Thursday, April 23, 2009


I'll take for granted three things:

  1. Long-term incarceration for serious crimes is permissible
  2. Income tax, at roughly the level of taxation in the U.S., is permissible (though there may be particular features of the present U.S. tax code that are unjustifiable)
  3. Torture is wrong.
The last claim is a rough-and-ready claim. I do not mean it to exclude the possibility that there are extremely rare circumstances (such as where there is literally a time bomb placed in a populous area that cannot be evacuated) where torture is impermissible, but I mean the claim in the same sense in which people say to their kids "You need to keep your promises"—they do not intend to exclude the possibility of rare occurrences where promises should not be kept. (On the basis of divine revelation—as expressed in the documents of Vatican II—I take it that torture is literally always wrong, but I am not assuming this strong claim.)

Let's add some further, plausible claims. Some things may be wrong to do due to some complex moral reasoning which shows that even though the action does not prima facie seem to harm anybody, nonetheless the action is wrong (contraception is like that). But some things are wrong for a very straightforward reason: they are wrong because of the clear and obvious harm they impose on the victim. Torture seems to be one of those things:

  1. Torture is wrong because of the harm imposed on the victim.
The following claim is also plausible:
  1. If an action is wrong because of the harm imposed on the victim, then an action which imposes a greater harm under the same circumstances on the same victim will also be wrong.
Finally, add the following two claims:
  1. If a self-interestedly rational and well-informed person would prefer B to A, where B is harmful, then it would be more harmful for her to receive A instead of B.
  2. Some self-interestedly rational and well-informed persons would prefer some (perhaps moderate) instances of torture to a lifetime of taxation (at the level of U.S. income taxes) or to long-term incarceration.
But now we have a paradox. By (6) and (7), together with the fact from (4) that torture is harmful, for some people life-long taxation or long-term incarceration would be worse than some kinds of torture. But then by (5), life-long taxation and long-term incarceration is wrong in the case of these people. And this is in tension for (1) and (2) (I am assuming it is possible for one of these people to be guilty of a serious crime).

I think (1)-(3) are correct. I also think (7) is true. We would not think that someone who endured severe pain for, say, 15 minutes in the course of escaping from a twenty-year jail sentence was self-interested irrational. According to some stuff I found online, the average American in 2004 paid $9377 in income taxes. If this amount were annually invested at 8% (which is I think fairly conservative for such a long-term investment), in 40 years, it would yield $2.4 million. We would not think that someone who ran through non-life-threatening but very painful flames in order to get to a treasure chest containing $2.4 million, even if the chest could only be opened in 40 years, would be irrational in so doing.

So, we need to reject (4), (5) or (6) to get out of the difficulty. Of these claims, I find (5) the most plausible. So that leaves (4) and (6) as candidates for rejection. I think (6) is a bit more plausible than (4), though I am suspicious of the whole concept of self-interested rationality. If so, then (4) should be rejected.

But if torture is not wrong because of the harm inflicted to the victim, what makes it wrong? I am inclined to say the following: It is wrong because to torture someone is unloving, and the duties of love are the whole of the moral law. And it is unloving not just because of the harm inflicted on the victim, because there is more to being loving than providing benefits and more to being unloving than inflicting harms. Love is a unitive relationship, and acts that are innately counter-unitive, such as torture, marital contraception, or lying (I am not putting them all on an equal moral footing—equally, they are wrong, but they are not equally wrong, if you get my drift), are also wrong.

A different way of rejecting (4) might be given by a Kantian.


Heath White said...

I am skeptical about either (5) or the validity of the argument for paradox. (You'll see what I mean.) Suppose it would be wrong for me to punch you in the face (it would) and that I would harm you even more by violently body-blocking you out of the way of an oncoming car. Still, in the latter case, I am saving your life, so it's hardly wrong. That example tells against (5).

