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Torture & Ticking Bombs

Edward Hall is sceptical about this infamous ethical example’s usefulness.

Philosophers love thought experiments, and few have been as influential in contemporary moral and political philosophy as ‘the ticking bomb’. The idea was famously employed by Michael Walzer in his seminal treatment of the problem of dirty hands (Political Action, 1973), and has been the topic of heated discussion ever since.

Walzer considers the case of a newly-elected politician asked to authorise the torture of a captured rebel leader who knows the location of a number of bombs that have been hidden in buildings around the city. If they detonate, they will cause enormous suffering. According to Walzer, in this case, the politician should violate the moral prohibition against torture, even though they accept that “torture is wrong, indeed abominable, not just sometimes, but always.” The unfortunate reality is that political leadership sometimes demands morally tragic decision-making, and leaders who refuse to authorise torture in these circumstances display a dishonourable kind of squeamishness unbefitting their role.

The ticking bomb is commonly invoked to justify torturing terrorist suspects, and the thought experiment pervades media discussion of this issue. It has also been invoked by holders of high office. For example, when giving evidence to the Intelligence and Security Committee of the UK Parliament, a number of prominent British politicians, including former Prime Ministers Boris Johnson and Theresa May, and former Senior Ministers Phillip Hammond and Amber Rudd, invoked ticking bomb scenarios in defence of the possibility of authorising torture and other forms of cruel and degrading punishment, under some circumstances.

However, the suggestion that the ticking bomb scenario justifies the use of torture in emergency situations has been subjected to penetrating criticism. The work of Henry Shue is especially informative here. In Torture in Dreamland: Disposing of the Ticking Bomb (2006), Shue argues that the ticking bomb case suffers from two central flaws as an example for ethics: idealization and abstraction. Idealization involves adding positive features; abstraction, eradicating problematic ones. Together they ensure that the ticking bomb scenario makes the decision to torture unrealistically straightforward.

First, the ticking bomb idealizes by supposing:

(1) That the authorities have detained the right person;

(2) That torturing the detainee will result in the prompt and accurate revelation of the information they desire;

(3) That the torture will be a rare one-off.

Ticking bomb also involves problematical abstraction because it ignores that:

(4) The institutionalisation of state torture is a necessary condition of torture having the potential benefits the pro-torture advocates promise.

With regard to point (1), the ticking bomb scenario assumes the detainee is not merely suspected of having the information the state desires, but definitely has it. In practice, however, the state will suspect that the detainee knows about an attack that may be forthcoming. And uncertainty and probability are not minor details here: What is the moral truth about torturing the wrong person to get information?

The second assumption is equally strained. One cannot assume that the right information will be promptly forthcoming. Torture victims collapse and pass out, becoming unable to provide information. And many tortured subjects lie, falsely informing on adversaries to settle feuds. Others say anything they think their tormentor wants to hear in the hope this will make the pain and humiliation stop. The reality is thus that, at best, torture delivers noisy information, if not outright falsehoods.

Further, the sheer unreliability of the information almost inevitably ensures the falsity of the supposition that torture, once sanctioned, will be rare. If state authorities have convinced themselves that a serious attack is imminent, and the person they’re torturing does not provide the information they desire, they’re likely to turn to the next-best suspect and torture them in turn; and so on.

Torture and Ticking Bombs
Image © Joel Hasemeyer 2023 joelhase.myportfolio.com Instagram him at: @joel_hase

The State Institutionalization of Torture

The fourth point is perhaps the most important. Shue notes that unless torturers are properly trained they are unlikely to be competent at extracting information from detainees. It follows that any viable regime of state torture is going to necessitate a torture bureaucracy. Rather than thinking about torture as an isolated event, then, we must consider torture as a state practice.

When we think in these terms, a host of further troubling questions arise, not least (as David Luban stresses in Truth, Power, and Law, 2004), the question of how much trust we should place in agents of the state and their lawyers not to test, and go over, the limits of whatever laws and conventions politicians adopt to regulate torture. We cannot ignore what we know about institutions and bureaucracies when we consider arguments about the permissibility of authorising state torture. And what we can reliably predict is going to happen is extremely discouraging.

