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Friday, February 20, 2009


A friend of mine brought up the topic of torture today, and as in previous cases where the topic had come up, it got me thinking: is torture ever morally justifiable?

Having spoken to some other learned people of the libertarian persuasion, I have found that the answer is often a definite no, much in the same way that capital punishment is--and almost universally for the same reasons.

I too, am inclined to answer no, but one particular thought experiment--and extreme and well known one--is what causes me hesitation. It goes something like this:

A nuclear bomb has been planted somewhere in a densely populated city, and will detonate within a matter of hours.  A person is apprehended that is known to be familiar with the location of the bomb.  The person is not necessarily the individual who planted the bomb, but is familiar with the those who did. 

For the sake of argument, let us just accept that we are absolutely sure that this individual possesses knowledge of the location of the bomb.  Let’s even say, he’s admitted as much. 

Given the probable outcome--absent defusing the bomb--that it will explode and kill hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people in the case the person in question does not divulge the details, does torture become an option?

Some of my libertarian friends have, without hesitation, immediately answered “no” to even this proposition.  But it confounds me a little bit, as I’m not sure that “no” is necessarily a libertarian position. 

I say this, because it seems to me that the bomber has in a de facto sense, initiated violent force against a huge swath of people.  Does it matter that the bomb’s timer has not yet expired?  If so, why? 

But to be fair, we’re not talking about the bomber, so does wilfully acting in conspiracy with the bomber also draw you into the umbrella, making you a de facto force initiator as well?

The argument I have had used by some libertarians is that the bomber is essentially innocent and has done nothing wrong, up until the moment that the bomb explodes, because he or she could in theory change their mind up-until that moment and defuse the bomb.  By pre-emptively assuming they have initiated force, you deny them the possibility they will--in the end--not follow through.

This particular argument has never sat well with me, and I think it falls apart quite easily.  If I pull out a gun, and point it at you, does the same libertarian assert that up until the point I pull the trigger, you owe me the benefit of the doubt that I won’t?  In which case, you have no right to retaliate with any form of force against me, until I start shooting.

This is silly, of course.  Taking out a gun and pointing it at someone is a form of coercion by threat; it forces the person having the gun pointed at them to respond defensively. 

Hiding a nuclear bomb and setting a timer clearly also qualifies.  I don’t think most libertarians disagree here.  But does someone with firsthand knowledge, by virtue of having the knowledge get grouped in?

Libertarian ethics certainly do not require a bystander to render assistance.   Therefore, unless the person was directly involved, they are not criminally culpable in any way.  So the assertion is made, it’s more ethical to let millions die than torture one.

Another example might be: you witness an armed man enter a movie theatre, and you just smile and walk away.  You make no attempt to warn anyone of what you’ve seen, and the man massacres the occupants of the building.  It would seem on the surface, this is perfectly acceptable. 

Of course, in Canada, you can’t be held guilty by an act of omission, which I agree with.  But is failing to render assistance the same as withholding information material to the well-being of others?

 I’m inclined to think it’s not different.  I’m inclined to say that torture is still not justified, even if millions die.  That the man is entitled to withhold warning while the gunner massacres the occupants.  But it doesn’t sit comfortably with me, and I don’t think I’d be able to respect this ethical position in practice.

In practice, I probably would torture the man as a last resort.  And in the case of the gunner, I’d almost certainly feel obligated to call for help. I realize the latter is not incompatible with libertarianism, as it would be my personal choice to call for help.  But my point stands that despite it's contradiction with my ethics, I would be willing to cross the boundaries into arguable immorality if it meant saving millions of lives in the case of the man with knowledge of the bomb.  And despite the moral proclamations of others, I doubt  others would be much different in practice, too. So what does that mean?

Posted by Mike Brock on February 20, 2009 | Permalink


I have no problems executing a murderer, terrorist, or rapist. Also, I have no problems torturing a terrorist or some other scumbag if it saves the lifes of innocents. Life is not black or white. There are shades of gray. A libertarian who can't see that their rules don't apply in every situation is just as wrong as the fools that believe the nanny state is the solution. You want to uphold your principles and let a dirty nuc roast Toronto or Calgary(because God forbid you rough up a terrorist)? Fine! Then, afterwards why don't you go to the relatives of the victims and tell them "I couldn't torture. So, the end result is that your family and friends were incinerated." I would be very shocked if the victims' relatives don't beat you to death. What type of man will just let people die because a situation might make him uncomfortable? Could you still sleep with a clean conscious? Blood would be on your hands as well. I would hope that God is a little looser then you in who he accepts through the gates.

