Fritz Allhoff’s 'Terrorism, Ticking Time-Bombs, and Torture'
A version of this article was first published: www.ethics.org.au - 26 April 2012
Seamus Miller, philosopher at the Australian National University, gives the following definition of torture:
“Torture is: (a) the intentional infliction of extreme physical pain or suffering on some non-consenting, defenceless person; (b) the intentional curtailment of the exercise of the person’s autonomy, achieved by means of (a); (c) in general, undertaken for the purpose of breaking the victim’s will”.
Indeed, when journalist Christopher Hitchens notoriously self-elected to undergo torture in order to experience it first-hand, the indemnity clause he signed warned him that:
“Water boarding [a form of torture currently in use by the United States] is a potentially dangerous activity in which the participant can receive serious and permanent (physical, emotional and psychological) injuries and even death, including injuries and death due to the respiratory and neurological systems of the body.”
So, what does it say about our political culture that acts of brutal and dehumanising interrogative torture are currently an acceptable way to fight terrorism? Modern philosophers interested in politics and ethics struggle to make sense of this disturbing phenomenon. Fritz Alhoff’s recent book, Terrorism, Ticking Time-Bombs, and Torture: A Philosophical Analysis applies philosophical reasoning to clarify the key legal, political and ethical issues which underpin the torture and terrorism debate.
Traditional arguments against torture generally occupy the valiant, but inflexible, position that some actions – including torture – are absolutely impermissible. We ought never to torture others because it is morally wrong, and that’s the end of the matter. By this reasoning we should do the right thing even when it might be politically convenient to do something morally dubious.
However, other philosophers believe that there are some ‘exceptional’ circumstances where moral rules should take a back seat when national security is under threat. In practise this means that the nation state reserves the right to defend itself even if the means are immoral. Therefore, particularly brutal forms of interrogative torture, including water boarding, might be morally justified if the political consequences are valuable enough.
In his recent memoirs, George W. Bush claims “the CIA interrogation program saved lives. Had we captured more al Qaeda operatives with significant intelligence value, I would have used the program for them as well” (Decision Points, 2010 p.171). Advocates of interrogative torture, like G. W. Bush are not trying to be evil people, but they believe that the consequences of torturing someone are preferable to the harm that may otherwise befall their nation.
It seems appropriate then that Fritz Allhoff’s book begins by situating the issue of interrogative torture within the transition from the tremendously unpopular Bush administration to Barack Obama’s. The philosophical value of beginning his enquiry here is noteworthy because it raises the question of what it is, exactly, that Bush was supposed to have gotten wrong in his response to the threat of international terrorism. In short, as the author puts it “is our safety worth the costs that have been incurred?”
In a modest and thoughtful approach to answering this question, Allhoff distances himself from the moral lacuna which most philosophical literature on torture finds itself in. The argument retains a heavy focus upon the individual, their rights, and basic human dignity. This would usually place a philosopher firmly in the school of thought that strictly prohibits torture because being a human being implies an inviolable moral dignity. Allhoff avoids this position, instead developing an argument that takes into account the context of international terrorism in which these specific interrogative acts of torture are being conducted.
Appropriately, the first three chapters are dedicated to clarifying the context in which we find ourselves asking questions of torture. To this effect Allhoff makes a substantial discussion of the ‘ticking time-bomb’ scenario. An example of the scenario from Henry Shue asks us to suppose that:
“A fanatic, perfectly willing to die rather than collaborate in the thwarting of his own scheme, has set a hidden nuclear device to explode in the heart of Paris. There is no time to evacuate the innocent people or even the movable art treasures - the only hope of preventing tragedy is to torture the perpetrator, find the device, and deactivate it."
This thought experiment is meant to make us consider relaxing any absolutist moral prohibitions we might have against torture. If there were a ticking bomb in your family home, would you consent to torturing someone if they know where it was? Surely if torture is at least sometimes permissible, for example in cases of national defence, then the state has already de facto the right to torture. And if so then the state ought to institutionalise torture as a technique of national defence.
Rejecting this conclusion, Allhoff provides a novel and compelling alternative analysis of this thought experiment. The ticking time bomb scenario has been widely discredited among political philosophers for its inability to make a justification for torture. Torture is not permissible in all situations just because it’s permissible in one, hypothetical, situation. Allhoff also objects to its extravagant epistemological assumptions and to its lack of attention to the institutional realities required to frame the example. Despite this however, the use of the ticking-time-bomb case is defended as a useful way of clarifying and analysing the moral status of interrogative torture.
While the ticking bomb might be a useful way of theorising about torture, the second and third parts of the book deal with some of the practical issues that torture presents us with. For example, instances in which we torture someone who may be innocent, or when torture simply doesn’t work, or we don’t explore alternatives to torture. Most stimulating are the perennial reminders throughout the book that torture requires a whole lot more than a victim, a room, and someone willing to do the dirty work. Acts of interrogative torture require many willing participants and institutions that are designed exclusively to perform immoral practises that are emotionally gruelling for everyone involved.
This practise-oriented approach is a great general strength of the book. Too much moral philosophy tires to inoculate itself against political or practical concerns, claiming that they are distinct and separate modes of inquiry. This results in what Allhoff refers to as the “vacuum” of non-contextual moral reasoning he sees as typical of scholarship on the issue. To ignore the fact that terrorism is a morally relevant context for torture, for Allhoff, is to abrogate from moral reasoning the cause for the debate in the first place. This is testament to the viability of the argument, and the carefulness with which it reaches a conclusion.
Tony Coady of Melbourne University has said “one of the most disedifying sights on the public scene in the early years of the 21st century has been the spectacle of serious intellectuals rushing to justify torture.” Ultimately it is argued that torture represents the lesser of two evils, but this position is certainly not arrived at lightly or without substantial justification. For those of us who disagree, we are asked us to consider that “torture is justified if and only if it portends a lesser harm than we might reasonably expect to otherwise absorb” (p. 199).
To be sure, Allhoff is no radical objector to torture. However, the best philosophy avoids extreme moral positions and seeks to try to understand, rather than prematurely judge, the practises and norms that philosophers see around them. Allhoff doesn’t deny that torture is bad. Of course it is. Yet his expansive and thoughtful analysis allows us to see through the dangers of looking for quick and simple conclusions. Permitting interrogative torture, he argues, only allows that the situation could be bad… or much worse.
Allhoff, Fritz. (2012) Terrorism, Ticking Time-Bombs, and Torture: A Philosophical Analysis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, Pp. 280. ISBN: 9780226014838
Fritz Allhoff is associate professor of philosophy at Western Michigan University and a senior research fellow at the Center for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the Australian National University. He is coauthor of What Is Nanotechnology and Why Does It Matter? and the editor or coeditor of numerous volumes, including Wine & Philosophy, Physicians at War, and The Philosophy of Science.