorry that you had to endure life in a country where the government regarded human life with callous indifference. But the wholesale use of torture isn’t what anyone was arguing for.

      Sam writes: “I think that torture should remain illegal”.

      Anything he says on the subject ought to be read with that in mind.

      1. Yes, I understand that Harris says torture should NOT be legal, but he argues it can be moral, or morally permissible. That is what I disagree with.

          1. If Sam believes that torture should not be legal but that it might therefore still be moral to commit illegal torture, then his position is that it is moral to disregard laws prohibiting heinous acts. I find that a very untenable position.

            Either it is possible to write exceptions into the law for whatever uses of torture he believes are moral or he rejects the rule of law.

            And not only would this be a rejection of the rule of law, but it is a rejection of the most vital, most morally essential rule of law: the protection of the powerless against the power of the State.

            Yes, I find Sam’s argument in this case (assuming I have understood it correctly) to be profoundly, deeply flawed.

            Permit me to make a direct analogy: intentional killing. Murder is illegal, but there are specific situations in which it is permissible for the State or its agents to kill somebody. Those exceptions are very clearly delineated, and deviation from those rules is considered to be the criminal act of murder.

            Sam argues that, just as there are times where killing is necessary, so is torture. Yet when society has deemed killing to be necessary it has created the legal framework to describe where it is permitted. That Sam rejects the possibility of a corresponding framework for torture is a strong indication that even he doesn’t see the parallel to be as comparable as he suggests.

            Cheers,

            b&

            1. Ben,

              I’m just catching up with these threads so pardon if you’ve answered this but…

              Your long, detailed responses appear (to me at least) to support Sam’s point, not to reject them. You’re providing excellent reasons why torture is impractical, counter-productive and immoral. I suspect that Sam agrees with most of these. What’s I think he’s saying is that we should remain open to the idea that there may be exceptions and that at some point, we should do immoral acts in order to achieve a greater moral good.

              In your answers, you seem to accept this and then argue that these exceptions probably don’t exist. That’s fine and I actually agree with you, but we’ve at least had the discussion, we’ve thought it through and if there comes a time when these objections are removed and we’re left with only the moral question, what then?

              In the end, I’m inclined to agree with you. Even if torture was practical, I think it is worth potentially letting people die to preserve our morals. It sounds callous and cruel but since we’re talking big picture, the morals and values of a society are what elevates us. People give their lives all the time to protect these values and we generally think this is how it should be. It sounds backwards to then sacrifice our values in order to save lives. It would betray countless more lives than it would save.

              But what if there is some case where torture really would work? We can’t condone it as a society, none of our officials could support it but one person could act as a scapegoat and, in order to save lives, do the unforgivable. We as a society can keep our moral stance by properly prosecuting this person as a monster.

              If you don’t like the torture example, I think this applies in many other places. I know how murky this gets and the world is full of self-righteous people who have broken ethical and legal rules then justified it in the name of the greater good and I bet that many of them were mistaken but is it wrong in principle or only in practice?

              1. What’s I think he’s saying is that we should remain open to the idea that there may be exceptions and that at some point, we should do immoral acts in order to achieve a greater moral good

                No, he’s saying that in such cases torture is moral. This is not a matter of violating some moral rule for some greater good — for Harris there simply aren’t any moral rules except maximize the greater good. If torturing someone helps the greater good, then it is moral — it’s not “doing something bad for a greater good”, it simply is good, period.

              2. I find hypothetically theorizing about the implications of the non-zero possibility of the existence of a moral form of torture to be even less useful than discussing what precise shade of green a Leprechaun would choose for his jacket.

                Is there a non-zero chance that Leprechauns may actually exist? Well, if you’re rounding to more than several dozen decimal places, I suppose. But what does that amount to beyond a sophomoric exercise in pointless pedantry?

                The torture argument not only consists of such positing the same sort of imaginary (but not actually theoretically absolutely impossible) phenomenon…but of thereby giving at least the semblance of consent to the worst, most immoral behavior possible.

                I’ve been avoiding these sorts of specifics, but I think the shock value is necessary, after all.

                What if you could cure ten people of pancreatic cancer by raping a toddler with a red-hot curling iron?

                Isn’t it at least theoretically hypothetically not impossible that it could be the case?

                And what, really, have I contributed to the discussion with that hypothetical example?

                What does the ticking time bomb scenario contribute to the discussion that the raping of young children with curling irons doesn’t?

                Both are, for all practical purposes, purely imaginary fictions that don’t actually have any bearing on the real world. Neither offers any practical guidance or insight for moral actions in the real world. And positing that either might be moral after all opens the door to unspeakable horrors.

                So, you tell me: is it worng in principle or only in practice to discuss the hypothetical advantages of raping children with curling irons? And what does it really matter either way?

                If somebody could manufacture a less-implausible scenario for raping children with curling irons, would you then concede that maybe it’s not such a bad idea after all? Would you suggest it should be an option to keep on the table for extreme circumstances that we hope we’ll never need?

                I really, truly, honestly hope your answer and the answer of all who reads these words is the most emphatic NO! imaginable.

                And I wish, though I know it not to be the case, that all would answer with the same NO! to the question of torture in general, both real and hypothetical.

                Cheers,

                b&

              3. @Ben

                I think you’re doing just what Harris said he’s seen from his critics and are getting blinded by the subject and not dealing with what he’s saying. I know you know how to deal with hypotheticals elsewhere so why is this so hard now?

                So, you tell me: is it worng in principle or only in practice to discuss the hypothetical advantages of raping children with curling irons? And what does it really matter either way?

                We happily inflict pain onto people in the name of medical treatment all the time. We consider this moral and even laudable. If we knew infants would be saved from a terminal illness but the procedure required inserting hot rods into them, you better believe that doctors and parents would queue up for it. It’s not just that we’re doing it to others – many people would sign up for this short-term pain if it had long-term gains.

                Now before you start frothing and calling me a baby rapist or a torturer, why don’t we just calm down and actually listen.

              4. @Tulse

                If torturing someone helps the greater good, then it is moral — it’s not “doing something bad for a greater good”, it simply is good, period.

                That’s absurd.

                He’s saying torture is immoral but maybe there are cases where doing something immoral leads to a greater good which could overrule this immorality. Like in trolly-ology, we’re loathe to shove a fat man off a bridge to stop a runaway tram and save five lives but what if we saved a thousand lives or a hundred thousand? Killing people, even fat people, is immoral but is this such an absolute law that we can’t imagine any exceptions?

                So to take this interesting and thorny issue and then rewrite it into a black-and-white, absolutist position is ridiculous.

              5. I know you know how to deal with hypotheticals elsewhere so why is this so hard now?

                But that’s just it. For a hypothetical to be useful, it must either be plausible or an example of a reducto.

                We have no real-world example of torture that I’ve ever been made aware of that are justifiable, and all the imaginary hypotheticals I’ve ever come across are as plausible as Bigfoot and Nessie.

                I mean, really? A terrorist is going to have the wherewithal and logistical resources to get a nuke to the heart of a city but isn’t going to be smart enough to use the same principles of proximity and remote detonation as the Taliban does for roadside IEDs? A cell-based terror network is going to let the guy who knows where the bomb is get captured? If captured, he won’t send the torturers on a wild goose chase for the five minutes left before the bomb goes off? And that wild goose chase won’t alert the fall-back observer that the cover has been blown and it’s time to blow the bomb ahead of schedule? Give me a break.

                The fact that the hypotheticals reduce to reductos should be enough to keep the conversation off the ground in the first place, especially combined with the perfectly tarnished actual real-world history of torture over the millennia. I can only speculate on why people persist in perpetuating the fantasy that torture is effective…and my speculations aren’t at all charitable.

                Cheers,

                b&

              6. He’s saying torture is immoral but maybe there are cases where doing something immoral leads to a greater good which could overrule this immorality

                That is not what his ethical system says. His utilitarianism evaluates the morality of an action solely on its outcome (how it affects human flourishing). There is no notion of inherent human rights or other abstract notions — the sole arbiter of morality is how is human flourishing impacted.

                Therefore, torture is most definitely not always immoral under such a view. It is not a matter of “it’s immoral in all cases, but it can be done for the greater good” — his ethical system really does say
                “if it enhances the greater good, then it is ethical”.

                If that’s not the case, then by what principle do you think that Harris would argue torture is inherently and always immoral?

            2. Ben Goren,

              Your claim here is completely without merit. Our legal system has long recognized that breaking the law is sometimes justified and ethical. We do not, and cannot, write explicit exceptions for all these cases into the law. There are general provisions in our criminal justice system to accommodate such cases: police and prosecutorial discretion, the necessity defense, jury nullification and executive pardon.

              I have to say, your comments in general here are full of this kind of thing. As far as I can tell, you haven’t actually addressed Harris’s argument at all. You just keep going off on these irrelevant digressions, and you screw up even those.

      2. Tacitly supporting certain possible instances, while claiming it ‘should remain illegal’ is extremely problematic, in that it endorses extra-legal activities by government. Then ‘rule of law’ is out the window, and any honest determination of when the law is to be violated becomes meaningless because if it is illegal, there cannot be any laws determining when you can do it.

        This is a much worse situation than actually having it legal under defined circumstances.

        1. Indeed.

          Which is worse: to suffer loss of life, or to embrace lawless tyranny?

          If it is worth revolution to stop your oppressors from imposing cruel and unusual punishments without even being given a free and fair trial beforehand, is it not also worth dying before becoming such an oppressor yourself?

          Personally, I won’t even consider Sam’s moral argument for torture unless he prefaces it by stipulating that the person to be tortured must first be granted the same due process one would give to anybody else accused of a heinous crime. If he thinks there might still be some hypothetical utility to torture after the conclusion of the trial, then we can start the discussion.

          Cheers,

          b&

          1. I don’t think Sam is thinking in terms of due process which is an official stance. In fact, he makes it clear that the torturer should face severe punishment and it should remain illegal.

            Maybe I’m misreading you but your langauge makes me think you’re saying that torture should be illegal. But Sam is *also* saying this. He’s just also saying there are times when individuals may be justified in breaking moral and legal laws to serve a greater good and they should expect to be punished, not rewarded.

            1. he makes it clear that the torturer should face severe punishment

              But why? If a torturer does an act which increases the greater good, why punish him or her? Why not instead celebrate the torturer as a hero, as we tend to do those who significantly increase the greater good?

              A utilitarian can’t act as if torture is somehow inherently bad, only to be approved of in extreme situations. Torture is bad or good solely based on its outcomes in such a system. Harris seems to be shying away from this inevitable consequence of his ethical principles, however.

              1. I don’t know that I follow your point. Are you saying that law should be entirely based on morals, so murder is legal and laudable if we kill unpleasant people?

                Or do you imagine that this is what Harris is arguing?

                Either way, it’s childish and bizarre. If you think it’s Sam’s positions, it’s a colossal straw man. If it’s your own view, our views on morals and legality are so far at odds, you’d have to write a book to explain your thinking.