But, one might think, getting punched in the face, and getting knocked out of the way of a car, are hardly the same circumstances. Then I will suggest that paying taxes to the government for the provision of public services, and getting tortured, are not really the same circumstances either. That tells against the validity of the argument.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Thanks for pointing this out. One way to fix the paradox is this. Torture is supposed by many (including myself) to be always wrong, no matter what the circumstances. So then you say in 5: If an action is always wrong because of the harm to the victim, no matter what the benefits, then any other action that causes greater harm to the victim is also always wrong.

Another way of doing it is to argue that torture is wrong under the circumstances under which taxation is permissible. First of all, those who are known to be innocent are taxed. Even many of those who say torture is sometimes permissible will agree that it is always wrong to torture those who are known to be innocent no matter what the benefits might be. So torture is wrong in the sorts of circumstances in which taxation is permissible.

Finally, one might imagine a torture scenario that parallels the taxation scenario. Thus, presumably, we can quantify the contribution to the community that a particular person's taxes produce. E.g., this many lives saved by emergency responders hired with one's tax dollars or by tax-funded medical research. I have no idea what these numbers would be over a lifetime. My guess is that on the average no more than two lives are saved by the typical American's tax contributions. There are, of course, benefits other than saving lives as well (better roads; more dignified lives by the needy; etc.). So now the question is: Would it be permissible to impose torture on an innocent person to save two lives and produce these other benefits. The utilitarian may well answer in the affirmative. But I think most people will answer in the negative, and they will be right. (What kind of a scenario could this be? It would have to be a weird scenario. One scenario would be that there is an unstoppable robot who will kill two people and cause various other harms unless he sees an innocent person tortured.)

Alexander R Pruss said...

Maybe we can estimate the amount of contribution our taxes make to saving lives by comparing life expectancy in American society to life expectancy "in the wild". I would guess that life expectancy "in the wild" for humans would be about half of what it is, so on the average, our taxes save no more than about one life. (This is all extremely handwaving. But I think it gets the order of magnitude right.)

Chong Choe said...

Dr. Pruss,

I hope you don’t mind me commenting here. I have problems with both (4) and (5), (4) because it assumes an inaccurate definition of torture and (5) because it relies on a misplaced correlation between wrongness and harm. I think you’re right in rejecting (4). Torture is not wrong because of the harm inflicted upon the victim. Of course, it is contrary to love, but I think you can reject (4) simply by definition. Torture generally is defined as inflicting severe or extreme pain and suffering upon another person for an evil or sadistic purpose. Torture is torture not because of what the victim suffers, but because of what the torturer intends (of course, that and the nature and intensity of the harm). The crime of torture, in fact, does not require proof that the victim suffered any pain (although I realize that the victim can suffer harm without feeling any pain).

I also would reject (5) for the reasons the first commentator mentioned (what makes something wrong is complicated and depends on a number of considerations, including the presence of justification). I also think that wrongness, as a general matter, depends less on what the victim suffers and more or entirely on the intent of the wrongdoer. Suffering occurs by accident or mistake, unintentional acts, and as the result of nonagent causation. But what makes suffering morally wrong is that it was inflicted intentionally and for some evil purpose. The correlation is not between wrongness and the harm inflicted, but wrongness and the wrongdoer’s specific intent or purpose.

I also would mention that, while I share your intuitions about (7), it also raises a problem for me. The reason is that I don’t think people have a choice about torture. Torture is one of those things, like suicide, that a person can’t choose for himself regardless of what is dangled in front of him. Or, maybe, less dogmatically, I’d say that, while some may prefer to die or suffer extreme physical pain to avoid other harms, a self-interestedly rational and well-informed person would prefer death or torture only to avoid harms that involve a commensurate or greater amount of evil, and that being those harms that also involve death or extreme physical pain. (I realize that both reasons, the dogmatic and the less dogmatic, but maybe equally paternalistic, may not get me very far because you're talking about what people would do as opposed to what people should do.)

radical_logic said...

