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Torture and Ticking Bombs

By Edward Hall
11 Nov 2022
photograph of chair against wall in dark room

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

Walzer asks us to consider the case of a newly elected politician who is asked to authorize 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 which, if they detonate, 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 authorize torture in these circumstances display a disreputable kind of squeamishness.

The ticking bomb scenario is commonly invoked to justify torturing terrorist suspects and pervades media discussion of this issue (just think of the hit 2000s TV show 24). It has also been appealed to 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 cabinet ministers Phillip Hammond and Amber Rudd – invoked ticking bomb scenarios in defense of the possibility of authorizing torture and other forms of cruel and degrading punishment.

However, the suggestion that the ticking bomb scenario justifies the use of torture in emergency situations is hopelessly misguided. The work of Henry Shue is especially informative here. Shue argues that the ticking bomb case suffers from two central flaws: idealization and abstraction. The former involves adding positive features; the latter, eradicating problematic ones. Together they ensure that ticking bomb makes the decision to torture unrealistically straightforward – and tricks us into thinking we can justify the unjustifiable.

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 furthermore involves problematical abstraction because it ignores that (4) the institutionalization of state torture is a necessary, if not sufficient, condition of torture potentially having the beneficial consequences advocates of the pro-torture position promise.

With regard to the first point, ticking bomb assumes the detainee is not merely suspected of having the information the state desires, but that they definitely do. In reality, however, the state will suspect the detainee knows about an attack that may be forthcoming. Uncertainty and probability are, therefore, not minor details.

Torturing somebody because they might know something that might stop a bomb that might exist and that might go off at some point in the future is much less obviously permissible than the scenario Walzer imagines.

The second assumption of the ticking bomb scenario is equally implausible. In reality torture victims typically collapse and pass out pretty quickly, becoming unable to provide information. Furthermore many detainees 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. Yet the sheer unreliability of information almost inevitably ensures, in turn, the falsity of the third supposition: that torture will be rare. If state authorities have convinced themselves a serious attack is imminent, and the person they have tortured does not provide the information they desire, they are likely to turn to the next-best suspect and torture them in turn – and so on.

Yet the fourth point is, perhaps, the most important. Shue notes that unless state-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, training and overseeing a vast network of professional torturers. Rather than thinking about torture as an isolated event – as the ticking bomb scenario encourages us to do – we must instead recognize that if torture is to get the results its apologists claim for it, it must take the form of a vast and organized ongoing state practice.

When we think in these terms, a host of further, troubling questions arise, not least, as David Luban stresses, the question of how much trust we should place in agents of the state and their lawyers not to test the limits of whatever laws and conventions politicians adopt to regulate torture.

What we know about institutions and bureaucracies thus cannot be abstracted away from when we consider arguments about the permissibility of authorizing state torture in situations of national emergency. 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 torture will intuit exactly where to draw the line when considering who should be torture, or what torturous methods are beyond the pale. Professional torturers are precisely the kinds of people we don’t want to give discretionary power over torture to, because they are the people most likely to abuse their power.

Nor is there much reason to think that, if official rules and regulations are in place, they will be studiously obeyed by the sorts of people who apparently want to torture others. On the contrary, as Darius Rejali painstakingly shows in his history of torture, the clear empirical trend is that whatever regulations are in place will simply be exceeded. So even if strict regulations are in place that purport to determine when torture can legally take place (i.e., only in genuine emergencies) and how torture should be carried out (i.e., with as little brutality as possible), assuming that the supervision will in practice be strict and that the chain of command will actually be followed does not comport with everything we know about bureaucratic organizations.

Beyond these basic problems of idealization and abstraction, a growing body of research suggests there is vanishingly little scientific reason to think that torturing to prise valuable information from a reluctant detainee will work in the manner ticking bomb scenario supposes.

Neither technological advances nor science have yet been able to offer general rules for breaking detainees to elicit information. The work of 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.” The pro-torture assumption is that inflicting severe pain is a causally efficacious way of getting detainees to reveal what they know. 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. ‘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.”

Even if we leave aside the issues of idealization and abstraction, this body of scientific research has profound implications for the suggestion that ticking bomb inexorably reveals that authorizing torture is sometimes the right thing to do, all-things-considered. The abstract philosophical point that Walzer’s paper on dirty hands tries to deliver is that in grave emergency situations political leaders should authorize actions which would violate serious moral prohibitions if doing so will stop a moral disaster from occurring. As a philosophical conclusion, this, however, says literally nothing about which actions should be taken to achieve that end in the real world. The ticking bomb scenario assumes that torture is one of those actions but, when we consider the empirical literature, that claim appears unsustainable.So even if one accepts that emergency situations, like the one Walzer describes, reveal limitations of rigid forms of deontological ethics, it is just fallacious to suppose the dirty hands thesis delivers a pro-torture conclusion as regards real-world policy.

That political leaders should sometimes dirty their hands may well be true, but it does not follow that the ticking bomb example inexorably leads us to conclude that authorizing torture is sometimes the right thing for political leaders to do.

On the contrary, we have overwhelming reason to think that torturing can never be justified once we realize what a state authorizing torture will in truth be committing itself to allowing and enabling.

One can put this point more polemically: the ticking bomb scenario isn’t really about torture, philosophers just think it is. In the ticking bomb example, torture is a placeholder for “immoral but effective action.” When we, in the classroom or in our writing, continue to employ the ticking bomb example to interrogate the ethics of torture we imply that torture is effective. But the available empirical evidence suggests otherwise. By itself, this would simply be an intellectual failing. Yet the ticking bomb scenario has seeped out into popular consciousness. For this reason, it serves to give a spurious legitimation to state-torture. Academics and philosophers who go on using this thought experiment in such an irresponsible way, are at least in part responsible for a wider political culture in which torture is seen as legitimate by political actors and wider populations. It is therefore not simply an intellectual failing to go on in this way, but also a moral one.

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.
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