              2. Murder is illegal, but self-defense is usually an acceptable mitigation. Why doesn’t similar apply here? I really don’t understand why Harris feels a torturer should face “severe punishment” if their act is for the greater good. Again, it seems like he is trying to have his deontological cake and eat it too.

    2. I thought the argument for justifiable torture in “The End of Faith” was rather lame, in that it seemed to assume that torture was useful for extracting reliable information from prisoners. My understanding is that it is rather unreliable.

      If it were reliable, we’d have an ethical dilemma about whether to use it to save lives. But if it’s not a reliable way to extract information, then there is no dilemma — it’s just wrong.

  4. I agree. While I’m not entirely persuaded by Dr Harris’ position, that’s because I’m not entirely persuaded by his wholesale adoption of utilitarianism/consequentialism. Given his consequentialist premises, I agree that he has a point with his comparison of torture and collateral damage. People who dismiss him out of hand for his views on torture are as dogmatic as many theists.

    1. I don’t disagree with Harris’ position, but his position relies on incredibly unlikely conditions like incredibly dire threat, strength of evidence, and means of checking accuracy (asking for the password to a computer), none of which are as likely as Harris seems to think.

      For one thing, people with that kind of intel are usually really dedicated and unwilling to give themselves up alive, much less talk to the hated enemy, so we just don’t ever have that situation outside of TV and imagination, and when we do, they respond surprisingly well to being treated nicely, CAUSE THEY THINK WE ARE DEMONS WHO, LIKE, BREATH FIRE AND EAT BABIES.

      The really unlikely thing, though, the thing that is unrealistic in the extreme, is that the torturer would be acting against the law with the full knowledge that s/he would be prosecuted and put away for a very long time. That is not even remotely the case. The U.S. encourages soldiers to act in this manner, and refuses to charge even the worst offenders with any crime.

      In the real world, the U.S. has no check to ensure even mildly reasonable appropriateness, as the recent Wikileaks on how teenagers, journalists, and seniors were kept at Gitmo for years for being mere bystanders.

      And in all fairness Harris is not talking about the real world, he’s talking about his narrow imaginary world. But he didn’t write for academics; he wrote a popular polemic for an American audience. What the hell did he think his words would be interpreted as? Of course people read “torture can be justified in principle” as “Yes, the U.S. is in the right.”

      tl;dr Harris is right, but he shouldn’t have made the argument in The End of Faith. He should apologize, and he should condemn the American reign of torture, which he has done, so he’s still right.

      1. his position relies on incredibly unlikely conditions like incredibly dire threat, strength of evidence, and means of checking accuracy

        But why does the threat have to be all that dire? What precisely is the utilitarian calculus here? Why couldn’t it be justifiable to torture in non-dire circumstances, as long as the equations tell you that would maximize overall human flourishing?

        As I said above, I honestly don’t understand the squeamishness here — if Harris is genuinely committed to his consequentialist, utilitarian position, then there is absolutely no reason to act like torture is some special moral case that can only be contemplated in the most dire of edge cases. What if torturing tax cheats results in such a decrease in illegally avoided taxes that government revenue for vital programs is greatly increased? Isn’t it possible that such situation might be better for overall human flourishing?

        Harris is importing deontological ethics into the situation when he says that it is only the most dire cases that would warrant torture. If he were really committed to the full implications of his ethics, he would acknowledge that torture might potentially be justified in all sorts of cases, and not just in the ticking time bomb scenario.

        1. The threat has to be extremely dire to compensate for the loss of moral respectability. After all we’re fighting a war for the hearts and minds. The moral high road is everything (or nearly so).

          One does not need deontology to recognize that arbitrarily killing* 1 innocent person to save 5 is wrong; one only needs to recognize that such actions will have consequences like extreme distrust and fear of authority, that will lead to a break down of society that is not worth 4 more lives saved.

          In fact, your argument itself is a prime example of why torture should not be justified lightly, even in principle: because people (especially those with vested interests) will extend the justified grounds to all kinds of instances on the flimsiest of reasons. It’s a slippery slope.

          1. The threat has to be extremely dire to compensate for the loss of moral respectability

            That is circular, since if we all adopted Harris’ ethics, as he wants us to, torture would not be morally suspect. Again, you are importing the deontological position.

            One does not need deontology to recognize that arbitrarily killing* 1 innocent person to save 5 is wrong

            Why, if it increases human flourishing? (That criterion takes into account all the stuff about distrust and fear of authority.)

            1. “If we all adopted Harris’ ethics” is the key clause of your argument that refutes itself. In the mean time, we ought to accept humanity for what it is and try to make it better, not pretend humanity already is as we wish it were.

              “Why, if it increases human flourishing?”

              I just made a consequentialist argument that the distrust and fear and results of such would outweigh the four lives saved – that it would inhibit rather than facilitate human flourishing. Was I not clear?

              1. You were clear — I thought I covered that precise point by noting that such issues are covered by the “human flourishing” criterion. In other words, one cannot simply declare by fiat that fear and distrust would outweigh the benefits, one has to actually measure the total impact on flourishing. I think it is reasonable to argue that it may well be that killing 1 to save 5 increases flourishing in all sorts of scenarios, factoring in such things as fear and distrust. If that were the case, would you argue that such is moral? For example, if one could harvest enough organs from one healthy person to save 5 others, should that be forcibly done?

              2. For example, if one could harvest enough organs from one healthy person to save 5 others, should that be forcibly done?

                I think I’ve made it clear how my own moral calculus would forbid such action from being forcibly taken. Whether or not it would be moral for the one to volunteer for such a radical self-sacrifice would be debatable; it would depend a great deal on the actual circumstances.

                And I think you’ve done a good job of making clear the point that, in Sam’s moral calculus, the one shouldn’t even be given a chance to object.

                Now, I ask all readers: which moral calculus would you prefer your neighbors use? Which moral calculus is it therefore in your own best interests to adopt and promote?

                Cheers,

                b&

              3. Distrust and fear of authority are not only bad because they feel bad; they are bad because they lead people to behave differently, like refuse to come to the hospital when sick, or shoot police officers they fear will kill them.

                If the news reported that you might get harvested next time you come in for heart surgery, nobody would come in for anything, ever (an exaggeration maybe, but you get the point). Four lives would be saved at the cost of millions when all is said and done – cause you realize if this were official policy it would have momentum and even when it was reversed it would take a long time for people to trust again.

                There is no question in a consequentialist mindset, if you consider the effects of your actions, that harvesting innocent people without their consent will facilitate human flourishing.

              4. There is no question in a consequentialist mindset, if you consider the effects of your actions, that harvesting innocent people without their consent will facilitate human flourishing.

                But, just to clarify, if it did facilitate human flourishing, we should disregard consent when harvesting organs from live “donors”?

              5. Yes, Tulse. But if gravity didn’t apply then we could disregard the Earth. Hypotheticals contrary to fact are nonsense.

              6. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of nonsense. I mean, my pic comes from Alice in Wonderland for crying out loud lol

              7. Miles, there is vigorous discussion as to whether torture working is also a hypothetical contrary to fact. It is precisely by testing such cases that we determine the shape of an ethical system.

              8. It may be a topic of great debate, but those in favor of coercive interrogation have not dealt with the arguments that appropriate cases are incredibly rare, it is ineffective, it is counter-effective, and it is often a flimsy excuse for a reign of oppression as the Wikileaks release on Gitmo recently demonstrates.

                All we’ve heard from the pro-torture side is that it is useful in contrived hypotheticals. Well fine, in the mean time can we agree to get started on charging all those U.S. personnel involved in torture conducted under any conditions other than those contrived idealizations? Cause that would be all personnel involved in torture period.

              9. “All we’ve heard from the pro-torture side is that it is useful in contrived hypotheticals. Well fine, in the mean time can we agree to get started on charging all those U.S. personnel involved in torture conducted under any conditions other than those contrived idealizations? Cause that would be all personnel involved in torture period.”

                How is it you still do not show understanding that even if we find torture was justified in some cases in which it was done, that doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t prosecute the torturers. How many times does it have to be said?

                I see the anti-torture deontologists as major obstacles to reducing actual harm done in this world. Most American military and law enforcement types and politicians would be willing to torture in a nuclear ticking bomb case, like most civilians. The anti-torture arguments they hear either amount to “doing that makes me feel icky, and having you do that makes me feel icky” or are dissembling transparently derived from motivated skepticism rather than a real search for the truth.

                People who actually would let millions die in the unlikely hypotheticals in question bring disrepute to the anti-torture side of the argument.

              10. Brian, you quoted me, yet nothing you said seemed addressed to me.

                I am not a deontologist, and I have argued in this very thread that torture leads to more negative consequences than positive ones.

                Nor have I argued against coercive interrogation in the contrived hypotheticals suggested by Harris.

                I have argued that the question before us is whether we should scale back torture to at least those levels, and my answer is a resounding yes.

        2. If he were really committed to the full implications of his ethics, he would acknowledge that torture might potentially be justified in all sorts of cases, and not just in the ticking time bomb scenario.

          I think your observation points to what I see as the greatest failing of Sam’s approach to morality.

          He still sees it as a top-down, skyhook-style phenomenon. There are, he posits, positions on the moral landscape that are superior to others, and our object is to let down a rope from the lofty heights to lift up those in the valleys.

          Rather, I contend, morality must be the same sort of bottom-up emergent process as everything else evolutionary.

          That is, morality is best viewed as an optimal individual strategy (in the game theory sense) for living. And, in such a light, it’s trivial to see how torture is sub-optimal and therefore immoral. Profoundly so, as it happens.

          Specifically, you really, really, really don’t want to live in a society in which you or those you care about might be subjected to torture. By adopting an inviolate universal ban on torture, you dramatically lessen your own chances of being tortured. If you go ahead and torture or condone torture, then you increase your own chances of being tortured.

          Now, add in the fact that, in practice, torture virtually never has anything to do with legitimate intelligence gathering and is almost always about subjugation and power — and that you don’t want to have anything at all to do with all the rest of the baggage that goes along with a society that condones torture…well, isn’t it quite obvious?

          I strongly feel that the most important moral rule to follow is to not do things to people that they don’t want done to them, except as minimally necessary to prevent them from doing things to others that they don’t want done to them.

          If you could make a solid case that the person in your custody is about to do something to a bunch of people that those people don’t want to do to them, and that torturing said person is the least-worst thing you can do to prevent it from happening, you’ve found a moral reason for torture.

          Note that that’s not the ticking time bomb scenario. In the ticking time bomb scenario, the deed has already been done, and you’re looking for a way to mitigate the damage. But the bad guy is already in your custody and no longer poses any threat (else you’ve got other worries than trying to tape the electrodes to his retracting testicles).

