Against Torture?

22 Aug

I think Megan McArdle needs to define some of her terms in this post questioning the dismissal of torture:

One of the most facile dismissals of torture is that it doesn’t work, so why bother? That’s tempting, but it’s too easy. Torture seems to me very likely to work provided that you can verify the information, which I assume interrogators can in at least some circumstances.

As some of her commenters noted, if you can verify the information, why are you torturing in the first place? The much hypothesized “ticking time-bomb” scenario works on the premise that you won’t be able to verify the information (until, likely, it’s too late) so the “lie-detecting brain scans” McArdle posits are the most probable candidate. Again, though, Asymmetrical Information readers respond:

As for lie detecting brain scans…really, let’s cross that bridge when we come to it. I find it hard to believe that “lying” is actually a category of activity that matches up to a discrete brain pattern; it’s too similar to “telling a story”. My 3-year-old’s lies and fantasies are mixed up with his accurate reporting in a totally indistinguishable fashion, and I’m not sure he even knows which is which.

The greatest problem with going Torquemada on terrorists is that 1) they may totally believe what they say (because of fanatical dogma or operational ignorance) and 2) given a time-sensitive scenario (like an A-bomb in New York set to go off in 24 hours), the same dogmatic extremist wins merely by holding out, not by never giving up information. At this point, verification, or even the effectiveness of torture, becomes a moot point.

The larger moral question (which may be of greater import) isn’t really clarified by the back-and-forth of utilitarian moral calculus. Once again (I’m still in English dept. meetings, so I’m leaning heavily on other people’s work) commenter and Unfogged contributor LizardBreath points us to the crux of the moral quandry:

The real problem with attempting to separate out the moral issues from any practical issues is laid out in Belle Waring’s classic post “By the power of stipulation”. You can get people to agree that they’d do any bad thing at all, say, torturing a three year old child to death, if you can stipulate that something much much worse will happen if they don’t do it. To talk about the question morally, you really do have to talk about the practical issues first.

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