"Torture generally is defined as inflicting severe or extreme pain and suffering upon another person for an evil or sadistic purpose."

This does not encompass all of what can amount to torture. Suppose a terrorist suspect was being brutally beaten and carved up *for the express purpose* of getting vital intelligence information out of him. Most people would call that torture, regardless of the intent.

The question is: Can torture (assuming it works) be justified under certain extreme circumstances? A 'yes' answer must take into account the following:

a) the standard methods are unlikely to yield results.

b) the threat level has to be extraordinary high.

c) the torture method has a significant probability of success.

Absent those three conditions, I don't think arguments for torture can get off the ground

radical_logic said...

"But if torture is not wrong because of the harm inflicted to the victim, what makes it wrong?"

Here are my two primary reasons: 1. torture harms the victim unnecessarily, and 2. it harms the interrogator as well.

Alexander R Pruss said...


As for (1), it is easy to imagine cases where torture is a necessary precondition of avoiding a great evil. (E.g., the dictator tells you that he will kill ten innocent people, unless you torture someone.) I think (2) is right, but I think the reason it harms the interrogator is because it is wrong, rather than being wrong because it harms the interrogator.


Thanks for looking in on my blog! As rl pointed out, torture need not have an evil or sadistic end.

On the intention side, you may be right. While roughly speaking torture is wrong because of the harm to the victim, it's only wrong when the harm is something that is accomplished by intentional activity (this is somewhat strangely phrased--that's because I have a very specific take on the principle of double effect). Now the question will be whether the harm of taxation is accomplished by intentional activity. One might argue that what is intended by the state is the getting of money from the taxpayer, rather than the deprivation of the taxpayer. However, I think the two may be the same accomplishment (see that paper of mine). If so, then the harm of taxation is also accomplished by intentional activity. But this is tricky, and I can see how someone who had a finer-grained principle of double effect could say that a relevant difference between taxation and torture is that taxation does not intentionally deprive anyone of anything, while torture intentionally harms.

(There is also a neat kind of story on taxation which would get out of my paradox, on which taxation does not exist. Money and ownership is socially constituted, and part of the social constitution of money and ownership is that it is embedded in a social system that involves taxation. Thus, the money that the state "takes" in taxation was never one's own in the first place, and hence one is not being deprived of anything.)

Chong Choe said...

Right, it’s a truncated definition. I used “evil purpose” as shorthand for a number of other purposes, such as persuasion.

The use of certain tactics by the government to obtain intelligence (evidence) raises a number of specific questions. The two that immediately come to mind is (1) whether the use of a particular tactic amounts to an illegal interrogation (i.e., whether it amounts to torture), thereby tainting the evidence, and (2) whether the use of the tactic is justified by exigent circumstances (e.g., imminent threat to life or limb or, as relevant in these specific situations, clear and present danger to national security).

RL, I think you have (2) in mind. You have asked the million dollar question. I would answer that torture is never justified unless, as consistent with my earlier comments, there is a greater harm at stake (e.g., clear and present danger to national security). And, when there is a greater harm at stake, then at least (a) and (b) must be true and probably (c) (interestingly, high level officers are saying that “torture” has been effective in obtaining essential information).

I’m sure the government is arguing that their tactics do not amount to torture (because those using the tactics lack the requisite intent and purpose) and, even if it is torture, they are justified because of the threat to national security. I suspect they lose on both grounds. The specific intent that makes torture despicable is that something is done for the purpose of inflicting pain and suffering. Even if the government has the additional and further objective of obtaining evidence, this does not change the fact that the tactics are being used to inflict pain (which in turn may cause the suspect to disclose evidence). I think the government also loses on the second ground. It boils down to whether the threat is clear enough and imminent enough, and whether the harm being threatened is great enough to justify the harm being inflicted. And, even taking seriously the government’s reasons (wartime, past attacks, current threats…), I suspect that the link between the present harm and the future threat is a too tenuous to justify what seems like torture--at least, to our modern sensibilities (but that’s just my initial reaction without having reviewed the law and evidence).