          Rather, it would be a choice a sniper has between shooting an enemy soldier in the head or in the leg. Your choices are to let the enemy live while he kills you and the rest of your team; killing him; and horribly maiming him (assuming, of course, that you’re that good of a sniper). The exception permits you to take action to stop him from killing you and your friends, but restricts you to the lesser of evils if there’s a choice to be made.

          Cheers,

          b&

          1. “By adopting an inviolate universal ban on torture, you dramatically lessen your own chances of being tortured.”

            “Adopting an inviolate universal ban” doesn’t mean anything. Arguing that torture is always wrong is an action. Making it illegal even when it seems right is an action. Shunning torturers is an action.

            Adopting an inviolate universal ban is not an action.

            You might as well adopt the strategy of “painting torture loud and ticklish with cilantro”. It’s meaningless.

  5. I have also come across people who refuse to even read Sam on anything because “he’s the guy who says torture is okay”. Of course, Sam never said anything of the sort.

    It’s a simple-minded tactic to excuse not even trying to read his work; and I sometimes wonder whether it’s genuine; or really just code for “Sam is too difficult for me to read.” Their loss; Sam has always provoked me to think about things in a new way, even if I don’t agree with him. Perhaps especially when I don’t agree with him.

    In the end I still think I disagree with him about torture, but the discussion was worth having if only to make people think about why they agree that it should never happen.

    1. I’ve read a few pieces posts by people who don’t bother to criticize Harris’ arguments and just dismiss him out of hand. Ed Brayton comes to mind.

      scienceblogs.com/dispatches/2011/05/hitchens_harris.php

      Ed is a “real world” guy, who writes a lot about politics, so I think a lot of this dismissal is from an assumption that an argument for torture in the American media is inevitably an argument for U.S. torture as currently practiced.

      And it’s not a bad assumption. I mean, American is torturing people right now, so it’s hardly an academic issue. I’d even go so far as to say it is impossible to make an academic argument about torture in the current atmosphere. Impossible. It will devolve from academic to political by the 1st comment on the post.

  6. The issue of torture is a classic moral dilemma with basic values in competition, in this case between our commitment to humane treatment of prisoners and the desire to avoid the deaths of perhaps thousands and millions of innocents. There is no obvious reason the former should always trump the latter, should they be in conflict, which is the premise of the dilemma.

    One thing to notice here related to the thesis of The Moral Landscape is that science doesn’t provide us with a solution to value conflict. The issue gets resolved by how the values themselves duke it out in our brains and moral discourse in light of imagining possible outcomes.

    1. “The issue of torture is a classic moral dilemma with basic values in competition…”

      It’s usually not. Most of what is said against torture is that it isn’t effective. That’s why it’s so obvious the critics are misguided.

      1. And not just ineffective, but counter-effective from a standpoint of saving lives as it inflames resistance among those who are so frustrated they’ve gone into the terrorism business.

        The only people who reliably profit from torture are those who wish to rule through fear, through a reign of terror. It is maddening that the imperial mindset can disguise itself as concern for human welfare.

    2. Agreed.

      I happen to think that the best result is to say that torture isn’t acceptable under any circumstances but if I believed torture was effective, I could imagine admitting exceptions. I can also imagine that others will reach different conclusions and so I support debate and discussion.

  7. I haven’t read “the end of faith” but as I understand it from his article, the flaw in his “collateral damage” argument is that it assumes its at least as bad to be killed as to be tortured. That doesn’t make any sense. It sucks to be tortured. It doesn’t suck to be dead.

    1. “It sucks to be tortured. It doesn’t suck to be dead.”
      That’s not a very good argument.
      Most victims of collateral damage are not killed but maimed. And those that are killed leave behind families that will suffer from their loss.
      I never really read Harris’ initial ‘End of Faith’ torture question as an advocacy of widespread torture or even an advocacy of limited torture, rather I saw it as a way of highlighting the problems with the widespread acceptance collateral damage (of poor foreigners).

  8. I don’t always agree with Harris, but the reason that I often quibble over his arguments is they are usually nuanced, including variables and shades of gray. Those that want their “good” and “bad” packaged with a bow aren’t comfortable wading throw the arguments and the hard questions required to consider a distasteful idea. Sam is.
    For the record, I detest drone warfare and find it immoral in the extreme. Not only does it make us, as a nation, lack the courage of our convictions (however misguided) when we go to “war” in this way, but as Harris says we are slaughtering innocents. If I had the type of evidence one could use to convict in court that someone knew of an attack and could kill my family or multitudes, would I consider torture? Um, yes? Probably? Maybe…? I think we have forgotten how often harm or at least some violence seems to be the best worst option. I am talking extreme, last resort options, not our current military craziness.

  9. OK, so now thanks to Harris, I will consider that- under set circumstances- it may be ETHICAL.

    But, has anyone ever proved that torture actually WORKS?

  10. Torture works: the police, in almost all countries, torture, but they don’t tell us about it. If it didn’t work, they wouldn’t torture.

    Here’s an example (the section entitled: Case Study: the Beating), in which torture both works and is justifiable.

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/torture/

    1. If it didn’t work, they wouldn’t torture.

      Indeed.

      Torture is a quick and easy way for a corrupt, amoral regime to get people to say what it wants them to say. That’s what they regard as “working”.

      Some people don’t believe forcing confessions should be the goal of a justice system. Instead, they’re interested in getting to the truth, something torture is less helpful at doing.

    2. Surely people wouldn’t believe in religion unless it was true? I mean, there’s so many of them! And they’re all so fervent!

      Nevertheless, the ‘Beating’ (Case Study 3.1, about four tenths down the page) example is, well, interesting.

      Ben Goren earlier stated something I rather agree with, namely:

      “If you could make a solid case that the person in your custody is about to do something to a bunch of people that those people don’t want to do to them, and that torturing said person is the least-worst thing you can do to prevent it from happening, you’ve found a moral reason for torture.”

      The example of a suspect known to have driven off in a car with an infant, abandoned it and who then refused to reveal its location, though the infant was certain to die from heat shock, appears to meet the above criterion.

  11. To open this can of worms even further, if torture is to be regarded as ethical (though illegal) under some set of circumstances, then we cannot fault others for torturing our own under similar circumstances. For example, would it have been ethical, given all the hubris of “shock and awe”, for the Iraqi military to have captured and tortured US military personnel to discover invasion plans and try and prevent collateral damage to their own people?

    It is relatively easy for us to think about the possibility of torturing someone we regard as evil in order to avert collateral damage to our own. Are we as comfortable viewing the argument from the other side?

    1. I wouldn’t have blamed them. I wouldn’t have blamed them one bit. We do worse things on the presumption that we think maybe people have potential evidence of possible terrorist activities- not even real evidence (not what Sam is talking about at all- he’s not rationalizing what the US has actually carried out) but what you’re talking about? That country has been ravaged by our government! I would not blame them for torturing one of our CIA operatives to get information prior to our attack on Iraq…

  12. Ethical arguments that require fantasy land settings of perfect knowledge and precise circumstances is a vapid parlor game. You can make up many situations where I think one might be compelled to do any number of horrific things, so what?

    And where is the evidence for Harris’ assertion that I (or any other person who thinks torture is always wrong) rank barbarity–“necessary” or otherwise–in our heads, with torture Most Worst and cluster bombs, I dunno, Very Bad? We can keep playing his game of equivalence-by-consequences until I assert that torturing a suspected terrorist is the same thing as not sending a check to vaccinate a child in the developing world, thus saving them from extensive suffering and death.

  13. Harris says: “We will never torture anyone under any circumstances unless we are certain, beyond all reasonable doubt, that the person in our custody has operational knowledge of an imminent act of nuclear terrorism.”

    The first clause is misput, it seems to me: torture can not be justified by the knowledge of the victim but must be justified as whether, beyond all reasonable doubt, torture will extract the true information the tortured has access to. To torture without certainty that torture will extract the information is the issue, not certainty about what the person knows. I think he just has this wrong.

    1. Torture provides the person being tortured with only one incentive – the cessation of pain. If the person has “certain knowledge of an imminent act of nuclear terrorism”, then odds are the person sees it as an undeniably good act. If they’re equivocating in their support for the act, then there are far more effective interrogation techniques.

      So the person being tortured has two options – (1) tell the torturers how to stop the act (and stop the torture, at least for a bit), (2) hold out long enough for the act to occur, or (3) send the torturers on a wild goose chase. While both options 1 and 3 stop the pain, 3 manages to stop the pain while still achieving the operational goal.

      It seems to me that the odds of getting good intel are likely to be inversely proportional to urgency. Option 3 has the greatest gain if the window in which the event will take place is similar to the amount of time it will take to follow the false trail.

      It’s also worth noting that, from the perspective of the torture victim, there’s no pay-off for option 1 unless you trust your torturers to stop torturing you after you give them that one bit of info. If you believe that they are evil enough to deserve being the victims of a nuclear attack, and you have had this belief reinforced by their decision to use torture, you aren’t going to trust them…

      So, it seems to me that Harris’ scenario would be one of the worst times to use torture (though, of course, I may be wrong…)

      1. “If you believe that they are evil enough to deserve being the victims of a nuclear attack, and you have had this belief reinforced by their decision to use torture, you aren’t going to trust them…”

        Just to pick one thing to respond to, I think you’re projecting here. It’s not true for every society at present, or at least in history, or at least in possibility, that the decision to torture makes the captive think the captors are more evil than he had thought.

        It’s also not true of every individual in any society.

        Not to generalize from fictional evidence (or anecdote), but don’t you think there are some Sergeant Barnes types who see the decision not to torture as weakness?

        In general, this is another unsatisfying anti-torture argument in which someone relies on the limits of his or her imagination. Maybe there’s a fourth option you’re not thinking of. Maybe even though the prisoner only can think of three options, there are more that he is actually selecting from, some of which he conflates into one of the options you listed.

  14. Ah, the police… And I recall all the false confessions that have been extracted from people who have subsequently gone to gaol while the true perpetrators have gone free… Yes, torture works all too well! If only things were as simple as you seem to suggest – you get your man, you know it was him, you torture him not so much to make sure as to prove to others you were right, and – lo and behold! – he spills all the beans you wanted him to! What a luvverly life! You can’t lose!

  15. I read Sam’s article on his website and was glad he posted it- glad also that you are posting it. I read ‘The End of Faith’ and did not agree with his position but thought he was at least trying to think through the possibilities which is more than one can say for others. Every time I bump into an atheist who dislikes Sam Harris or Hitchens, they have the same knee jerk response. Not a “well, I disagree with him on the torture thing but beyond that…” You’d think it was the only thing either man had said and that they made policy on it. It isn’t and they don’t, they merely state their opinion. It’s quite astonishing. Yet, somehow we manage to elect political leaders into the white house and congress and never ask them what their official position is on torture or ask and then get quite the opposite!

    I’m not quite sure why it’s so important what Harris believes or doesn’t believe about torture that people react so violently but I do think he makes some valid arguments that are worth more than a knee jerk response.

