Said Simon

Inchoate thoughts on my stuff

On getting others to torture for us

It’s time I contributed to the discussion on the ethics of torture as a means of information-gathering.

Some disturbing recent news: the British intelligence community has had a policy of balancing ‘the level of mistreatment anticipated’ against the perceived need for a given piece of intelligence, in requesting that foreign organisations gather information on behalf of the UK from a detained person. In other words, MI5 and MI6 could ask that a person held by another country be interrogated on specific subjects despite suspecting that torture would occur in the process. Give the Guardian article a quick read for a bit more detail.

On the surface, this seems an ethical no-brainer: if one categorically condemns torture, or the rendition of individuals to foreign organisations so that they may be tortured, one should condemn this policy equally. If one believes that torture may be defensible in the most extreme cases (see the short wiki page on ethical arguments regarding torture for some relevant examples of historic or hypothetical cases),  one might still condemn this policy, as it informs routine rather than highly exceptional practice.

The two best arguments against torture as a necessary evil for insuring national security are that it is likely to be less effective (or counterproductive) compared to other methods, and that the short term benefits of saving lives through its use do not outweigh the long term harm of its introduction or institutionalisation. Certainly these arguments should be compelling reasons to carry out interrogations through non-violent means whenever possible. I also believe that even in exceptionally dire cases, it is very unlikely that torture is a good choice, given how hard it is to assess the likelihood of success compared to other options, or to gauge the extremity of the situation as having passed the relevant threshold of danger.

But what if the only way to educe information from a person is through a secondary medium, and that medium is almost certain to use torture? The option of choosing a non-violent interrogation method does not exist. Furthermore, in many cases there is a good chance that the detained individual will be tortured anyway. This situation changes some of the ethical calculations, and raises additional questions:

  • Given the binary nature of the situation – the only options are either ‘information+torture’ or ‘no information’ – do the cost-benefit calculations of utilitarianism become simpler?
  • Given that the options may well be either ‘information + torture’ or ‘no information+torture anyway’, is it acceptable to choose the former, or does that constitute unacceptable complicity in immoral acts?

My thoughts are that in situations such as these, it becomes possible to justify requesting information even if it is likely to be gathered through torture. The task of guaranteeing national security is very often about sacrificing human rights, dignity, and life itself on a small scale in order to secure all three on a large scale. However – and that’s a very, very big ‘however’! – the decision to request such information should be made only in the rarest of cases, and only then with approval from the upper echelons of the government’s security executive. As the UK’s own policy document states:

If the possibility exists that information will be or has been obtained through the mistreatment of detainees, the negative consequences may include any potential adverse effects on national security if the fact of the agency seeking or accepting information in those circumstances were to be publicly revealed.

One of the main rules of covert government activity is to assume that it won’t remain covert forever. Anyone advocating complicity in torture should be ready and willing to publicly defend themselves for authorising the ugliest of all human deeds, and to accept the range of unintended and harmful consequences such deeds may cause to the very security we hope to preserve through their doing.


One response to “On getting others to torture for us

  1. Pingback: Some of Simon’s Essays on Humanist Ethics « BC Humanist Blog

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