Dr. Pruss,

I'll read your article and give some more thought to the idea of taxation as intentional activity.

radical_logic said...

"I am inclined to say the following: It is wrong because to torture someone is unloving, and the duties of love are the whole of the moral law. And it is unloving not just because of the harm inflicted on the victim, because there is more to being loving than providing benefits and more to being unloving than inflicting harms."

A counter: suppose the interrogator tortures out of compassion for the terrorist--not only is he concerned for the welfare of the population at large, but also for the moral welfare of the one about to be responsible for a horrible atrocity. This is not unlike the situation where A beats up his friend B because the latter is about to commit murder; the beating is done out of love. A uses "harsh love" on B to prevent him from doing something horrible.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I would still say that the torture itself is unloving, even if it is done for a loving end. It is too harsh to be love.

Heath White said...

OK, so maybe I'm skeptical about (4). Or maybe it's (5) again. Here's my worry:

There is some upper limit to how bad an experience can be. Some instances of torture might approach this. But so might, say, getting caught in a burning house.

Claim: no matter how bad a particular experience E is for a person P, there is some scenario on which another person A can take an action which causes P to suffer an experience at least as bad as E, where A's action is morally permissible.

You could appeal to either double effect or consequentialist reasoning to defend this claim.

If the claim is true, then some experiences at least as bad (=harmful) as any torture are permissible to inflict at least non-intentionally. These would include experiences of, say, taxation.

You could say this refutes (4), in that what makes torture wrong is not merely the harm it inflicts but the intentional nature of this harm. Or you could say it refutes (5). But anyway that is how I would provide a counterexample to the argument.

Alexander R Pruss said...


I now think the taxation issue is easy to handle: it is self-interestedly good to pay taxes. Why? Because our flourishing, as political animals, requires that we contribute to the community. It is good for us to contribute to the community, even under coercion. (Of course, insofar as our tax money is used in ways that do not contribute to the community, that portion of the tax money is wrongfully extracted. But that's not a controversial fact--it is obvious that it is the government's duty to use tax money only for the good of the community (broadly understood in extent).)

That still leaves the long term imprisonment issue.


I think the double effect route would lead to versions of (4) and (5) with "intentionally" inserted in the right places. But that, I think, would leave the paradox intact in the case of long term imprisonment. For it seems that long term imprisonment is intentionally imposed. If long term imprisonment is worse than the suffering of a short period of torture, then the problem remains.

(Perhaps, though, we need to make a distinction between punitive and instrumental harsh treatment? Imprisonment is, arguably, a form of harsh treatment punitively imposed for the sake of justice, retributively understood. But torture is a means to an end. So perhaps we can say that there are some experiences that are so bad that it is wrong to intentionally impose them as a means to an end, but not wrong to impose them for the sake of justice. But I think this is allowing too much. After all, it would also be wrong to torture people retributively for the sake of justice, even if they preferred it to long-term imprisonment.)

So it seems we need to reject (4) or (5) or both even if "intentionally" is inserted in the right place. I said something like this to Chong above in the case of taxation, but now I think the case of taxation doesn't work. However, the case of imprisonment seems clearer.

Alexander R Pruss said...

By the way, nothing I say on torture should be construed as intended to make any sort of comment on current political questions, though of course it may have implications that I do not take it to be my competence to work out.

I rarely intend in a public sphere to make comments on current political questions. Here, I am interested in a paradox. I would be no less interested in the paradox if nobody had ever tortured anybody for the past century. What sparked my thinking about this was simply that some graduate students were talking about torture. What sparked their conversation was that they were writing on an excellent paper on whether Nicholas Wolterstorff's account of love and justice can rule out torture. I suppose current events may have played a role in their choice of topic, but current events played no conscious role in mine.

radical_logic said...