Posted by: David | 2009-02-20 6:50:09 PM

This is precisely the problem I have with Libertarians, I find a fair amount of them to be what I call "closet Marxists". An argument such as this will inevitably lead to the seminal argument of whether any violence by the state is justified. The philosophical points tend to revolve around the term "justification". The fact is that we torture not because it is justified, but because we know it's wrong and we know its unjustifiable, as in the scenario given. When dealing with an enemy which abandons and disregards any ethics associated with their actions to achieve an end (ie. Millions dead, no specific demands)

Posted by: Cid the Cidious | 2009-02-20 6:58:43 PM

I am not so much libertarian as utilitarian. The way I look at it is: Does the good done exceed the harm done? If yes, and if guilt is a given, and torture is the only thing left to try, then yes, by all means, torture.

Only a person totally lacking in perspective could argue that the immolation of an entire city is preferable to a dangerous terrorist getting a little water up his nose. That's the trouble with many libertarians; they obstinately stand by their principles regardless of the result. And in that sense they're no better than liberals.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2009-02-20 7:06:04 PM

Shane, I don't think libertarians would abscond. That's the point. I think given the circumstances, a libertarian would let go of any ethical system and react mercilessly to stop the bomb from detonating.

This is what I would call an "edge-case". It is a set of circumstances that puts the practice of respecting individual rights into conflict with itself.

Any ethical or political system will have edge-cases that will lead to dilemmas like this. It's not unique to libertarianism, and therefore does not discredit libertarianism. Rather, it is simply another example of how any extreme can cause rules to break down.

Posted by: Mike Brock | 2009-02-20 7:10:55 PM

Torture probably won't get the information, if someone is prepared to let millions die. Someone that crazy is impossible to deal with.

I still say, give it a try. You have to do something. You can't sit on your hands when large numbers of people are at risk.

Posted by: dp | 2009-02-20 7:15:21 PM

Mike is trying to examine the mechanics of morality and its tenability, not deciding if Toronto should burn or if conservatives really have the bigger dick.

Of course no libertarian *would* act to let millions die for an ethical stricture. This is independent of political will, it's a matter of human instinct.

But it is important to examine why and whether society after this event has got a consistent moral code, or if it is all up for grabs every time there's a crisis. And where that line lies.

Gorilla chesting about this is not germane to Mike's argument and amounts to distracting noise. I'd rather read the ads.

Posted by: Dhanji R. Prasanna | 2009-02-20 7:40:08 PM

"When we return to our planet, the high court may well sentence you to TORCHA and death for your treason."

MST3K reference, Teenagers from Outer Space.

Shall I mention the Agony Booth from Star Trek? :)

Posted by: Zebulon Pike | 2009-02-20 8:18:12 PM

Actually, the best torture device of all time is the rack. There's nothing quite like listening the creak and pop of bone and gristle and knowing that it's yours. Of course, an astute torturer knows that his craft is ten percent physical pain and ninety percent mental pain. A favourite way to elicit a confession from a suspect was to force him to watch someone else get the rack.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2009-02-20 10:08:21 PM

I don't know, Mike; a lot of the people I've met on these blogs are pretty doctrinaire. Results are more important than methods, provided fundamental justice is maximized. I'm a Machiavellian kind of guy myself.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2009-02-20 10:09:48 PM

Does having to deal with Toronto people count as torture? Surely watching the Make-Beliefs or the Boo Gays does. The very thought gives me the willies.

Posted by: Zebulon Pike | 2009-02-20 10:45:10 PM

You would never win a war by being the nice guy that sacrifices your own people in defence of your ideals. If the enemy considers your life as worthless then consider the enemy in the same light. Do whatever it takes to get relevant information. The real danger comes into play if you are not sure that the person you are torturing has any knowledge valuable to your cause. If the evidence is strong enough....then yes. If working on suspicion or hunch,then no. There must be oversight and proper checks and balance.

Posted by: peterj | 2009-02-20 11:08:03 PM

I will start by saying I think Libertarians are insane. Classical liberals and those from the Enlightenment who saw the benefits of limited government never ever suggested we don't need rules and laws. In fact they argued that Law is King.

Now, I ask, what are you smoking? No, of course we should not hurt an INNOCENT person not connected to terrorism, nor rape the daughters of true terrorists like the Egyptians do.

But as far as real terrorists who have blood on their hands, anyone's blood, I say hell yeah, torture the bastard. Let's also consider liberals are starting to define ANY sort of discomfort as torture - sleep deprivation, loud music, ect... In any case the duty of our leaders is to defend the homeland. So as long as we are seeking to protect our citizens I really don't care what we do some piece of shit terrorist.

