Monday, April 27, 2009

Ticking-Time-Bomb Scenarios

Contrary to what some liberals have been saying, we do have to consider ticking-time-bomb (TTB) cases.

The reason to consider such cases is because they show us that the common-sense judgment (and that's where our moral reasoning needs to begin) is that torture is (prima facie, at least) in principle permissible (and, perhaps, obligatory). There's a significant difference between:

(a) Torture is in principle impermissible
(b) Torture is in principle permissible, but impermissible in the actual cases under consideration.

(b) is true, (a) is false. If the very terrorist who planted the nuclear bomb in Manhattan is sitting in front of you telling you that, though he won't tell you where it is, and though it will go off within the hour, he's so averse to harsh language that if you merely yell at him a bit he's sure to cough up the info, then you'd be a psycho to refuse to do so.

O.k., now, everybody clear on this? Torture: prima facie in principle permissible.

So: quit denying this.

First, if you deny it, then you are probably wrong.

Second--and in the unfortunate event that the first point doesn't matter to you--by denying it, you give the Bushies an opening to obfuscate the issues on the table. We're not talking about science fiction-y TTB cases. The cases we're talking about aren't even close to those. The cases we're talking about are very, very dissimilar indeed.



Anonymous Lewis Carroll said...


If I understand you correctly, I think I agree. I will certainly go as far as imagining that there are potential extreme situations where torture may be morally permissible, perhaps even morally required.

The crucial distinction that needs to be made is between morality and law. The two may intersect, though not necessarily. Overall, since I believe morality is neither necessary nor sufficient for law, we need not consider it when making laws.

As for the problematic cases, it has been said, and I agree, that extreme cases make bad law. So while there may, as I mention above, be extreme cases where morality compels the breaking of law, I have a two word solution: jury nullification.

I expanded a bit on this in a comment I made on another thread (which I'll re-post after this, if you don't mind the long comment). The person who, in the extreme one-in-a-million case, tortures because it's the moral thing to do should not concern himself with what the law says; in fact, the moral profundity of the action is made starker by the fact that the person may be subject to legal opprobrium. (I would note in this context also that Abraham Lincoln explicitly stated to some of his aides that he may at some time have to answer before a court of law for some of his conduct during the Civil War)

This was the comment I made in another forum when a similar hypothetical was raised (again sorry for the long post):

Other poster: "Please consider the possibility that the President was weighing national security against the legal and moral implications and that - just maybe - he did not begin from all of the same assumptions that you begin with."

my response ------>

If that was the case, then not only did he disregard the oath he took upon assuming office:

"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

but he also failed in his constitutional duty to see that the laws be faithfully executed (such as the Convention against Torture).

Also, what many are losing sight of is the difference between personal moral agency and the function of employees of the government. Those employees all take a similar oath to that of the president, which is an oath to uphold the consititution. They owe no similar moral duty to my family that I do.

So while the question of what I would do if confronted with some kind of one-in-a-million situation that for example Mr. Evans refers to, where I could save my family by committing torture, I suspect I'd probably torture. But if I did it would be because I believed that I owed such a moral obligation to my family.

But even in that case, I would also have no reason to expect legal immunity or even leniency. Seeking legal protection strips the entire exercise and justification of its moral profundity. Either you think your moral justification trumps the law or you don't. Having official and legal approval doesn't make your action a morally trenchant decision, it makes it following orders.

There is no evidence of a similar moral duty owed to citizens by employees of our government. They may believe it is so; but that does not make it so. They are acting in their capacity as our employees. If we wish to empower them with that ability, we should undo all of the laws on the books forbidding such behavior and withdraw from all treaties that do so as well.

People may attempt to graft that moral obligation to MY family onto our servants in government, but that merely represents an attempt to win by visceral reaction, rather than logic. Yes, I would probably HOPE that some random interrogator would save my family by torturing a suspect, yet I have no legitimate reason for expecting it. In this respect the analogy to WW II Germany is apt: a German interrogator may have been able to morally justify torturing a captive in an effort to save his family (say by gaining information about a planned bombing raid in Dresden), but he should not expect to escape legal liability at Nuremberg.

As far as the practical results of torture, I would say that the use of torture could result in increase peril to our troops in battle because opposing combatants who thought they might be tortured would be more apt to fight to the death rather than surrender. There was a good reason why the understood rule among German soldiers in WW II was to run west not east if they found themselves behind enemy lines or separated from their unit.

Finally, also from a practical point of view, I would ask that people examine the case of Ahmed Ressam, the captured millenium bombing plotter:

A sample:

"Ahmed Ressam became a terrorist turncoat.

On May 10, 2001, FBI Agent Fred Humphries questioned Ressam, the first of dozens of interviews. The information was invaluable — and terrifying. He explained how he was recruited in Montreal and funneled into the bin Laden camps. He talked in detail about training with Taliban-supplied weapons. He informed on Abu Zubaydah, Abu Doha and other top al-Qaida operatives. He provided the names of jihad fighters he had met in the camps. He revealed that he had contemplated blowing up an FBI office and the Israeli embassy in Washington, D.C....