    1. It’s especially bizarre how the one gnu atheist who supported the Iraq war, Hitchens, and the one who supports torture in theory, Harris, get mashed together to create the imperialist colonialist fascist New Atheist Position. Harris opposed and still opposes having engaged in the Iraq war, Hitchens opposes all torture, even in theory, so there is no actual human holding the position (singular) attributed to them.

      Of course, commonly missed is Harris’ belief that torture should be illegal, but the Frankenstein position isn’t a misunderstanding due to stupidity, it’s simple intellectual dishonesty.

      1. I am afraid I disagree with you Brian. I don’t think Sam is being intellectually dishonest. I think you are saying that it’s either good or bad and should used or not used. I think if torture is illegal then it is used only in dire and extreme circumstances only and the person okaying the use of torture would know there would be consequences to using it and would either be sure to have the evidence supporting his/her claims or would be damn sure that punishment would be worth it. In other words they would decide that jail time or the death penalty would be worth the price- which it might be if you knew you were saving many lives. I think the illegality of torture keeps the weight of justice on the side of the justice. The problem with torture generally is that it is used with impunity and no consequences to the person meting out the torture. That is the part of his equation that everyone ignores.

        1. I’m pretty sure you misread what I said. It’s the critics of Harris and Hitchens who are dishonest.

  16. “Harris believes that torture … is sometimes a moral imperative, or at least ethical.”

    That argument is petty and trivial. You can say exactly the same thing about ANY conceivable act – that if one uses a little imagination, one can invent a circumstance where it would be justified.

    1. That’s actually not true.

      Many people in this very thread do not have such expansive imaginations. Not only that, they take their inability to think of such a circumstance as proof that no one else can.

      If everyone were like you, the argument would be petty and trivial, but surprisingly, it sin’t!

  17. Torture is never ethical. However, it may sometimes be necessary.

    And here is the problem: the difference between justice and morality.

    It is difficult for me to really comment much on Harris, because like many, I haven’t fully read or studied his books, they’re always somewhere at the bottom of the reading list.

    Harris makes me uneasy in many of the things he persists in saying, but that does not make what he says false. I think what Harris says is often very clear and logical.

    I think the subject of morality is not something that is very clear or even logical, because I think it’s based on sympathy.

    I also think justice is a separate subject to morality, and equally complex and nuanced.

    I don’t think these things are so easy to explain nor so black and white. And I think that is why many find something uncomfortable about Harris’s approach to the subject.

    1. How do you justify a ‘sometimes necessary’? Torture is a tool to make people say what the torturer wants, not a tool for extracting truth. Some people may cave in and reveal information, but the torturer has to be really lucky. Professional interrogators know better ways of getting information and also understand that if they cannot get the information they want, torture is extremely unlikely to succeed.

  18. I am very disappointed with Harris’ response, especially the “it should be talked about, but I don’t want to be the one to do it”. It seems profoundly disingenuous.

    But then again, I find his main position on this matter to be disingenuous. The question is not whether Harris thinks that torture is wrong, but why, given his ethical framework, that he thinks it isn’t right. That is, why is he so squeamish?

    The typical moral opposition to torture takes the deontological stance that some actions are always beyond the pale, simply because human beings are moral agents worthy of some essential consideration. But Harris is a utilitarian, and he doesn’t have those kind of moral rules to fall back on. His concern is solely with maximizing human flourishing in total. Given that, it is certainly possible that states which engage in routine torture could increase flourishing more than those that don’t (yes this is a hypothetical, but so is the “ticking time bomb” scenario). For example, if police routinely tortured murderers, perhaps there would be far fewer murders — this is presumably an empirical question, and one that Harris should be willing to ask. And if the answer is “yes”, presumably Harris should say that such police behaviour is more moral than not torturing.

    In other words, Harris should not be treating torture as if it somehow a hot potato that is only possibly justifiable in extreme circumstances. And he most definitely should not be running away from discussion of it, because if his ethical stand actually does justify torture, that is an extremely important consequence that should be clear.

    As I see it, Harris is happy to co-opt utilitarianism for the sheen of objectivity and apparent measurability, but is not intellectually honest enough to follow its principles to the inevitable implications that have traditionally been found to be morally repugnant and contrary to our ethical intuitions. (Contrast his work to Peter Singer, who starts with certain principle and runs out all their implications, even those that are so contrary to our standard morality that they seem absurdly wrong, such as the approval of infanticide.)

  19. I don’t know if Harris is suffering an ethical lapse, or if I’m missing his point, or if I’m the one who needs to rethink the ethical point. I feel like torture and collateral damage exist in several separate ethical spaces at the same time, depending on whose ethics we’re talking about. Are we talking about the ethics of the torturer, the person ordering the torture, or the society that accepts torture as ethically justifiable? And under what circumstances? Collateral damage has the same sort of situational dilemmas, and issues about who bears what part of the blame. If I were back with my artillery unit and we return fire at a military target and some civilians get killed in the crossfire, it would be a horrible thing but on some level unintentional. It would be a more horrible thing if you were attacking on foot and put civilians in your crosshairs and pulled the trigger. If you capture someone and they are no immediate threat to you, and you execute them, there’s no question that it is murder. So why would it be OK to nearly kill them to get information out of them?

    If you’re going to argue that torture is the lesser of two evils, you’re admitting that torture is still an evil, and needs to be punished swiftly and to the fullest extent. That is to say, in a hypothetical that I would be willing to hurt someone to get what I want from them, it should be worth MY suffering as well, in the form of whatever lawful punishment I might receive.

    1. If you’re thinking about torture and “collateral damage” in the same context, you need to bear in mind that since torture is likely to provide inaccurate intel, that you (the torturer) is predisposed to believe (confirmation bias, need to justify your decision to torture), it should be obvious that the odds of torture increasing collateral damage should be considered to be at least as great as the odds of it reducing collateral damage.

      1. Perhaps the person deciding to torture could be made legally responsible, and the one doing not so.

        Or perhaps my first thought in response to the issue you raised is stupid, in which case say so (for example, notice it only mentions legality and not morality, which can’t obviously be as easily redistributed).

        However, *my* inability to solve this problem that you raised in two seconds would not prove that no solution exists or that no one could ever solve it because I’m not that smart. I know this.

        Even if you’re smarter than I am, your inability to solve the problems you think up does not mean they are insoluble.

  20. To what extent, incidentally, is Harris using the example of torture to criticise people’s easy acquiescence in ‘collateral damage’ – an acquiescence that I see Karzai has bitterly criticised in his remarks on the killing of bin Ladin, saying that bin Ladin was in Pakistan all the while as American drones cheerfully blew up wedding parties, etc.? If he is using the example of torture to make that point, then I have no objection; but if he is only making that point in order to bolster the assertion that under certain circumstances torture is ‘ethical’, then we should surely feel rather doubtful. What, here, does ‘ethical’ mean? ‘Necessary in the circumstances in order to bring about the greatest measure of well-being possible in the situation?’ Well, yes, I can think of circumstances where I might torture somebody, though it would not be in the cool manner in which they waterboarded Khalid however many hundred times it was, but in heat brought about by, for example, someone’s having kidnapped my wife – and in such a circumstance I wouldn’t even begin to consider whether what I was doing was ethical or not, and what is more I don’t think that in such a case questions of ethics arise to any important degree; my reaction is however understandable. Where a question of ethics would arise, however, would surely be if I followed John Woo’s advice and instead of wreaking my fear and anger on the perpetrator, were to take his little son and coldly crush his testicles.

  21. I thought Sam wrote a great piece. Sadly, the comments on his article (not here) are largely ignorant and seem as though they didn’t even read the article.

  22. Until someone actually points out what is wrong with the “collateral damage argument” presented in The End of Faith,…

    1) It’s a completely phony scenario, which has practically no relation to reality.

    2) It requires making an advance decision of guilt, which runs directly against the “innocent until proven guilty” dictum of our justice system.

    3) Torture is not an effective means of getting accurate information. Hitchens knows this, as he submitted himself to waterboarding, which Harris has never done. Using torture, you can make anyone admit to anything. Thus, you cannot be insured that the information you obtain is accurate. If Harris claims otherwise, he takes upon himself guilt for the Inquisition and the witch hunts of past eras.

    4) Empirical evidence backing up the statements of point 3. No examples of useful actionable information obtained by torture of terror suspects has been provided; although false statements to the contrary have been made by apologists for the previous administration.

  23. To argue that torture may sometimes be ethically justified is not to argue that it should ever be legal (crimes like trespassing or theft may sometimes be ethical, while we all have interest in keeping them illegal). . .

    Ahem: What? Does Harris think that agents of the USA who use torture should be prosecuted for it? Or not? Because if not, he is indeed saying that it should be legal.

    1. He has generally said it should be illegal.

      We could tell CIA agents: “If you torture you will be sent to jail”, and be happy in the knowledge they would *still* torture the location of a ticking nuclear weapon out of a suspect, because they damn well would.

      If humans are biased towards using torture even when it is not best (we are), then we can counter that be penalizing it to the extent necessary such that it is only used when using it is the right decision.

    2. Exactly. Harris wants to have it both ways – it shouldn’t be illegal but he makes an “argument for the limited use of coercive interrogation.”

      So which is it? Does he want it used extra-legally? Or does he want lawmakers to agree with him that it would be useful on a limited scale – and make it legal?

      I think it’s just a craven little out he carved for himself: I’m only making an ARGUMENT for the limited use of torture – I didn’t say I wanted it to be LEGAL!

      And his whining about the inconvenience of having made a pro-torture argument (limited use is still pro-torture) and then being called to account for it in detail is laughable.

      I’d find his work useful if he impressed me with his arguments – but concerning his arguments for torture and for the unique evil of Islam compared to all other religions I am most certainly not impressed.

      Maybe his work as a neuroscientist is more impressive than his hit-and-run opining – maybe he should stick with that. Maybe through brain scanning he could develop methods to glean information from terrorist suspects without torture.

      Now THAT would be useful.

      1. Harris isn’t trying to have one thing both ways. The problem is that your mental map of reality is smaller than reality, just as all people’s are and most maps are smaller than the territories they represent.

        Your mental map has “should be legal” and “is morally right” in the same place, which is often fine because in reality they are close together. Similarly, on a folding map of the USA my house is represented by the same pixel of color as many others far away in my city.

        This is a feature of the map, not of the territory of reality. It’s important I not get confused and think I live in the same location as people in other houses near me (it could get awkward if I barged in unexpectedly).

        Expand your mental map to be more fine grained, so it can represent situations in which what should be legal is not what is moral. The appearance of there being only one thing is an illusion resulting from your mistaking your mental map for reality.

        1. I’m sorry, but I can’t make any sense out of your response. I am thoroughly aware of the distinction between morality and law, and that appears to me to be a complete red herring.