Now, we have been talking about those outside the United States or Canada. The Constitution was never intended and does not protect foreigners. The whole argument changes when we talk about CITIZENS. In that case, the issue becomes greyer for me.

Posted by: Faramir | 2009-02-21 1:59:19 AM

David, have you been watching 24. I like what Bauer told the FBI chief. "The enemy is not playing by your rules anymore!"

Posted by: Faramir | 2009-02-21 2:01:10 AM

My Libertarian position does not dictate either way. But my spirituality does.

If I believe God works through me, which I do, and that spirituality dictates that I use whatever means possible to save those people, I do it.

And another Libertarian respects that.

Posted by: kris | 2009-02-21 6:17:38 AM

"If I believe God works through me, which I do, and that spirituality dictates that I use whatever means possible to save those people, I do it." If you use that kind of logic, then a radical Muslim could use the same way of thinking when he or she enters a crowded cafe and sets of their suicide vest. What that really means is it is in the name of their "god" and for their "people".

Posted by: glen | 2009-02-21 8:52:33 AM

glen - that is the problem I have with people who confuse religion with spirituality. A person of any religion committing a terrorist act in the name of their "god" is not acting with God but is acting in the absence of God - and that is evil.

I don't pretend to know what form God has and I make no claims about religion other than my take on God and spirituality is consistent with the true intent of most religions (although I don;t buy into the dogma of any religion). Radical Muslims are no more spiritual than other terrorist organizations who wrap themselves in the cloak of 'god's work'.

The point I wanted to make regarding Mike's post is that Libertarianism does not usurp spiritual belief. Nor does Libertarianism want government to usurp my beliefs. Libertarianism simply advocates that I can act on my beliefs as long as I am accountable for my own actions.

Unless I am missing something, that is a reasonable definition of freedom.

Posted by: kris | 2009-02-21 9:17:21 AM

Kris,good points, but that poses another question. If your spirituality is working through you to torture someone, does that not make you a "radical"?

Posted by: glen | 2009-02-21 9:56:48 AM

Kris, acts of government-backed terrorism are never about religion. By nut job individuals perhaps, but not states. Religion is merely a convenient hook on which to hang their crusade in order to give it moral credibility.

Poor God/Allah/Yahweh. The stupidities He gets blamed for.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2009-02-21 11:28:27 AM

I wasn't equating government actions with religion, but in the interest of protecting the rights and safety of its citizens, yes a government is obligated to take actions against an entity that obviously holds no value in the sanctity of life. Otherwise, what purpose does a government serve if not to protect its own citizens?

If saving the lives of innocent, decent people requires, as a last resort, extraordinary means against entities (individuals or groups) that are intent on killing those innocent people, then so be it.

A principle of Libertarianism is to have the freedom to do as you wish as long as you cause no harm to others. Well, given Mike's original quandary, my inaction in saving those innocent people is in fact doing them harm.

Posted by: kris | 2009-02-21 11:47:46 AM

One problem here is a lack of a clear understanding of what qualifies as torture. I state this because the term, like war crimes, has been so abused and misused. What would be pretty normal interrogation methods have often been called torture by others.

In the case here common sense dictates that the lives of the many automatically outweigh the suffering of the one or few. Things are never black and white, but our legal system treats them as such. Another example is lying, since we can all agree that lying is wrong, bad, a sin or whatever. Taken to the extreme this would mean that you must not tell a lie even to save another person's life. Banning torture of any kind taken to the extreme ends up causing a lot of suffering and loss of life for many innocent victims.

Posted by: Alain | 2009-02-21 12:05:04 PM

I won't argue with that, Kris.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2009-02-21 12:26:12 PM

Yes, Alain, there is no depth to which activists will not stoop to make their case or achieve their agenda. Making a mountain out of a molehill is the oldest tactic in the world. My question to these intellectual misfits is this: How bad can waterboarding be if Navy Seals, all of whom are volunteers, submit to it as part of their training?

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2009-02-21 12:28:02 PM

What I don't understand is why people have taken this to be a conversation about what constitutes torture. I was specifically ambiguous about that. You're supposed to accept that for the sake of argument that what I'm talking about would be torture. Let's say: cutting off peoples toes and fingers, and slowly disembowelling them and cauterizing the wound as we go, as to prevent them from bleeding to death, so they can watch their insides be slowly removed. How's that?

Posted by: Mike Brock | 2009-02-21 2:22:42 PM

It's hard to have a debate about the legitimacy of torture without first defining what torture is, Mike.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2009-02-21 3:25:23 PM

I don't know if that's the final word on this particular post, but thanks for the discussion - it was a good one.

Don't get that very often on the World Wide Whine.

Posted by: kris | 2009-02-21 4:37:36 PM

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