The Ethics of Torture
The dictionary defines torture as being the act of inflicting excruciating pain, as punishment or revenge, as a means of getting a confession or information, or for sheer cruelty. Arguments on whether or not torture is justified have been going on for a very long time. Some people believe that torture, no matter what the outcome, is immoral and unjustified. Others believe that torture can be justified as long as the outcome is positive. This is a very heated debate with two controversial viewpoints. In my opinion, torture can be both justified and unjustified, depending on the situation. Torture is a very complicated topic and, in my opinion, it is not necessarily justified or unjustified but is more of a judgment call based on the situation at hand.
There are many good points made on both sides of the argument. Although I can see how people would go either way on the subject, I would have to say, in most cases, that torture is wrong. There are an unwritten set of rules and values that every human being should follow. Torture is simply an abomination. It is one of the most horrible violations of moral civility. I think that the debate over torture brings up a great question, is it ever right to cause another pain to ease your own? Is it right to cause extreme amounts of pain to people to obtain knowledge? These are questions that I think every person who thinks torture is ethical should put some thought into.
The main reason I find torture to be unethical is because most of the time there is no way of knowing whether or not the person being tortured is guilty. What if the person is tortured but never gives up the information that is needed? What if you tortured them but all along they never even knew the information you were searching for? Suppose torture, as a general rule, was ethical as long as the right people were tortured for the right reasons, hypothetically speaking. Would it be ethical to torture someone who knew nothing and was innocent? Even if torture did happen to be ethical, torturing innocent people based on unreliable facts is not. How can you even know whether or not they are guilty for sure? Based on that ambiguity, could torture ever be a just decision? If the person that decides to initiate the torture has absolutely no doubt that the prisoner is guilty, odds are they have already obtained the information they are seeking. How else would you know they have the information you are seeking? Another reason I find torture to be wrong is because there is no way of knowing whether or not the information gained is reliable. How reliable could information or a confession be if it was given while the prisoner was being tortured? The prisoner would most likely just give away false information in order to put an end to the torture.
I think that Doctor King would side with this point of view. He was a man that did not believe violence was ever the answer. In Lee A. Jacobus’s A World of Ideas, it said, “His views concerning nonviolence spread throughout the world, and by the early 1960s he had become famous as a man who stood for human rights and human dignity virtually everywhere. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.” I could never even imagine a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize saying that torture is ethical. No matter what the situation, Doctor King never resorted to violence, although he had to deal with the danger of violence everyday. The book also said, “Although King himself was nonviolent, his program left both him and his followers open to the threat of violence. The sit-ins and voter registration programs spurred countless bombings, threats, and murders by members of the white community. King’s life was often threatened, his home bombed, and his followers harassed. He was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968.” This really showed what kind of a man Doctor King was. Although he had to face violence every day, he never resorted to violence himself. He did what he thought was right in God’s eyes. Dr. King once said, “I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land! I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.”
Despite all of this, in some situations, torture can be justified. If millions of lives were at stake and the torture of one person could save the rest, I would have to say it is justified. For example, if a known terrorist leader was captured and had made threats to bomb the United States, I would have to say that torture would be justified in order to save millions of lives. I believe that torture is necessary if it means avoiding tragedy although it should be used as a last resort. I also believe that nowadays there are forms of torture that do not include physical pain. There have been many advancements in psychoactive medications that are used to obtain information from people who will not provide it otherwise. I believe that since this form of torture does not involve inflicting any physical pain on the subjects, there is nothing wrong with using it in necessary situations.
Another view some people have is that if we torture terrorists, it will further justify their attacks against our country. I disagree with this point of view. In my opinion, our government is very good at keeping things a secret. I am sure that they are doing things that will have an impact on most of society every day that nobody knows about. I think that if the government tortured terrorists and they really didn’t want anyone knowing about it, no one would know about it. One example that I feel helps to prove my point is Area 51in southern Nevada. The government has been doing things out there for years that almost no one knows about. Some people have even done interviews that have worked there. The government has put so fear in them that they never show their faces. This shows the high level of secrecy that our government has. I do not think that torturing terrorists would impact our standing in the world. Judging by what our government is capable of, I do not think that anyone would find out about a couple of terrorists being tortured.
I also believe that from an evolutionary standpoint, creatures that are not prepared to fight to the death to prolong their own lives will eventually be killed by another creature that is. As Niccolo Machiavelli said, “Men ought either to be indulged or utterly destroyed, for if you merely offend them they take vengeance, but if you injure them greatly they are unable to retaliate, so that the injury done to a man ought to be such that vengeance cannot be feared.” He was saying that if you are not willing to hurt someone enough to where they can not retaliate, they will take vengeance on you. He also said, “Men should be either treated generously or destroyed, because they take revenge for slight injuries – for heavy ones they cannot.” He was also saying here that if you injure someone but do not destroy them, they will get revenge. This proves to be a problem that affects everyone. In most cases, people who are willing to cheat have an advantage over those who aren’t. This is also the case when it comes to differences in ethics between different countries. For example, say there are two countries at war. One country is very ethical and is not willing to use nuclear warfare to defeat the other country. Meanwhile, the other country is willing to do whatever is necessary to win the war. In this situation, the country that is willing to do whatever it takes to win the war could resort to using nukes and wipe the other country out. This works the same way with torture. In some cases it is necessary to do whatever it takes in order to save countless people’s lives. This is the final situation in which I find torture to be allowable.
I don’t think that Machiavelli would have cared whether or not torture was ethical, he just would’ve done whatever he had to do to stay in power. In the book it says, “Through the years, Machiavelli’s view of human nature has come under criticism for its cynicism. For instance, he suggests that a morally good person would not remain long in any high office because that person would have to compete with the mass of people, who, he says, are basically bad.” This point of view shows that if Machiavelli was a prince or ruler, he would stop at nothing to stay in power. Ethics and morals were not important to him and I am sure he would have used torture if it meant he would not lose any power. The book also says, “Perhaps Machiavelli is correct, but people have long condemned the way he approves of cunning, deceit, and outright lying as means of staying in power.” This shows how merciless Machiavelli really was. He put personal success ahead of the thoughts and feelings of others.
Finally, I find ethics to be a very complicated thing. I do not necessarily think that you can say that torture is right or wrong as a whole. I think you have to identify and analyze the situation. You have to decide whether or not the price you pay is worth the reward you get in return. Torture will always be a bad thing but under some circumstances it is necessary in order to avoid tragedy. In other words, sometimes you have to use bad means to achieve a good end. Martin Luther King once said, “Means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek.” I do not completely agree with this quote. I think that in some situations it is necessary to use means that are not pure in order to achieve a positive outcome. I also think that unless the person who decides to do the torture is absolutely sure the person being tortured knows the information, it is unjust. I do believe, however that if someone is being tortured in order to save millions of lives, it can be justified.