          Do you, and Sam Harris, think that the agents who carry out the torture in the extremely unrealistic ticking bomb scenario should be prosecuted or not? Answer the question please, instead of gibbering on about maps.

          1. “I am thoroughly aware of the distinction between morality and law”

            The distinction between map and territory is more important, and I am sorry I am not better at explaining it.

            “Do you, and Sam Harris, think that the agents who carry out the torture in the extremely unrealistic ticking bomb scenario should be prosecuted or not?”

            I can’t speak for him in this, but legal systems are sufficiently complex that I don’t think there is a straight answer.

            That’s partly because a “yes” isn’t strong enough, considering the realities of prosecutor discretion, jury trials and presidential pardons. Most people would acquit the torturer, (which is one reason it is just to save a city full of them by torturing), and if convicted the torturer would be pardoned; it’s a Sherman pledge situation.

            It’s partly because “yes” is too strong – in normal legal cases, consequences are routinely considered.

            Finally, the law has complex bends that can’t even be categorized so simply. There are more restrictions on limits to free speech if authorities attempt to suppress it ahead of time, and fewer if they allow the speaker to say his piece, and then arrest him. A legal scheme recognizing torture’s occasional morality might refuse to ever endorse it ahead of time, and only examine the decision afterward. Similarly, the Supreme Court refuses to comment on the constitutionality of drafts of laws. Most importantly, my inability to think of things doesn’t mean they don’t exist. If I can’t think of a scenario under which it is justified, or a way to fairly treat officers who make what is apparently the moral decision to torture, that is a fact about my limitations and not about reality’s.

            The proper negative effect for an officer who made the right decision when he decided to torture ought to be enough to prevent torture being used when it is not right to do so. It would need a unique scheme, not exactly prosecution but probably including forced immediate early retirement at minimum.

            I hope you are able to understand analogies and nuance in general, and it’s just me being unclear that’s preventing you from understanding me. Because this is how I find just about all moral questions to be in reality, as complex as this and not simple enough for a bumper sticker.

            “Never torture” is a better bumper sticker than “always torture” or “often torture”, if that’s what you’re asking.

            Incidentally, I endorse Israel’s death penalty as close to ideal: there is none, except for Eichmann for whom they made an exception.

            I’m pro-torture the way I am pro death-penalty: in theory, yes, in practice, very rarely, as America does it: um, no.

        2. What I think Brian is implying is that actions can be just without being moral, or can be moral without being just. On the one hand we’re dealing with laws of a society, on the other hand with individual situations.

          More relevantly, by saying the torture should be illegal even though it is a very few cases moral, one increases the probability that torture shall be limited to those few cases, as the torturer must counterbalance its necessity against their eventual punishment.

          Personally, I’d say that that the actions of the police who tortured the suspect in the ticking bomb were unjust, illegal and immoral but nevertheless necessary. They should be punished, if not damned.

  24. I consider it to be one of the more dangerous ironies of liberal discourse that merely discussing the possibility of torturing a man like Osama bin Laden provokes more outrage than the maiming and murder of children ever does.

    Wait – is that true? Does Harris know it’s true? Is there any reason to think it’s true?

    I think this is one reason he gets a lot of flak – he has a tendency to make statements like that.

    1. Another excellent point. Just who ARE these dastardly liberal discourse-mongers and their callous disregard for maimed and murdered children?

      It sure is easy to make an argument when all you have to do is pull it right out of your ass.

    2. There’s another problem with his complaint: presumably, the maiming and murdering of children is being done by the bad guys, and the torturing is what the good guys do to the bad guys in an effort to stop them.

      But that falls down pretty quickly: we are not responsible for the actions of the bad guys, even if they succeed in doing bad things despite our best attempts to stop them. We are, however, directly responsible for the bad things we do to the bad guys.

      And if all that distinguishes the good guys from the bad guys is that the bad guys are killing children with suicide bombs while the good guys are killing children with Predator drones (but only as collateral damage, to be sure) and kidnapping and torturing their parents, I’m afraid the distinction between “good” and “bad” is one of tribalism, not morality.

      The distinction should be obvious to Sam, of all people.

      Cheers,

      b&

    3. Harris has a propensity to make black-and-white, with us or against us simplifications of the sort I do not admire in persons of certain political persuasions.

  25. If it’s demonstrable that torture can effective in some very limited and extreme circumstances then I think Harris’ argument that it might sometimes be morally justified is sound. Since we aren’t considering legality we don’t have to think of security situations exclusively. Imagine a scenario in which a father has tracked down the kidnapper of his daughter, and has reason to believe that the kidnapper has placed her in imminent danger of death, to be saved only by knowing her location. Would the father then be morally justified in torturing for that information.

    My intuitive abhorrence of torture is based around a couple of strong objections, neither of which are to do with the idea of inflicting pain on an individual in exigent circumstances for immediately salient information.

    Firstly, I just do not trust any government or government agency to make responsible use of that power were it to be legal. Harris makes no claim that it should be though.

    Secondly, It detracts considerably from our moral authority and standing if it comes to be used routinely as a method of information gathering. I don’t think it really justifies others in their systematic torture, but it does give rhetorical cover to torturing nations. The US, and the UK etc should set a better standard.

    Having said that, I wouldn’t begrudge the father his attempt to rescue his daughter.

  26. “But, has anyone ever proved that torture actually WORKS?

    No, it has not been proven. …”</blockquote

    The idea that torture never works is a false Internet-driven meme. You want proof? Read this:

    http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2003/10/the-dark-art-of-interrogation/2791/

    The upshot is that lousy interrogators (torturers) get lousy results, and good interrogators get better results. Torture can work. The fear of torture can work. And by "work" I mean give valuable information, *not* just false confessions, the typical meme.

    The very idea that the ticking bomb torture justification scenario – regardless of its probability of arising – is rejected out of hand seems to me to be unethical on its face. That the avoidance of suffering of millions, does not justify the temporary suffering of one, simply makes no sense. That the unlikelihood of the ticking bomb scenario exception to a general injunction on the use of torture (an injunction which I support) is an argument *against* its adoption makes no sense to me either. If it never occurs, what harm in its creation?

    1. That the avoidance of suffering of millions, does not justify the temporary suffering of one, simply makes no sense.

      So if we could make a perfect athlete’s foot cure for millions of people from one ground-up person, would that justify killing that one person? If not, why not? What is the calculus here?

      1. You’ve got it backwards, Tulse.

        It’s the death of millions vs the temporary discomfort of one.

        Plus, it’s not the ticking athlete’s foot scenario. 😀

        1. It’s the death of millions vs the temporary discomfort of one.

          So what precisely is the tipping point, then? Surely if we are just doing the utilitarian math, there are scenarios in which killing one person for the comfort of others would be justified, no? If not, why not?

          1. But no one is arguing for that scenario, Tulse. That might be an outcome of a general approved policy of torture, but no one – Harris included – is arguing for that.

            I’m no expert on the scenario, but I would imagine that if such a policy exemption were made, it would be tripped only by the imminent deployment of a weapon of mass destruction.

            1. Again, you and Sam are both arguing around the point — if we take Harris’ ethical approach seriously, then there is no reason at all that torture should in principle be limited to dire circumstances, since the whole point of Harris’ utilitarian approach is that there aren’t any principles beyond “maximize total human flourishing”. So why is he so defensive and squeamish about torture? Why isn’t he arguing that there may be all sorts of circumstances where inflicting pain or death on a few for the good of many is the moral thing to do?

              I think that Harris is bordering on intellectual dishonesty, or at least cowardice, in his discussion — he doesn’t seem willing to commit to the full implications of his position.

    2. And by “work” I mean give valuable information, *not* just false confessions, the typical meme.

      Oh, but you have to be able to tell them apart. Because it is a known fact that you can elicit false confessions with torture.

      The very idea that the ticking bomb torture justification scenario – regardless of its probability of arising – is rejected out of hand seems to me to be unethical on its face.

      “Out of hand” – really? Lose the undeserved rhetoric.

      And can you name one situation where the ticking bomb analogy is appropriate? From real life, not from a movie? It happens all the time in movies. Learn to tell the difference between cinema and real life.

      If it never occurs, what harm in its creation?

      What harm could there be in defending an immoral and ineffective practice? Did you really just ask that?

      1. “Oh, but you have to be able to tell them apart. Because it is a known fact that you can elicit false confessions with torture.”

        And it is a known fact that that you can get actionable information from torture. What is your point?

        “And can you name one situation where the ticking bomb analogy is appropriate? From real life, not from a movie? It happens all the time in movies. Learn to tell the difference between cinema and real life.”

        Of course I can’t name one situation. And thank Zeus it hasn’t happened. Learn to tell the difference between a hypothetical and the factual.

        ““Out of hand” – really? Lose the undeserved rhetoric.”

        If yours is the stuff of rational argument against the ticking bomb scenario, then “out of hand” seems well deserved.

        1. And it is a known fact that that you can get actionable information from torture. What is your point?

          I’m sure Reginald is capable of offering his own response, but I would observe that, without a reliable means of differentiating between false confessions and actionable information, torture is as useless as a Magic 8-Ball. And, if you have independent means of evaluating the truth claims of the person being tortured, why are you even bothering with the torture in the first place?

          Of course I can’t name one situation.

          That’s exactly the problem, isn’t it?

          We have millennia of human history of torture. Perhaps universally, it has been unjustified and immoral. Nobody is even capable of concocting a realistic hypothetical situation in which it would be moral.

          Yet we’re somehow supposed to believe that there’s a moral case to be made for it?

          Sorry. Not only am I not buying, but I’m having a hard enough time being respectful of the salespeople as it is.

          Cheers,

          b&

          1. There seems to be a tendency for opponents of the ticking bomb scenario to slip back into arguments against generalized torture.

            In the T.B. scenario – it doesn’t matter if bad info comes out as well as good info. The entire resources of the Federal government would be available to chase down all the leads, and if only one of them was the truth, they have saved the day. Your argument is applicable only to general torture, and even there there are methods to winnow the truth.

            And yes – the T.B.S. is moral. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Even that doesn’t do the scenario justice, because the scenario assumes that the prisoner in custody has been vetted to be an active participant in the evil of acts against humanity. Who, by most moral standards, pretty much reaps what he sows.

            To posit that the temporary physical discomfort of such a vile creature – who no doubt agreed to participate in his hideous plan in full knowledge he might be tortured – is more important to avoid than the deaths of millions of innocent people is a viewpoint completely repulsive to me, completely immoral, and I have difficulty understanding how any rational non sociopath could disagree.

            I hope you are right that the T.B.S. is unrealistic, that it never is realized. Given what we know about the availability of fissionable material, and the fondest dreams of those bent on our destruction, it does seem a not unreasonable concern, unfortunately. Yeah, they make movies about it, but that doesn’t make the true risk, and our need for contingency plans, completely fictional. More is the pity.