"I would still say that the torture itself is unloving, even if it is done for a loving end. It is too harsh to be love."

Is A beating up B to prevent him from committing murder too harsh to be love? We can even imagine a case where A shoots B in the foot.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think it actually depends on details of intentions. Shooting someone in the foot might be intended to make their foot not sufficiently functional for them to be able to commit their crime. That's OK. But shooting someone in the foot so as to cause severe pain in order to dissuade her from murder might count as torture.

radical_logic said...

In an episode of dollhouse I recently watched, there was a scene where Echo was dangling a woman off a ledge with a rope to frighten her back to reality. The woman was a pop-star with an apparent suicide-fantasy--she wanted a fanatic admirer to shoot her on stage so she could go out in a burst of glory. But as she was dangling off the ledge, she realized she didn't *really* want to die, and thus Echo's harsh tactic saved her from herself.

This extreme tactic of putting the fear of death in the pop-star was done purely out of love, and since it was done for the purpose of dissuading the pop-star from intentionally getting herself killed, it constitutes psychological torture. Would you agree that what Echo did wasn't wrong?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Yeah, that seems alright to me, assuming proper safeguards. I do not know that it constituted psychological torture--it may have simply been a way of making clear to her what death was.

Chesterton has a story like that. And St. Thomas More tells of a man who wanted to be crucified on Good Friday like Jesus. But his clever wife told him: "Jesus was whipped before being crucified." And so she started whipping him until he changed his mind about thee whole thing. I don't think that's exactly torture, either, even though there is physical pain involved. I don't know what to say about intent in such cases. The intent seems to be to open the person's mind to the reality of death. Is the suffering a means to it? I am not sure that's exactly the right way to describe what happens.

I am also not sure that psychological torture is torture. I am not clear where the boundaries of physical torture lie, and have no idea whatsoever where the boundaries of psychological torture lie.

radical_logic said...

In the episode, the pop-star *really* thought Echo was going to drop her (she put on a very convincing act), and so from her perspective, it was like being *really* threatened with death.

But as to your claim that psychological torture isn't really torture, I would say this is obviously false. All torture, ultimately, is psychological. To see this, consider the distinction between feeling pain and bearing it. When I get a needle-shot, I certainly feel it, but I can also bear it--much better than when I was a kid. In fact, although I feel the pain, I don't mind it at all.

We can thus imagine a person being carved up, feeling each pain sensation, and yet not being bothered by them. Has this person suffered torture? I don't think so. But the person who gets carved up in the same way and actually suffers from each pain sensation *certainly* has suffered torture.

So the key element in torture is not the pain per se, but the intense suffering that (normally) results from it, and thus all suffering is ultimately psychological. Hence there is psychological torture.

Chong Choe said...

Torture is not your run-of-the-mill violent act, it is a violent act distinguished from other violent acts by the requirement that the perpetrator specifically intends to make another person suffer excruciating pain for some evil purpose, such as extortion, dissuading a witness from testifying, or for one’s own pleasure. As I mentioned earlier, the victim’s felt pain is not required. (This is how the law defines torture. Of course, you can come up with your own definition, but you would have to explain why it is torture and not an assault or some other violent act.)

RL, everything that follows “so from her perspective” is not important. What is important is the perpetrator’s perspective and, specifically, his intent and purposes. In Echo’s case, there may be other violent acts involved, but not torture because the perpetrator probably didn’t have the requisite specific intent. In the first “carved up” case, it still would be torture if the perpetrator intended to inflict severe pain. But, if he knew that the victim wouldn’t feel anything, then not.

As to the question of whether the pain can be psychological, I would say that it is possible, but that the same rules apply, specifically that (1) the perpetrator intended to inflict psychological pain (again whether the victim felt psychological pain is not required) and (2) the psychological pain has to be sufficiently severe to constitute torture (which I would imagine is rare).