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Ressam's solitude has been broken by a stream of visitors, often FBI agents such as Fred Humphries, but also investigators from Germany, Italy and elsewhere.

With federal public defender Jo Ann Oliver at his side, he is told names and shown photographs of suspected terrorists and asked if he knows them.

On several occasions, Ressam has been flown to New York City for similar questioning. There, he is held in a detention center just blocks from Ground Zero.

Ressam did not recognize any of the 19 suicide hijackers from Sept. 11. But he was able to identify student pilot Zacarias Moussaoui of Minneapolis, now in U.S. custody, as a trainee from Osama bin Laden's Khalden camp.

Ressam informed on Abu Doha, a London-based Algerian who was the brains and money behind Ressam's Los Angeles airport plot. He identified Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, who ran the Khalden camp, and Abu Sulieman, who taught bomb-making at the Darunta camp.

Most importantly, Ressam named the previously little-known Abu Zubaydah as a top aide to bin Laden. That helped smash the notion that Zubaydah, also now in U.S. custody, was little more than a travel agent for terrorist wannabes making their way to the al-Qaida camps.

Ressam is expected to testify at the trials of these and other suspected terrorists.

So it is that Ahmed Ressam — the boy who loved to fish in the Mediterranean, the teenager who loved to dance at discothèques, the young man who tried and failed to get into college, who connected with fanatical Muslims in Montreal, who learned to kill in bin Laden's camps, who plotted to massacre American citizens — has become one of the U.S. government's most valuable weapons in the war against terror...

Ressam's information was given to anti-terrorism field agents around the world _ in one case, helping to prevent the mishandling and potential detonation of the shoe bomb that Richard Reid attempted to blow up aboard an American Airlines flight in 2001""

9:15 PM  
Blogger Jim Bales said...

Man, I hate it when I'm putting together a response to a blog post in my head all day, go to post it, and some one else has beaten me to the punch! ;-)

I second Lewis Carroll's:
"So while there may ... be extreme cases where morality compels the breaking of law, I have a two word solution: jury nullification."However, the two-wors solution I was planning on posting was Necessity Defense.
(See, e.g., Justification: Necessity - Contours Of The Necessity Defense)

The Ticking Time Bomb scenario is covered by the Necessity Defense. Therefore, it is perfectly reasonable to state:
i) As per existing US Law, torture illegal in all circumstances.

ii) In the hypothetical ticking-time bomb scenario, a rational actor will break the law, use torture to foil the dastardly evil-doers, and then clearly state: "Yes, I tortured the helpless captive and broke the law in so doing. I did so because I believed torture was necessary to avoid the greater evil of the bomb going off and killing pupppies and children. I am prepared to explain myself in court and take the risk that the jury will not agree with me."

Jim Bales

11:47 PM  
Anonymous eb said...

I have to second (or third) Jim Bales here. Otherwise, why have laws prohibiting anything at all – given that the very thing being prohibited might save us all from the horror of your choice? The cliché example, of course, is bin Laden plausibly promising to reveal the codes and location of the nuke under Manhattan, if and only if you torture an innocent young girl in his presence. Should we change the law to allow the torture of innocent young girls too?

You could, of course, write “unless necessary to save us all from terrorists” into every legal prohibition. But why? It’s already so by implication and custom.

The taboo against torture, on the other hand, is an essential part of what makes us civilized.

2:39 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

There's a lot up there, but let me just focus on one thing and see what happens:

You guys seem to be focusing on law and legal obligations, whereas I'm focusing on moral obligations. I don't have much of an idea how you make law in these cases, but I would have guessed about what LC and Jim said: i.e., you make law pretty much without regard for these crazy sci-fi cases, and then deal with them differently if they ever come up.

But all I was talking about is the moral question. There, prima facie, what we have to say is:

Torture is only permissible/obligatory in really crazy kinds of cases that may never actually show up in the real world.

And not:

Torture is never permissible in any possible case.

If we say the latter, then--among other things--it falsely indicates that we're some kind of moral fanatics who would choose to let the whole world blow up rather than slap Dr. Evil around a bit.

5:02 PM  
Blogger Jim Bales said...


Perhaps we can consider these two statements:
Torture is only permissible/obligatory in really crazy kinds of cases that may never actually show up in the real world.and

The really crazy kinds of cases that would make torture permissible and/or obligatory are so unlikely to show up in the real world that we are safe in ignoring them. If, by some bizarre set of circumstances, such a case should occur, we still have mechanisms in place to protect those who would do the right thing.As you probably suspect, I think we are, for all practical purposes, in the second case, not the first.