        2. And how dare you dismiss torture of witches “out of hand.” Just because there has never been a case of an actual witch using actual witchcraft documented by science doesn’t mean that it couldn’t happen.

          1. And before someone points out that actual witchcraft isn’t real, learn to tell the difference between a hypothetical and the factual.

        3. And it is a known fact that that you can get actionable information from torture.

          Can you name even one example? Whereas I can cite the entirely of the Inquisition and the witch hunts as examples of false confessions elicited by torture.

          It is also a known fact that apologists for torture have lied about its effectiveness.

          My Tortured Decision
          by Ali Soufan April 22, 2009

          FOR seven years I have remained silent about the false claims magnifying the effectiveness of the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques like waterboarding. I have spoken only in closed government hearings, as these matters were classified. But the release last week of four Justice Department memos on interrogations allows me to shed light on the story, and on some of the lessons to be learned…

          1. For heaven’s sake, Reginald – I already supplied “one example” of “actionable information from torture” in the link I provided, above, which you evidently couldn’t be bothered to read.

            Those of you looking for an instance of someone who denies *any* useful info coming from torture – here is your specimen.

  27. There’s another dimension here that’s so far been overlooked.

    The general assumption is that torture is something that is forcibly done to a person against that person’s wishes.

    So long as we’re tossing about unrealistic scenarios like the ticking time bomb, permit me to throw a few of my own out there.

    To those of you who are advocating the use of torture: what amount of torture would you yourself willingly undergo in similar situations?

    That is, if you could save Manhattan from being nuked by having the second coming of Torquemada work you over to to the best of his abilities, would you personally step up and let him do his worst to you? How much could you take before you caved in and pressed the damn button?

    Would you encourage your spouse, children, siblings, or parents to join you or to volunteer if you were unfit for some reason?

    Would you be willing to be the torturer?

    Would you torture your own children to save Manhattan?

    I won’t offer graphic details here, for obvious reasons, but please take a moment to think of the most painful, most degrading, most dehumanizing things that can be done to a person, and re-read my questions with exactly those thoughts in mind. Yes, include sexual assault, disfigurement and dismemberment, even slowly lethal injuries.

    If you cannot answer “yes” to each and every one of those hypothetical questions, you have no moral standing to demand that one anonymous person torture another for your own sake.

    Oh — and these scenarios aren’t as hypothetical as you might think. The Nazis were known to construct exactly these sorts of moral dilemmas for their victims. Shoot your wife or I’ll shoot her after I shoot your children — that sort of thing. Right about now you’re thinking that you have no way of knowing that the stormtrooper won’t shoot your kids anyway, regardless of what you do. My point, exactly: how do you know that torturing that dark-skinned man with a heavy accent will actually prevent the bomb from going off?

    If there is even an hypothetical moral case to be made for torture, I’ve yet to encounter it. Quite the opposite: every single example I’ve come across, without fail, has been an archetypal case of the worst depths of immorality.

    Cheers,

    b&

    1. Hi Ben, I just wanted to say I appreciate each one of your comments on this thread. Probably because I agree with your position ad your arguments in support of your position.
      Thanks,
      Adriana

    2. Yes, I would do all those things in a heart beat, but I’m still opposed to coercive interrogation, because it is not that effective, and it is counter-effective, and it is already used as a justification for torture as a means of oppression in the ironic “War on Terror.”

      Sam’s hypothetical doesn’t deal with the real world; it deals with an idealized vacuum. Yet, even if you fully accept Sam’s hypothetical, it’s not a question of whether or not we should go that far.

      We’ve already gone much farther – read Wikileaks: we’ve gone to the point of indefinite detention on charges that military officers admit are trumped up of innocent kids, journalists, and seniors. We need to back up considerably to get to be merely using coercive interrogation when we have a hint of a threat of any kind.

    3. You’ve confused what I think I should do with what I could do. Just because I might not be capable of enduring that level of pain does not mean it is “right” for me to fail to do so.

      If I pressed the button and New York got nuked I would think that I had done something terrible, something that I should not have done, despite the fact that I did it “freely”.

    4. How about Case Example 3.1 – The Beating, described here:
      http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/torture/

      The bones of the story is that a man knows where a child is, the child is about to expire if not found quickly, the man refuses to talk until a beating overcomes his reticence. It had also been established beyond reasonable doubt that the man knew the location of the child.

      Though I must beg the assumption that they had tried bribery and that too had failed, as no mention of any such attempt is made.

      Here, it seems to me that the man consciously chose to exchange the infant’s life for the faint hope of being able to deny his own crime. Gentler persuasion, though it may have been effective in the long run, was failing. It appears that a serious shock was needed to drive home just how serious the situation was, and beating the daylights out of him did the trick. Regrettable, but would you call it immoral?

      More broadly, might I suggest that while some action are certainly illegal and probably immoral, they may nevertheless be necessary? Admittedly this musing is purely abstract as I’m rather too uninformed to cite examples. Though I’m prompted to recall a rather powerful short science fiction story wherein a strategist commits treason, leading to their own death and the destruction of the entire army they are responsible for. But by that act she averted the escalation of a war doomed to lead to the annihilation of the human race.

      And I third the appreciation for your commentary. A firm mix of rationality, charm and potency.

      1. After further reading, I think that situation is slightly deceptive. Its most egregious fault is that it doesn’t differentiate between pliers and scalding iron torture in contrast to what might be called violent coercion. After all, a violent but short beating is probably less traumatising than being water-boarded every four hours for a month and should the suspect have continued to decline to reveal the car’s location, it is unlikely that the police would have continued.

        What I’m getting at is that by conflating a one off case of battery with prolonged and agonising ministrations actively subverts our moral judgement; reducing the distress caused by torture while keeping the pay-off constant makes it more palatable.

        1. Apologies if I implied someone was actually saying that’s a good idea, I was using it as a way of contrasting more extreme forms of torture with ones less so.

          On the other hand, are we working on an assumed definition of torture, or did I miss the explicit definition?

  28. Either you believe torture is alright or you do not. If you do then you absolutely CANNOT expect the courtesy not to be returned. I hate to get all Jesus-like but ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’.

    1. I am sure that anyone who agrees that terrorists should be tortured for information also agrees that if they were a terrorist with information, they too should be tortured.

      Also, isn’t it better to do unto other as they would have done unto them? I’d really, really want to avoid having various buzzing implement lovingly inserted into various orifices, though others might disagree…

  29. KSM was water-boarded 183 times in one month.

    So, does torture work or were they just doing it wrong?

  30. Of course, my brilliant quip should have read “So, does torture NOT work or were they just doing it wrong?”

  31. Sigh… Another stupid ticking-time-bomb scenario. As if nukes are just lying around and terrorists could be so easily persuaded to give up the actual operational details, versus all the made-up bull-shit that will come out of their mouths…

  32. It is an expected consequence of relative morals, or prescriptive ethics trying to reproduce and rigidize morals, that taboos can be broken in parts and in whole. In the extreme, choosing between an individuals right against a whole species existence, say your own, will suggest that outcome.

    But we should pause and reflect why the taboo is there in the first place. maybe it should be the task of ethical systems to recognize the phenomena, since it is after all moral.

    However, in this particular case the ethical discussion is moot AFAIU. There is no evidence that torture in particular works, and many claims of research that it doesn’t.

    1. I would also observe that, by the time it gets to such dire situations as “do something horrible to this one individual or the human race goes extinct,” the moral considerations are the least of your worries. Whatever it was that got you into the mess is your real problem. And, at that scale, you’re not going to get out of the mess.

      To bring it back at hand: if our only effective defense against somebody nuking Manhattan is our willingness to torture anybody and everybody with dark skin, a thick accent, and a certain preference in head coverings, we’re so totally fucked there’s really not much point in having this discussion in the first place.

      Cheers,

      b&

      1. I agree (see my comment above). If it doesn’t bear using in the first place, why would the efficiency worry us?

        One reason I see is that it is this may be that we can quantify most easily. It is far harder to disqualify “what-if” reasons for torture. It is much more subjective, at least the way torture is promoted and pursued today.

        1. Cut & paste fail: “One reason I see is that it is this may be” – One reason I see is that this may be.

  33. Now this is war. 😀

    I didn’t see this:

    He decries the excesses of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, and addresses the fallacious argument that torture never works.

    But the analysis is:

    1) Anecdote (of one case), not data. And I believe there are data against, very little efficiency.

    2) An argument that no matter the efficiency it is motivated. This isn’t empiricism, it is philosophy.

    In real life we need actual figures to set a realistic threshold for when it is motivated.

    And I didn’t see that [from the original article]:

    Such “ticking-bomb” scenarios have been widely criticized as unrealistic. But realism is not the point of such thought experiments. The point is that unless you have an argument that rules out torture in idealized cases, you don’t have a categorical argument against the use of torture.

    Another categorical philosophical argument that doesn’t help with empirical judgment, for the same reason as above.

    Browsing Harris’ article it looks good, but all it does is help me understand one more reason why ethical systems fails to map morality: they argue qualitative distinctions, instead of quantitative facts.

  34. From Sam’s article:

    I think torture should be illegal

    [. . .]

    My argument for the limited use of coercive interrogation (“torture” by another name) is essentially this: If you think it is ever justifiable to drop bombs in an attempt to kill a man like Osama bin Laden (and thereby risk killing and maiming innocent men, women, and children), you should think it may sometimes be justifiable to “water-board” a man like Osama bin Laden (and risk abusing someone who just happens to look like Osama bin Laden).

    We have a well-established legal framework for dropping bombs. There are national and international laws governing warfare, including rules of engagement that clearly lay out when you may and when you may not drop bombs.

    If you think it is sometimes justifiable to torture an individual, the only possible morally defensible position is to establish a legal framework clearly delineating the boundaries between permissible and impermissible circumstances and means for its application.

    Sam’s “wink wink, nudge nudge” approach to deciding whom and when and how to torture is a recipe for exactly the abuses that have plagued the US and the world of late. If you’re going to have torture, illegal torture is far worse than legal torture.

    I am not alone in thinking that there are potential circumstances in which the use of torture would be ethically justifiable. Liberal Senator Charles Schumer has publicly stated that most U.S. senators would support torture to find out the location of a ticking time bomb. Such “ticking-bomb” scenarios have been widely criticized as unrealistic. But realism is not the point of such thought experiments. The point is that unless you have an argument that rules out torture in idealized cases, you don’t have a categorical argument against the use of torture.

    I have observed elsewhere in this thread that this argument applies equally well to justification of rape. It also applies to justification of any other crime or heinous action you care to mention. Unless you have an argument that rules out genocide in idealized cases, you don’t have a categorical argument against eugenic cleansing of races with undesirable traits that taint the purity of the species.

    It is widely claimed that torture “does not work”–that it produces unreliable information, implicates innocent people, etc. As I argue in The End of Faith, this line of defense does not resolve the underlying ethical dilemma.