Torture is rare. Usually people do bad things for other selfish reasons, not simply to make someone suffer.

Alexander R Pruss said...

If torture is defined in terms of an evil purpose, then by that definition no amount of suffering imposed for a good purpose (e.g., to save people from a ticking bomb) counts as torture. But that seems absurd.

Chong Choe said...


Let's consider a couple of examples.

(1) A villain subjects a group of hostages to severe physical pain (physical to keep it simple) to save them from certain death (being blown up by a bomb).

(2) An innocent hostage is forced to subject his fellow hostages to severe physical pain to save them from certain death.

You may have in mind a situation like (1), where the definition is not satisfied (at least at this point based on the facts given), but to deny that it is torture seems absurd. But situations like (1) are either unrealistic or ordinarily involve other facts that would show that it is torture in light of all the circumstances. I think it’s unrealistic because why would a villain intend to subject his hostages to severe pain for the purpose of saving them? If a situation like (1) arises, the villain probably created the dilemma (pain or death) in the first place and probably for an evil purpose and, so, even if he now finds that he must subject his hostages to severe pain to save them from certain death, he is acting with dual purposes in mind, the prior evil purpose and the "good" purpose. Whatever purpose he had when he put his plan into motion, however botched up now, still compels him to follow through. It seems to me that this would qualify as torture.

The evil purpose still compels him to act—this is important and I’m referring to the contemporaneity of the act and the purpose. One must be careful not to justify a present act done for an evil purpose with a subsequent good purpose. We’re concerned with what motivated the villain when he subjected the hostages to extreme physical pain (e.g., why did he pour acid on their skin, why did he smash their wrists and ankles with a mallet, or why did he attach their fingers to a battery with jumper cables and electrocute them repeatedly)? This specific act or series of acts probably was done for an evil purpose.

I don’t think you have in mind a situation like (2), but I bring it up because it’s more realistic. In situations where an innocent person is presented with the dilemma (pain or death), this would not be torture because the person lacks the requisite intent and purpose. In fact, unless he acts recklessly with complete disregard to human life, he probably would not be guilty of any crime. He is, after all, acting under coercion.

Maybe you have something else in mind?

Keith DeRose said...

5 seems wrong if the "because of" in the antecedent means "[at least] in part because of"; to have a chance of being right, that "because of" would have to mean "only because of" or "due entirely to". Or so it seems to me. That would mean that to generate the paradox, 4 would have to be:

Torture is wrong only because of the harm imposed on the victim.

Which makes it easier to deny.

Alexander R Pruss said...

That's helpful, yes.

Alexander R Pruss said...


I was thinking of a more straightforward case: a terrorist is captured, and is tortured (in ways that are indisputably torture by everyone's definition: maybe he is given severe electric shocks) in order to get him to reveal his group's nefarious plans. This is torture, and is wrong, but there is no evil purpose--the purpose is a good (preventing terrorist attacks). Unless you count the intention to cause him severe pain as itself the evil purpose, in which case we have no disagreement.

Chong Choe said...

Dr. Pruss,

I think that, with torture, there has to be the specific intent to commit the act of inflicting severe pain and the act must be done for the purpose of achieving some objective. So the intent to inflict severe pain is necessary but not sufficient for torture.

The “evil” or unlawful purpose involved in the case you’ve described is, I think, persuasion. What is usually intended by “persuasion” are those kinds of situations such as one where a person is being tortured in order to prevent him from testifying against a mob gangster. In your case, the terrorist suspect allegedly is being “tortured” for the purpose of persuading him to disclose information because the information may prevent future terrorist attacks. Even if there is an ultimate good purpose, there also is this evil or unlawful purpose. One can’t go around torturing people to get information no matter how essential, unless, that is, there are exigent circumstances or other adequate justification. The exigency doesn't prevent a finding of torture, it operates like self-defense or defense of others in a murder case.