31 Jan 2015
Reproduced by licence
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, support 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
"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
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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