Thus, I would prefer to shun the former simply because it shifts the discussion from the reality that occurred to the counterfactual and hypothetical. My concern is that people will draw conclusions from the counterfactual setting and then try to apply them to the real events that happened. Doing so would, IMHO, be a major moral failing.

6:54 PM  
Anonymous Lewis Carroll said...

Since I think I agree with both Winston and Jim, by the transitive property Winston and Jim agree (?). FWIW, I can't see a whole lot of substantive daylight between Winston's comment and Jim's further refinement in terms of emphasis.

But Jim's subtle-seeming point of emphasis IS an important one. It's important, IMO, to set the default option on torture as one of taboo.

But Winston's hypothetical (2) in his most recent comment brings up what I view as the more general problem of deontological absolutism. I suppose a cynic would say that introducing even a modicum of situational ethics or a matching of means and ends into the discussion is a slippery slope toward arbitrary *morality* unmoored from any bedrock principles.

Since I'm out of my league on how one would formally navigate deontological vs. consequentialist morality, maybe a longer post by Winston on that would be interesting (an assignment for the prof, if he accepts it - how's that for a turning of the tables).

9:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If this is a purely moral question, it is important to recognize that morality requires placing a personal understanding of what is known, what is unknown, and how these determinations affect what is moral (or, put another way, morally reasonable).

These limits of knowledge (and recognition thereof) are where the law generally steps in and makes hard and fast rules based on the fact that there are things we cannot know, and that in order to do certain things (such as punish) we must have procedures in place that go as far as possible to getting the knowledge thing right.

WS, your hypothetical presumes far too much info (facts) to be plausible while also arguing that said overstatement of knowledge leads to only one morally reasonable conclusion.

The contradiction to your example is exactly how morally reprehensible is it to torture someone based on your erroneous "knowledge" despite your good faith idea at the time that you "knew" what was happening.

As a follow-up, are we now in the position of defending morally justified torture, or just torture in general based upon hypotheticals that in fact have no bearing on the facts of the cases we now know (at least partially) about due to the release of the released memos?

10:13 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Don't be ridiculous. You're completely missing the point of making such stipulations. This is not a controversial point--you get to (and in fact must) stipulate all those things in order to get at the pure version of the case.

After that's established, then you ask how the case changes in light of adding in various degrees and types of ignorance.

If you don't approach the problem in this way, then you can't figure out what we need to figure out here--as explained above.

11:01 PM  
Blogger Jim Bales said...

I remember in my first year of graduate school my Statistical Mechanics professor set one term in an equation equal to zero and said "this never happens".

It was the expression that allowed one to compute the odds of insanely unlikely events occuring. (E.g., the odds that all of the air molecules in the room you are sitting in will happen to end up at the far end of the room at the same time.)

I raised my hand, asking, "Since you can compute the probability of this event occurring, how can you possibly say 'It never happens'?"

The answer: "I'm not interested in an event that is almost certainly not going to happen once in the lifetime of the galaxy."

I view the Ticking Time Bomb (TTB) scenario is roughly that light. It is so unlikely to happen--and to so unlikely happen with sufficient certainty as to the stipulations--that I see little practical benefit in spending time on it.

I believe that WS, on the other hand, views the TTB scenario as a useful tool for probing questions of morality. It is altogether fitting and proper that he should do so.

One more thought -- I ask all to consider these assertions:
(1) "Torture is in principle permissible." [WS, as he would have been quoted by the Bush administration];

(2) "Torture is in principle permissible, but impermissible in the actual cases under consideration." [What WS rightfully concluded based on his analysis];

(3) "Torture is impermissible except in circumstances so contrived and unlikely that there is no practical benefit in considering them." [My currently preferred formulation]

Your thoughts? Preferences? Alternatives?

Jim Bales

11:44 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

I absolutely agree, Jim.

In fact, I often think of this with a physics analogy, too. One thing we do early on is to ask how things behave on frictionless surfaces. This tells us many things--for one thing, it helps us distinguish between Aristotelian and Newtonian mechanics. Then we can more closely approximate the real world by adding complicating factors.

The same basic idea goes for thought experiments: start with the pure, clean, simple case, understand what happens there, then understand the complex, real-world-y case.

People who object to strong TTB cases are committed to beliefs about reasoning that would force them to say to Newton: "Hah! Frictionless surfaces! If you need stuff like that to refute Aristotle, then you're full of it. Obviously your theory and Aristotle's are the same."

There's a huge difference between saying that something is in principle impermissible and saying that it's impermissible under all or almost all actual circumstances.

7:25 AM  
Anonymous Lewis Carroll said...

I agree with Winston and Jim. My thinking is that, since bounding exercises are useful in mathematics and the sciences, as you guys say, they should be useful in philosophical inquiry.

I know it doesn't always conform to this ideal, but I think one of the things philosophy strives for is the purity of reason and logic that is applied to the sciences and math.

10:27 AM  

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