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28.3.08

Is It More Important That Torture Is Wrong, Or That It's Ineffective?

Batya makes the case* for focusing on "ineffective":

Here's the thing: Torture doesn't work. Not as a means of extracting reliable information. This is known.

Is it wrong that I think this practical question completely invalidates any ethical question on the subject? That I'm not interested in even addressing the moral issue of whether it is ever defensible to hurt people in order to achieve something good or necessary, because I'm convinced that hurting people is not in fact going to achieve it?


I found this statement of the issue interesting, because I almost always hear it the other way around: Torture is clearly morally wrong, so there's no point in debating its effectiveness, because we wouldn't be morally allowed to do it even if it did work. Discussing the effectiveness of torture concedes the pro-torture side's moral claim that torture would be OK if it gets important enough information."

An important consideration here is that the effectiveness-first argument assumes that "extracting reliable information" is the sole goal of torture proponents. Certainly their arguments are structured around the (alleged) information-gathering benefits of torture. But I suspect that important functions and motivations of torture lie elsewhere. I would suggest at least three other purposes that torture is used for: acquiescence, revenge, and entertainment.

By acquiescence, I mean that the torturer's real demand is not "where's the bomb?" but "who's your daddy?" By forcing the torturee to give in, the torturer is establishing his position as top dog, so powerful that he can forcibly extract from others a recognition of his top-dog-ness. In this context, the truthfulness of the information supplied by the torturee is beside the point -- indeed, a compliant lie is positively beneficial, because it shows that the torturer can get others to agree with his worldview. (Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish has a good discussion of how the acquiescence rationale works and how it differs from information-gathering, though he goes too far in placing them in different historical periods.)

Revenge should be pretty straightforward. We torture those who we blame (as individuals or through group guilt) for harming us in some way, building up our damaged sense of self and security by exerting power over someone else. The rhetoric surrounding the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay -- "why do you care what happens to them, they're all terrorists" -- strongly suggests that revenge, not information-gathering, is a primary motivation for condoning harsh treatment. And it explains why torture proponents seem unwilling to consider less painful techniques even if they get better information out of the prisoner -- after all, the prisoner is a bad guy, so he deserves pain.

Entertainment is also straightforward. The guards at Abu Ghraib were torturing their prisoners to have a good time. Most humans have a sadistic streak, and so given the opportunity to exercise power over another being -- particularly one they can easily de-sentientize** -- they'll be tempted to exercise it just for the sake of exercising it.

The thing about acquiescence, revenge, and entertainment is that torture is in fact an effective way to pursue them. The very lies that foil attempts to extract truthful information are just what acquiescence-motivated torturers are looking for. And for torture to provide revenge or entertainment, all the prisoner has to do is feel pain.

Few people will admit (even to themselves) to having acquiescence, revenge, or entertainment motivations in supporting torture, so they'll hide behind information-gathering as the rationale for torture. But if there are those additional motivations, then a factual rebuttal of the information-gathering effectiveness of torture will fail to change their mind.

*I'm "acsumama" in her comment section.

**The vegan equivalent of "de-humanize."

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