It recently came to my attention that a college at which I teach philosophy will soon sponsor a discussion regarding the moral standing of “torture.” The presentation, “Is Torture Ever Justified?” will be presided over by another faculty member and open to the public.
“Is Torture Ever Justified?” For sure, this is a provocative title. Unfortunately, it is also a powerful indicator that the discussion that it invites is sure to be cooked.
In other words, the moral standing of “torture” is no more up for discussion than is the moral standing of murder, genocide, rape, or cruelty up for discussion. Even among philosophers, including those utilitarian philosophers who maintain that actions are right only insofar as they maximize pleasure for the greatest number, there has never been any debate regarding whether “murder,” “genocide,” “rape,” and “cruelty” admit of a justification. There have been arguments provided to justify proscriptions against these things, but this fact only strengthens the point that their immorality was already taken for granted.
“Torture,” like “murder,” “rape,” and “cruelty,” is anything but an emotionally-neutral term. It’s not even a theoretically-neutral term. Moreover, like virtually every other word of which our moral-political vocabulary consists, “torture” is rhetorically charged, a species of what Aristotle long ago identified as “persuasive utterance”: its meaning is normative.
In short, “torture” means “unjustified.” By definition, that is, it is unjustified.
Thus, the question, “Is Torture Ever Justified?” is question-begging: the answer is to be found in the question itself.
This is what accounts for the fact that it is as difficult to identify a single person who has ever advocated on behalf of “torture” as it is difficult to identify a single person who has openly favored “mass killing” or “the killing of unborn human beings.”
On the other hand, it is not at all difficult to identify people—considerable numbers of people—who have argued for “enhanced interrogation techniques,” “war,” and “abortion.”
Before we can answer any other questions concerning “torture,” we first need to inquire into what “torture” is. It would seem that any such inquiry would have to address questions like the following:
In spite of the singularity of the term, is it really the case that “torture” can be said to refer to a single class of activities, or is “torture” more on the order of a short-hand term like “the weather” or “the universe,” a term that refers to all manner of disparate phenomena? If the former, then must it be that all instances of “torture” are equally objectionable? If the latter, then couldn’t some forms of “torture” be judged more or less harsh, more or less objectionable, then others? Is confining a person in a room for a lengthy period of time and a dripping faucet as “torturous” as pulling out his fingernails with a pair of pliers? If not, why not?
Whether there is a shared “essence,” a hard and fast common denominator that all instances of “torture” must share, or whether there is, to quote the 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, nothing more than a loose, open-ended “family resemblance” between them, the question remains: What criterion or criteria, however provisional, should be satisfied before an act can be judged an act of “torture?”
The government is authorized to do all sorts of things that would be crimes if done by citizens. The government, for example, is permitted to coerce citizens into parting with their legally acquired resources so as to subsidize projects of which those same citizens may be ignorant or to which they may be opposed. That is, it can tax them. If a private actor did such a thing, he would be guilty of extortion or robbery. The government has the authority to incarcerate citizens against their will. If an individual held another against the latter’s will, he’d be a kidnapper. Governments have the authority to wage war against the subjects of other governments. Individual agents who draw first blood against an enemy, whether this enemy is real or imagined, would be culpable of manslaughter or murder.
If it’s the case that of two materially identical acts each could have a radically different moral worth from that of the other depending upon whose acts they are, then could it be that only private actors, say, could be guilty of “torture”? In other words, could it be the case that perhaps it would be an act of “torture” for Joe the kidnapper to hold his victim under water for extended periods of time simply for the pleasure of it, but it would not be an act of “torture” for government officials to “water board” suspects if they had reason to believe that only via such “techniques” could they prevent a terrorist attack against their country?
There can be no debate over the justification of “torture” until these sorts of questions (and, undoubtedly, others) are raised.