Morality grounded in emotions produces vile consequences. Hence, the reason dark-skinned people were slaves, women in many parts of the word are still treated as chattels, and 30,000 people die daily of hunger while much of the Western world is gorging itself to ill-health.
History shows that the level of enlightenment in a community is commensurate with the extent to which it ignores emotional influences in developing its moral framework. As a society, we are still enslaved by our emotions in relation to defining moral issues. The clearest example is the absolute ban on torture. Despite its pejorative overtone, we should never say never to torture.
Paradoxically, people who propose an absolute ban on torture aren’t sufficiently repulsed by torture and are too willing to accept the murder of innocent people – either they lack compassion or have a warped moral compass.
Torture is bad. Killing innocent people is worse. Some people are so depraved that they combine these evils and torture innocent people to death. Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who is still gloating about personally beheading American Daniel Pearl with his “blessed right hand”, is but just one exhibit.
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Closing the door on torture involves abdicating a potential means of preventing the torture and killing of innocent people. Opponents of torture need to take responsibility for the murder of innocent people if they reject torture when it is the only way to save innocent lives.
We must take responsibility not only for the things that we do, but also for the things that we can, but fail, to prevent. Thus, it is morally repugnant to not throw a lifeline to a drowning person. That’s why, as a society, we need to leave open the possibility of using torture when it is the only means available to prevent the murder of innocent people.
Life-saving torture is not cruel. It is motivated by a compassionate desire to avert moral catastrophes and is morally justifiable because the right to life of innocent people trumps the physical integrity of wrongdoers.
Viewed in this way, torture has the same moral justification as other practices where we sacrifice the interests of one person for the greater good. A close analogy is life-saving organ and tissue transplants. Kidney and bone marrow transplants inflict high-level pain and discomfort on donors. But the world is a better place for them because their pain is normally outweighed by the benefit to the recipient.
Such is the case with life-saving compassionate torture. The pain inflicted on the wrongdoer is manifestly outweighed by lives saved.
There are four main reasons that have been advanced against torture. All are demonstrably unsound.
First, it’s claimed that torture doesn’t elicit reliable information. This is factually wrong. There are countless counter-examples. Israeli authorities claim to have foiled 90terrorist attacks by using coercive interrogation. In more mundane situations, courts across the world have routinely thrown out confessions that are demonstrably true (because they are corroborated by objective evidence) on the basis that they were only made because the criminals were beaten up.
Second is that we can never be sure that the suspect has the relevant information. If that’s the case, simply don’t torture – in the same way that we’re not permitted to shoot in self-defence until we’re sure that the proposed target is up to no good. It’s only permissible to torture where there is cogent evidence in the form of, say, admissions or surveillance that shows the suspect has information that can prevent the killing of innocent people.
Still, mistakes could be made. Innocent people might be end up being tortured. But society won’t fragment as a result of this for the same reason that we forgive ambulance drivers involved in fatal collisions – mistakes in the course of benevolent activities are forgivable. What is unforgivable is doing nothing while innocent people die. That’s why there would be no moral redemption for an ambulance driver who simply couldn’t be bothered attending an emergency scene.
It is also contended that life-saving torture would lead down the slippery slope of other cruel practices. This is an intellectually cowardly and defeatist argument. It tries to move the debate from what is on the table (life-saving torture) to situations where torture is used for reasons of domination and punishment – which is never justifiable.
There is no evidence that torture in the circumstances I outline will lead to unjustifiable acts of physical harm. Actions founded on compassion are strikingly different to those aimed to dominate and punish. Communities realise that acts causing direct harm need to be tightly regulated. In these circumstances we don’t get slippery slopes, instead we see high walls in the form of tight and transparent regulation and monitoring – as is the case with the use of imprisonment and organ transplants.
Another common argument against torture is that it is inhumane and undemocratic. These are not reasons – just displays of venting. There could be nothing more inhumane than doing nothing as innocent people are being killed or tortured to death.
People who oppose torture in all cases are adopting their own form of extremism. It is well-intentioned, but extremism in all its manifestations can lead to catastrophic consequences. Cruelty that is motivated by misguided kindness hurts no less.
In order for the anti-torture extremists to move from the base of the moral mountain they need to accept that sometimes the only way to deal with evil is to hurt it, and that evil is not transmittable. In the end, we must always act in a manner which maximises net flourishing and inform our moral choices by reason, not reflexive emotion – that is the closest it comes to an absolute moral principle.
Dr Mirko Bagaric is a lawyer and author of, most recently, Torture: When the Unthinkable is Morally Permissible (State University of New York Press, May 2007).