First, it is decidedly unrealistic to think that people who have volunteered to become trained in the art of inflicting pain and violence on other human beings will intuit (or care) exactly where to morally draw the line when considering what torturous methods are beyond the pale, or who should be tortured. Nor is there much reason to think that, even if official rules and regulations are in place, they will be studiously obeyed by the sorts of people who apparently want to torture others – who will be the sort of people applying for the role. On the contrary, as Darius Rejali painstakingly shows in his history of torture, Torture and Democracy (2007), the clear real historical evidence is that whatever regulations are in place will be exceeded. So even if strict regulations were in place that purport to determine when torture can legally take place (only in relevant genuine emergencies), and how torture should be carried out (with as little brutality as possible), assuming that supervision will be strict and that the chain of command will be followed does not comport with what we know about bureaucratic organizations.

Time Bomb
Time Bomb Openclipart Juhele 2018 Public Domain

It Doesn’t Work Anyway

Beyond these basic problems of idealisation and abstraction, a growing body of research suggests there is vanishingly little evidence to think that torturing to prise valuable information from a detainee will work in the manner the ticking bomb case supposes. Rejali maintains that neither technological advances nor science have yet been able to offer general rules for how to break detainees to elicit reliable information.

The work of the neuroscientist Shane O’Mara explains why this is unsurprising. According to O’Mara, the assumption that torture will work to elicit valuable information in ticking bomb scenarios is a relic of “introspectively derived, and empirically ungrounded psychological and neuro-biological beliefs that are fundamentally and demonstrably untrue” (Why Torture Doesn’t Work: The Neuroscience of Investigation, 2015).

The default assumption is that inflicting severe pain is an efficacious way of getting detainees to reveal what they know. O’Mara maintains that, on the contrary, there is ample evidence to suppose that the infliction of severe pain, and the attendant fear and stress that comes with it, has the opposite effect. The ticking bomb asks us to consider what we can do to stop a bomb exploding in the immediate future. Yet, according to O’Mara, it is probable “on the basis of what we know about the neurophysiology of pain, that there is no technique for inducing pain that is sufficiently severe so as to cause a well-conditioned and well-prepared individual to rapidly want to reveal information without being able to resist for sufficiently long before the brain and body go into a pain-induced shock or dissociative state.”

If one takes a longer-term perspective, the possibility of torture producing effective information is even less encouraging. O’Mara’s central claim here is that imposing extreme stresses on detainees profoundly changes the accessibility of their memory over time in ways which make them less able to retrieve and share memories. Supposedly less painful enhanced interrogation techniques like prolonged sleep deprivation and waterboarding are also profoundly counterproductive, for similar reasons.

So even if we leave aside the issues of idealization and abstraction, the scientific research has profound implications for the idea that the ticking bomb thought experiment inexorably reveals that authorising torture is sometimes the right thing to do, all things considered.

The philosophical point that Walzer’s paper on dirty hands actually delivers, provided one buys his argument, is that in grave emergency situations, political leaders should authorise actions which would violate serious moral constraints and prohibitions if doing so would stop a disaster from occurring. However, this says literally nothing about which actions should be taken. The supposition that torture, specifically, is in that class of actions, is unjustified, and, when we consider the empirical literature, unsustainable. So even if one accepts that emergency situations like the one Walzer describes reveal the limitations of rigid forms of duty-based ethics, it is simply fallacious to suppose that this delivers a pro-torture conclusion for real-world policy. That political leaders should sometimes dirty their hands may well be true; but it does not follow that authorising torture is sometimes the right thing for political leaders to do, as the ticking bomb scenario supposes.

I can put this point more polemically: the ticking bomb scenario isn’t really about torture – philosophers just think it is. In the ticking bomb, torture is a placeholder for any sort of immoral but effective action. When we, in the classroom or in our writing, continue to employ ticking bomb scenarios to interrogate the ethics of torture, we imply that torture is effective, even though the available empirical evidence strongly suggests otherwise. That’s an immorality all of its own – and so one that teachers of moral or political philosophy should avoid.

© Edward Hall 2023

Edward Hall is a senior lecturer in political theory at the University of Sheffield. With the support of a Leverhulme Trust Research Fellowship, he is currently writing a book on contemporary forms of state-sanctioned cruelty. This article was previously published in the online journal of The Prindle Institute for Ethics.

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