    Bullshit. If you know that torture produces unreliable information, you need a method of verifying your information independent of the torture. If you have such a method, you don’t need the torture in the first place. If you don’t need the torture, I am at an utter loss to understand how there can be any remaining “ethical dilemma.”

    The possibility that such a person might really be “innocent” or that he could “just say anything” to mislead his interrogators begins to seem less of a concern.

    All people in all situations must always enjoy the benefit of presumed innocence until due process has run its course. If we’re playing hypotheticals, it’s always possible that the “high-ranking member of al Qaeda” you’ve just captured is a body double or has otherwise been set up to take the fall. Only in tyrannies do the police and military also enjoy the power of also being judge, jury, inquisitor, and executioner.

    We will never torture anyone under any circumstances unless we are certain, beyond all reasonable doubt, that the person in our custody has operational knowledge of an imminent act of nuclear terrorism.

    We have the gold standard method for determining reasonable doubt: trial by a jury of one’s peers. Either Sam thinks the executive branch is better suited to determining reasonable doubt than the judicial branch and is therefore proposing we abandon the separation of powers for an authoritarian form of government, or he’s incredibly naive for thinking that any threat will remain imminent after the time it takes for a trial to run its course.

    Sam, if you’re reading this…well, I’m glad that you’re making the point that science has a role guiding morality. But you’re doin’ it rong. Very, very, very rong.

    Cheers,

    b&

    1. “If you know that torture produces unreliable information, you need a method of verifying your information independent of the torture. If you have such a method, you don’t need the torture in the first place.”

      You’ve used variants of this argument at several points in this thread, but it completely misrepresents the scenarios in which anyone would argue that torture is justified. No one would argue that we should torture someone in order to obtain information that is available without torture from other sources.

      The choice that the hypothetical is attempting to construct is between having no information on the one hand and allowing something bad to happen and obtaining potentially actionable information via torture on the other. You’ve been arguing that the second scenario would be unjustified in every case.

      You don’t like the “ticking time bomb” scenario because it’s too simplistic and unrealistic, ok. Two people have posted links to a SEP article on torture that provides a real life case in which police beat a man who had stolen a car in order to find the car to save the child inside, who likely would have died otherwise. What’s wrong in this case?

  35. Another stupid ticking bomb scenario indeed. Do those ever happen outside of movies and TV series?

    Apart from that, what exactly is fallacious about torture never working? If you torture me long enough, I will certainly “admit” that I am a terrorist. If I really were a terrorist and had hidden a bomb somewhere, I would under torture tell my captors that I have hidden it somewhere just far enough away that they cannot get there and back to me before the real one goes off. End of story.

    Admittedly, seeing how torture is really not about getting information, but about sending the signal to your enemy: we torture, don’t mess with us!, you could argue that it does work. But that is of course not what most starry eyed torture apologists mean.

    1. Even that’s not what torture is really about.

      None has expressed it better than George Orwell:

      The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from all the oligarchies of the past, in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just round the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means, it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me?

      Cheers,

      b&

    2. Oh, and he is completely right about the hypocrisy of the people who readily accept collateral damage. However, that turns into a straw man argument immediately when he encounters somebody who grants that it is as unacceptable a practice as torture.

    3. Another thought: remember those famous trolley experiments? There was a situation in which the participants were presented with a situation in which three helpless passengers were sitting in a trolley hurling towards a cliff, but you could save them by pulling a lever that diverts the trolley onto a safe side track where it would run over some random guy. The gut feeling of most participants across cultures and traditions of superstition was, if I am not completely mistaken here, to sacrifice random guy – it is one vs. three, after all.

      However, if presented with superficially similar situations, like being a doctor with three patients experiencing acute organ failure and healthy random guy coming into the hospital, it was considered amoral to butcher him up to save the others.

      Now we could pull a Harris and say, as indignantly as he does in the HuffPo piece re torture and collateral damage, essentially, “you’re all not thinking clearly if you consider these cases to be different”.

      However, I am a more evidence minded person, and I would rather not try to develop moral guidelines from a comfy armchair. Perhaps we should entertain the notion that there might be some difference and ask ourselves what we can learn about moral instincts here. My first idea is that it is about intent, and the directness of your culpability. If you have the aim to bomb Dr Evil and happen to kill random guy, the latter’s demise was not really what you wanted to happen. (The real point is still whether it is justified to bomb Dr Evil instead of giving him a trial.) But if you strap Dr Evil to a chair and start playing Celine Dion records, you are torturing him much more directly and consciously than you killed random guy in the other case.

  36. I’ll probably get tarred and feathered for this, but simply put I think what I am seeing here is a blind spot. Sam Harris is in my view an incredibley wonderful person, but he seem to me not able to get around this one issue. And the more he says about it, the more he complicates but not resolves it. It’s blind spot where evidence all points out to being wrong, yet he can’t admit for whatever reason it’s problematic.

    But then again, every great person I’ve looked up to has it. Whether it’s Hitchen’s support on the invasion of Iraq or Phil Plait’s “don’t be a dick” speech for exmaple, they seem to take a position that is easily repudiated and yet grasp at every straw and strawman to support it. I still look up to these people. And I will ever support them…because most of what they say is likely true. But I simply cannot agree with those contentious points. So I agree to disagree in the hope they one day may see the light on it and change their position for the better. And thus I move onto their better points.

  37. the claim that torture never works, or that it always produces bad information, is false. … It seems to me that unless one can produce an ethical argument against torturing such a person, one does not have an argument against the use of torture in principle.

    Harris’s arguments about torture are jejune and foolish, and he’s well advised to step away from this issue.

    Harris does not, in fact, address the “fallacious argument that torture never works” by simply linking to an insignificant anecdote in the NYT. Everyone serious about this issue knows that “torture works” in that it sometimes produces tactically useful results. That Harris doesn’t address the strategic rather than the tactical implications of torture, or even one historical example of torture highlighting the strategic pitfalls of its use, suggests to me that Harris is not well-versed on this important subject.

    Here’s one historical example of many where torture was successfully used to achieve tactical victories. If you want the authentic history rather than Pontecorvo’s film depiction, read Horne’s A Savage War of Peace or Trinquier’s Modern Warfare:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YuFSgGQSdRk

    But the French use of torture undermined their strategic goal of securing Algeria to Metropolitan France by making them more hated among Algerians than the (easily detestable) FLN. The French experience with torture and its aftermath—including the attempted suppression, denial, and rationalizations—is directly relevant in the United States today.

    Criterion Collection’s The Battle of Algiers DVD has an excellent documentary (“États d’armes” by Patrick Rotman) that has interviews with the practictioners of French torture and extrajudicial killings (“crevettes Bigeard“) that show firsthand the strategic and moral damage inflicted by torturers on themselves. (Rotman’s documentary is online here in the original French with no subtitles. They contain remarkable historical footage of the French paras and police working in Algiers, including Roger Trinquier, Marcel Bigeard, and Jacques Massu, as well as a creepy dungeon-like contemporary interview with a deformed Paul Aussaresses who shrugs it all away.)

    This is what it really means to say that torture “doesn’t work”, not that it’s not trivially easy to get people to talk under the threat or act of torture. Has Harris addressed this fundamentally important distinction anywhere? This is all known history, mostly available online, tailor-made as a cautionary tale for the U.S. in its Middle East invasions. Yet all ignored, even by Harris, who should know better than go around making academic pro-torture arguments in the context of a “war against Islam”.

    1. This is all known history[….]

      Sadly, that seems entirely irrelevant.

      About the only eurasian empire that didn’t go to Afghanistan to commit suicide was Rome. The Soviets, the British, the Mongols…even Alexander the Great. And yet, here we are, getting our asses handed to us, somehow still thinking we’re the ones to conquer the unconquerable.

      There’s no way that Sam can be ignorant of the Milgram or Stanford Prison experiments. I know without a doubt that he’s read 1984. I’m sure he knows more details about the Holocaust than I do. I can’t imagine that he hasn’t been to a museum with examples of medieval torture equipment. Without question, he knows of the Salem witch trials. He’s read the Bible, so he knows the history of torture goes back millennia. By now he can’t have escaped the video of Hitch’s own experiment, if he hasn’t even talked with him personally about it.

      And, yet, he still manages to ignore all that and more to somehow conclude that there’s enough of a theoretical case for torture that it merits being sanctioned (though still kept illegal) by the American government.

      I just don’t get it. How can somebody like Sam not “get it” when it comes to something so obvious, so fundamental?

      He’s not making a case for rape as a last-resort weapon in the fight on terrorism, I don’t think…or is he? Would he give his reluctant blessing to the rape of the child of a suspected co-conspirator in an alleged terrorist plot, if the plot were scary enough and the torturer couldn’t think of any other way of getting the suspect to confess? Just where, exactly, does he draw the line, and how and why?

      See…this kind of utilitarianism is exactly what the rule of law is supposed to prevent. Sam’s read the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. The Federalist Papers, too, I’m sure. Again, he has no excuse for not knowing.

      b&

      1. It seems to me that Harris’s position derives from his belief that there are somewhere ‘objective’ moral rules that we can discover through science and then follow. I am reminded of certain Catholic acquaintances whose idea of morality seems to consist in the idea that if faced with the question ‘Should I torture this child?’ one has go back to the First Principle (God) and then through a series of deductions deriving from that principle come to the conclusion, ‘No, I should not torture this child’; or perhaps ‘Yes, I should.’ One recalls the story of Abraham and Isaac and that fellow Craig’s defence of genocide so long as it derives properly from the objective fact of a command from God. People who think that morality is a matter of objective rules that should be followed seem to me to have small or no understanding of the grounds of morality. And one ground of morality is Montaigne’s sense that certain activities are beneath one as a human being.

      2. I think Sam’s point is “IF collateral damage ( bombing people, hiroshima etc) is acceptable, THEN torture should be acceptable”. IF not, THEN not.

        Don’t understand why some just disagree for sake of disagreeing.

        BTW, I am a Sam’s Fan.

        1. If SH were making the simple polemical point you say he is (a point with which I should agree), then you would do better to phrase things as, ‘If torture is unacceptable, then collateral damage should be unacceptable.’ But perhaps SH is being ironical in the manner of Jonathan Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal’? I don’t think so. Although I have admired some of SH’s writings (his responses in the debate with Andrew Sullivan) he does not, as a writer and thinker, strike me as possessing the intellectual and moral subtlety, or the humour, of Jonathan Swift.

  38. Here’s a paragraph from Sarah Bakewell’s book on Montaigne, who is one of my heroes, one of the most humane men ever to have lived, and someone who would have had no sympathy for Sam Harris’s little intellectual dance around the subject of torture, a dance that seems to me – perhaps wrongly – to be accompanied by the implied suggestion that he is being daring in ‘thinking the unthinkable’, and that other people lack the courage to address these ‘big’ questions.

