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Protection of Conscience Project
Protection of Conscience Project
Service, not Servitude

Service, not Servitude

Torture: sometimes a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do, say bioethicists

BioEdge, 31 January, 2015
Reproduced under Creative Commons Licence

Michael Cook*

Torture is an issue on which the public might expect bioethicists to be moral absolutists. Never again! Never ever! It was somewhat surprising, then, to read in the New York Times that one of the world's leading animal rights theorists, Oxford's Jeff McMahan, supports torture.

There are limits, of course. Mafia toe-cutting is out, along with the amusements of serial killers and the waterboarding used by the CIA in the bad old days of the Bush Administration. But there might be cases, McMahan argues, where "Torture can be morally justifiable, and even obligatory, when it is wholly defensive - for example, when torturing a wrongdoer would prevent him from seriously harming innocent people."

Moral absolutism leads to impossible conundrums, says McMahan.

"It is one of the problems of the absolutist view of torture that it has to identify some threshold on the scale that measures the elements of torture, such as suffering, and then claim that nothing, not even the prevention of a billion murders, can justify the infliction of that degree of harm, even on a wrongdoer. But the view does not absolutely prohibit the infliction of the highest degree of harm below the threshold. It has to concede that the infliction of that degree of harm can be permissible, even to prevent harms far less bad than the murder of a billion people. The idea that there is such a threshold is wholly implausible."

Another utilitarian who supports the use of torture in rare circumstances is the best-known of animal rights theorists, Peter Singer. In his book The Life You Can Save: How to Do Your Part to End World Poverty, he says, "I would argue, if I find myself in the highly improbable scenario where only torturing a terrorist will enable me to stop a nuclear bomb from going off in the middle of New York, I ought to torture the terrorist."

Another prominent bioethicist who supports torture is Frances Kamm, who teaches at Harvard University. In her recent book Ethics for Enemies: Terror, Torture, and War , she argues that torture may well be permissible in a variety of cases. She writes, "it is sometimes permissible to torture someone, at least for a short time without permanent damage, if we would otherwise permissibly kill him".

Ivory tower arguments for torture in philosophy journals have real world consequences. McMahan relates that an American philosopher, Henry Slue, admitted that torture was not absolutely wrong in an influential article in 1978. Two CIA agents later thanked him. They were relieved to find that their day jobs were ethically justifiable. 

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