Should Governments Use Torture?

June 29, 2020


In 1911, the author of the article on ‘Torture’ in the Encyclopaedia Britannica was able to state that ‘the whole subject is now one of only historical interest as far as Europe is concerned’. Torture’s relegation to mere historical interest did not last, however.


The debate surrounding the permissibility of torture preoccupied the British throughout the 1960s and 70s, the Israelis throughout the 1980s and 90s and has continued to feature in political discourse since 9/11 and the subsequent War on Terror.



Despite this ongoing debate, torture should never be employed by governments under any circumstances. 


The primary reasons for this is the fact that torture violates the dignity and autonomy of the victim, something that is unacceptable when living in a moral, civilised and just society. We should uphold a standard of morality that affords all humans a sufficient level of dignity and agency, a level that torture subverts. The pain and suffering inflicted during torture is significant, however, it is this pain in conjunction with the complete powerlessness and subservience to a malign enemy that destroys the victim’s autonomy and dignity.


The instrumentalisation of the torture victim - using the victim purely as a means - is immoral to a degree that it should not be permissible under any circumstances. This is a broadly Kantian view that the victim becomes a suffering instrument of the torturer, having pain inflicted upon them solely for the purpose of destroying their will and for their continued use as a means for the torturer’s ends.


David Sussman's Neo-Kantian approach builds on this. Sussman argues that torture not only violates dignity and agency, it turns this agency against itself and forces the victim to become complicit in their own violation, meaning that torture is not just the destruction of basic humanity but the forced self-betrayal of oneself. This level of abuse on basic values and enforced self-abuse should not be permitted in a moral society.


Sussman argues that torture is especially insidious as it goes beyond just disrespecting these values, it is a deliberate perversion of them. Torture forces the tortured to become an active part in their own degradation. For example, in Abu Ghraib, torture victims were forced to masturbate in front of their captors, displaying their most private of thoughts and acts to others. Soldiers can kill each other in combat, they can even kill their prisoners, however, only a torture victim is compelled to offer up their own intimacy and sense of self to be used against them, further contributing to the extreme destruction of dignity and autonomy that torture inflicts.


The primary objection to this argument takes the form of the ticking-bomb terrorist hypothetical (TBT). Jeremy Bentham formulated the first scenario that resembled a TBT hypothetical, with Jean Lartéguey popularising the scenario in the 1960s. The TBT scenario comes in many forms, however, almost all invariably involve a captive terrorist who has knowledge of the location of a bomb that will go off and kill numerous people, with torture potentially revealing its location.


The argument follows that allowing numerous people to die, by not torturing the terrorist, is a far greater harm than the harm inflicted on the terrorist. This is a purely consequentialist argument that ignores the immorality of the act of torture and focuses exclusively on the outcomes, disregarding the moral implications of torture and focusing on a utilitarian cost-benefit analysis.


The TBT’s consequentialist logic means that those who favour this approach must, as Ben Juratowitch argues, legitimately consider ‘as much torture, on as many innocents, as is required to avoid greater harm’, thereby eliminating their ability to have ‘any moral compass independent of outcomes’. The TBT’s focus on utilitarian outcomes neglects to account for the ‘higher pains’ that torture inflicts, including psychological impacts such as dread, shame and humiliation.


Despite these objections to the TBT justification of torture which has been employed by governments in the past, torture should also be rejected because of its destruction of dignity, including the dignity of the institutions that allow the practice.


Accepting torture means abandoning the most fundamental bases of democracy and decency and by employing such barbaric means a state can no longer claim to be based on justice, but on tyranny. It would damage institutions because allowing torture would render institutions built on liberal and moral values complicit in the planned destruction of another human’s dignity and autonomy, being a practical and symbolic setback for civilisation.


As David Luban notes, torture ‘is a microcosm … of the tyrannical political relationships that liberalism hates the most’, devaluing the trust in and authority of ‘civil, military and legal institutions’.


Institutionalising torture would destroy the dignity of those who carry it out, as they will be subjected to principles and practices that no individual with moral integrity should have to be exposed to. It degrades those who carry it out and can cause irrevocable psychological damage, debasing their humanity and sense of self.


As such, even if one accepts there are imaginable scenarios in which torture could be morally permissible, it would automatically cease to be acceptable due to the irreconcilable degradation of the institutions that allow it, and by extension, the degradation of the dignity and humanity of those who allow it, carry it out and are subjected to it.


Author: Jason Montaner

Jason is a UK-based political journalist specialising in domestic affairs and foreign policy.


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