    ‘Montaigne would not countenance torture (he couldn’t even stomach hunting) and, unusually for his era, he spoke out against it. It was, he felt, both strategically and morally flawed. Most torture victims, he reasoned, would say anything to put an end to pain; moreover, torturing someone on suspicion of wrongdoing was “putting a very high price on one’s conjectures.” As the terrorism of France’s religious wars intensified in the region of his family home, Montaigne refused to guard the doors of his estate. To do so would have been to capitulate to violence and, in a sense, to escalate it. He chose, instead, to live out the counsel of the Mishnah: “Where there is no human being, be one.”’

    1. Very good analysis. In contrasting collateral damage against torture Harris helped illuminate why the deaths of innocents in cases of collateral damage should be taken more seriously. He didn’t, however, make me think that torture is acceptable and your reasoning helped me see why not.
      I’m still not sure of Harris’ basic point. Sure, torture of individuals might not be the worst thing we would do but it surely isn’t any way near an optimal or even acceptable tactic and even if there are cases where it is more clear cut (the ’24’ type nuclear detonation hypothetical situation) who is to judge whether that situation is real or that we’ve got the correct person to torture (in ’24’ we always know Jack Bauer has the right guy and we always know that they will break and give the correct location – just in time)?

  39. I don’t think anyone here has seriously addressed Sam’s argument. Here is a situation in which I think (and I think Harris thinks) the use of torture may be ethical:

    1. We have strong evidence of an imminent terrorist attack that would cause a huge amount of death/injury, e.g. a ticking nuclear time bomb planted in a city with millions of people.

    2. We have strong evidence that a prisoner in our custody has information that could be used to thwart the attack, e.g., the location of the bomb. As Harris says, the prisoner may even have admitted to possessing such information.

    3. The information is subject to verification, e.g., helicopter SWAT teams are in position around the city and ready to fly to the location of the bomb as soon as the prisoner reveals it.

    4. Conventional interrogation techniques have been tried and have not been successful.

    As Sam has pointed out, claiming that this kind of situation is unlikely to occur does not address his argument, since he is not suggesting otherwise. And claiming that torture is not a reliable way of obtaining information is also irrelevant, since Harris is not claiming that torture is reliable.

    I really would like to see someone address Harris’s actual argument.

    Tulse, you suggest that “some actions are so heinous that no consequentialist argument is sufficient” to justify them. But what do you mean by “heinous” if not that the action has bad consequences? If you instead mean that the action would violate some inviolable moral rule that forbids torture regardless of consequences, why should we accept that rule? A Christian might claim that we should obey the purported rule because it comes from God, but I assume you would not make that claim.

    1. I think the points you raised have been addressed in the previous comments but I’ll address them in a slightly different way here that, to me, at least, makes sense.

      I would compare the idea of ‘ethical torture’ to the idea of an ‘ethical death sentence’.
      Both are, I think we can agree, rather extreme strategies. I think, however, that one of the arguments against the death penalty is also applicable to the idea of torture. That argument is that, given the serious nature of the acts (execution or torture) one needs to be absolutely certain you have the correct person. There may indeed be murderers so unredeemable that killing them might be the best solution, however the reason we should not apply the death penalty is not to protect these worst of the worst, but rather it is to protect others that might have been sentenced to death based on incorrect testimony or faked evidence.

      Likewise with the torture scenario. There may be situations where it works in an ‘ethical’ way – but the only situations where we are certain that this is the case (we’ve got the right man, there is a ticking nuclear device, torture will get them to tell us the correct location rather than send us on a wild goose chase to the wrong location which diverts us for enough time for the bomb to detonate) is in the context of fiction (i.e. an episode of ’24’).

      Any other scenario and we cannot be certain that we are torturing the correct person or that torturing them will get them to give us the correct answer (rather than a deliberately misleading answer or something at random designed to simply stop the torture). In theory we could eventually (by applying more and more torture if they keep giving misleading answers) get around to the correct answer but in a ticking time bomb scenario a trial and error approach is exactly what you don’t want.

    2. Jonas8, here are some alternate scenarios that are roughly equivalent in terms of potential consequences:

      1) There is an imminent nuclear terrorist attack that will kill millions, and the terrorists demand that, in order to stop the attack, the President torture his own daughter. Would it be ethical for him to do so?

      2) There is a type of cancer that kills millions, and we develop a cure that requires subjecting babies to extreme pain for a very long period in order to produce the substance. Would it be ethical to do so?

      If you instead mean that the action would violate some inviolable moral rule that forbids torture regardless of consequences, why should we accept that rule?

      There are plenty of non-religious deontological moral philosophers. However, I think the real question then becomes, without such foundational justification, why should we accept Harris’ claim that all that matters for ethics is consequences? Harris’ position is subject to precisely the same foundational issues.

  40. Phone call by Kuwaiti courier led US to bin Laden’s doorstep, capping a decade-long hunt

    Mohammed did not discuss al-Kuwaiti while being subjected to the simulated drowning technique known as waterboarding, former officials said. He acknowledged knowing him many months later under standard interrogation, they said, leaving it once again up for debate as to whether the harsh technique was a valuable tool or an unnecessarily violent tactic.

  41. Sam Harris: Clearly, the claim that torture never works, or that it always produces bad information, is false.

    Wowza, and some in this thread have accused Harris’ opponents of using strawman arguments? Who has ever claimed that torture always produces bad information?

    The argument I have seen is that torture always produces information, so that one cannot know of the information is accurate or not, unless one has outside verification which 1) makes the torture itself redundant and 2) takes time, which destroys the ‘ticking bomb’ scenario.

  42. Tulse:

    You did not answer my question. Again I ask, what do you mean by “heinous” if not that the action has bad consequences? If you mean that the action would violate a rule prohibiting torture regardless of the consequences, why should we accept that rule?

    To answer your questions:

    1. I don’t think it would be ethical to torture anyone simply because terrorists say they will refrain from making an attack if the torture is performed.
    2. I very strongly doubt that your premise is true. Why couldn’t the babies be anesthetized or put into a coma? But granting your bizarre premise that, for some reason, it would be necessary for the babies to experience extreme pain in order to produce the cancer cure, yes, it may be ethical to do this.
    3. You ask, “Why should we accept Harris’ claim that all that matters for ethics is consequences?” Answer: Because you haven’t identified anything other than consequences that matters to ethics. This goes back to my original question that I repeated above. If you think something matters besides consequences, what is it, and why do you think it means that torture is always unethical?

    Sigmund:

    There is no such thing as absolute certainty. We cannot be absolutely certain that people convicted of crimes are really guilty. That doesn’t prevent us from imposing extremely harsh punishments on them, including execution and life imprisonment. We cannot be absolutely certain that military intelligence is accurate. That doesn’t prevent us from conducting wartime bombing campaigns that cause the deaths of innocent civilians. So why should the lack of absolute certainty prevent us from using torture in the kind of scenario I described?

    1. I don’t think it would be ethical to torture anyone simply because terrorists say they will refrain from making an attack if the torture is performed.

      Why not? I would think that the morality of this action would follow directly from the consequence of potentially preventing the death of millions, just as torturing a terrorist might. What is different in this case? Remember we are talking about principles, not probabilities.

      But granting your bizarre premise that, for some reason, it would be necessary for the babies to experience extreme pain in order to produce the cancer cure, yes, it may be ethical to do this.

      Seriously? I had intended that as a reductio — you would really be willing to torture infants in order to cure someone else?

      If you think something matters besides consequences, what is it, and why do you think it means that torture is always unethical?

      I think things besides consequences matter precisely because utilitarianism produces results that we would generally find repugnant (such as forced live organ donation for the “greater good”). I think these intuitions come from the Kantian notion that ethical agents should be treated as ends, and not means, and that that is, in essence, what it means to be an ethical agent. In other words, I disagree with Harris that ethics is purely about total suffering or total happiness — I think the very notion of ethics rests on treating ethical agents differently from objects.

      If ethical agents are not ends in themselves, then there are potentially situations where such things as slavery, genocide, forced medical experiment, torture of innocents, etc. are permissible in utilitarian calculus. You may disagree that such things should not be permitted, but I would argue that we will rapidly end up at an impasse over lack of foundational justification for any ethical position.

  43. Tulse:

    I’m still having a hard time finding a clear answer to my question. You refer to a purported ethical principle that requires us to treat people “as ends, and not means.” Is the violation of this principle the “thing” that is “so heinous” and that you think means that torture is always unethical, regardless of consequences?

    Assuming it is, then if torture always violates this means-ends principle, and is therefore always unethical, why don’t actions such as killing people and imprisoning people also always violate it? Why doesn’t the infliction of lesser amounts of pain and suffering, that does not rise to the level of torture, also always violate the principle? And why should we believe that treating people as “means” rather than as “ends” is always unethical regardless of consequences, anyway? You cite Kant in support of this view. Kant famously claimed that lying is always wrong, regardless of consequences. For Kant, lying to a Nazi to prevent him from discovering a Jew would be unethical. I think Sam Harris is exactly right when he says that people who make this kind of argument just aren’t thinking clearly about the reality of human suffering.

    To answer your questions: I don’t think a claim by a terrorist that he will call off an imminent devastating attack if we torture the president’s daughter deserves to be taken seriously at all, so I don’t think it justifies carrying out the torture. And yes, I believe that an action that subjects babies to extreme pain to save the lives of other people may be ethical if the benefit is large enough, just as I believe that wartime bombing that kills and injures babies may be ethical if the benefit is large enough. Allied bombing killed and injured millions of German and Japanese civilians during World War II. This included vast numbers of children. Many of these deaths were slow and painful. Many of the non-lethal injuries were horrific.

    1. Maybe it would help the differentiation to also take into account the intentions of the whomever we wish to torture. A person withholding information has a certified way to make the pain stop: reveal what they are hiding. Whereas an innocent tortured for another’s enjoyment is utterly powerless. The former can at least be said to have brought it upon themselves, the latter never can.

  44. Any discussion is worthless without distinguishing two cases.

    In the first, one is torturing to provoke a confession. It should be obvious that this doesn’t even follow its own logic. Innocent people can be hurt, and one can never be sure the confession is genuine. In such a case, torture is never justified, even if the person being tortured has committed other crimes.

    In the second case, one knows beyond any reasonable doubt that the person possesses information which, if you can get it, will save innocent lives. (The classic example is a kidnapper who has bound and gagged someone and locked them away and he will die if no-one finds him in time. The kidnapper is trying to blackmail you, which only works if he can convince you that he has a hostage.) There are three options. The first is to pay up, which would incite more kidnappings, blackmail and extortion in the future. The other is to do nothing and let the hostage die. The third is to torture the information out of the kidnapper, if he doesn’t give it to you quickly otherwise. In terms of minimising the total harm to innocent people (not just in this situation but in the foreseeable future), the third option is best.

    Nevertheless, the question of whether to legalise torture in such instances is difficult, since many people obviously don’t understand the distinction and the benefits of such “good torture” might be outweighed by the evils of “bad torture”.

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