Torture and stealing may prompt clear moral judgment, but what if the prisoner was innocent? Or the thief was your mate? Dr Nin Kirkham considers these complex situations.

Would you condone torture?

Can torture ever be justified? That question has been the subject of international debate since the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, and the US’s subsequent approval of  ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ to question suspects. These methods – intended to cause physical and psychological stress – allegedly included prolonged stress positions, sleep deprivation, and waterboarding. Allegations of torture by US authorities at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib prison sparked debate across the world, as to whether these actions counted as torture, and whether they could be justified. Could there ever be a situation in which we might condone, rather than condemn, torture?

There is a well-known thought experiment in philosophy that attempts to show one-off emergencies in which torture could be justified and, depending on the case, when it could even be considered the right course of action.

One version asks us to consider a situation where a terrorist group has planted a timed nuclear bomb in a busy metropolis, which would be impossible to evacuate effectively. Thousands of lives will be lost and the city rendered uninhabitable if the device is activated. Police have captured a member of the terrorist group responsible, and have reliable reasons to believe the suspect knows where the device is hidden. The use of standard interrogation techniques has proven fruitless and time is running out. Although torture in custody is unlawful, would the police be morally justified in using torture methods to extract information about the device’s whereabouts? Many people would say yes.

But what if the suspect was a child, indoctrinated to believe a particular terrorist mindset? What if the police were holding an innocent member of the suspect’s family and thought they could extract a confession by torturing the relative instead? Would the torture of an innocent person be justifiable if it saved thousands of lives? What if it were only a few people in imminent danger, perhaps only one? Or if the people in danger were a group of schoolchildren? What if it was a group of refugees, or a ward of terminally ill people, or even the last surviving members of an endangered species?

Some are fundamentally opposed to torture and think it could never be ethically justified. But that position is harder to sustain in a ‘ticking time-bomb’ situation. A more measured response is to highlight those aspects of the thought experiment that are crucial in pushing us towards justifying torture. In this scenario, the police reasonably believe that torturing the suspect will enable them to save thousands of lives. Secondly, the police reasonably believe torture is the only way to achieve this; the threat is imminent and the likely victims are innocent, and the police have good reason to consider that the suspect is morally responsible for the imminent attack, and so intends to murder thousands of innocent people. The conclusion that torture is justifiable is hard to resist if all these things are true. But in real life these conditions will almost never all be met concurrently. Basically, this is an appeal to the limitations of human knowledge and to the empirical ineffectiveness of torture. The claim is that real-life situations where the police know for sure all these things are true never actually occur. So, while there could be an idealised situation in which torture is morally justifiable, this shouldn’t lead us to conclude that it is morally permissible, except in extenuating circumstances.

It is quite likely that there are very occasionally real-life situations in which the lesser of two evils is to torture someone. Whether this means that torture should be authorised is another question, as there are dangers inherent in the legalisation and institutionalisation of morally fraught actions. History tells us that the moral slippery slope is not fallacious in cases such as these. Guantanamo shows that while there might have been a small number of legitimate cases, with interrogation techniques given legal justification, a torture culture began to develop.

Would you dob in a mate?
Imagine discovering that a close work friend is stealing from your boss. Would you confront him or her? Turn a blind eye? Tell your boss? Does the value of the stolen item make a difference?

There are many considerations here. Firstly, stealing is wrong, because if it were acceptable to take things that belong to other people, it would be hard to uphold the notion of ownership. Secondly, stealing creates consequences for both the thief and the owner. Finally, it is wrong because it is a manifestation of negative character traits like dishonesty and untrustworthiness. But stealing is a bit like lying – it ranges from black to white, from petty to grand theft. Legally, stealing is evaluated more harshly when the stolen item is of greater monetary value. Should our moral judgments work in the same way? If so, surely the answer to the original question would depend on what it was your mate was stealing. Many of us steal from our workplace in one way or another. We might help ourselves to an extra pen or two from the stationery cupboard, use the photocopier for personal reasons, catch up on Facebook during work hours. But are these the same as nicking a fiver from petty cash? And what about full-scale embezzlement?

Most of us wouldn’t dob in a friend who was using the photocopier. But what if it was a significant amount of money? The conundrum isn’t helped by Australia’s strong cultural aversion to dobbing. There are good reasons for this, because loyalty to friends is a valuable trait. But it has its limits. The difficulty is working out exactly what they are. 

Dr Nin Kirkham is a philosophy lecturer at UWA.

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