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Torture can be justified in systems of ethics which account for good and evil in relative terms but not those which account for moral values as absolutes. Within a relative system, like that of utilitarianism, one evaluates the justifiability of an act not by the intrinsic nature of the act itself, but by possible outcomes. Thus, one would ask whether a given act of torture would, for example, prevent greater harm being done that of eschewing torture completely. For example, if a person had hidden an atomic bomb due to be triggered in an hour in a large city, one might argue that it would be justified to torture the terrorist to prevent many deaths of innocent people.
I think that the only justifiable aim of torture would be to (as the previous post says) to save a number of lives that are in imminent danger.
Of course, the question then becomes how many lives must be in play before torture is acceptable. If a kidnapper has a child hidden somewhere who may be in danger, do we torture them to find out where the child is? What if there is an Elizabeth Smart type situation where the child's life is not in danger but her mental health is? Do we torture then? It's a really slippery slope.
This is obviously a very personal kind of question because it asks us to evaluate our own morals and values. While it seems OK on the surface to say that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one (as in the first post) who is really to judge the importance of any life or group of lives? Buddhists believe all life is sacred so they could never balance the need of one over another.
While it seems necessary and practical in some situations (again like the first poster posed) I think under the skin I personally don't think it is ever really justified. We don't create good out of bad. None of us has the right to decide that torture is okay in this circumstance or what kind of torture is OK. That is too much power for any human or group of humans. In addition I don't think that torture yields the desired results. Simplying by subjecting someone to torture you change their view and responses. I don't think pain and fear are acceptable motivators.
Another problem with the utilitarian argument other than those cited above is that it assumes that torture is the best possible way to get the information needed in these crisis situations, and lots of experts suggest that it is not, because it often yields false information. So it comes down not just to weighing things against what is best for all people, but determining which method of information extraction is the most effective.
Typically people try to justify torture by saying it is a way of extracting information from an unwilling participant. In reality, torture has never been an effective way of getting information. More often than not a person will lie to stop the torture. They get to a point where, not only will they say whatever they feel the other person wants to hear, but they may not even realize it is a lie. They may truly believe the information is correct even though they invented the information to stop the torture. Torture can sporadically be effective, however it has no proven benefits. There is nothing reliable that can be consistently gained by torture.
Since so many have addressed the goal of saving others, I started to think of other reasons why people might use torture. I wonder if another potential goal of torture could be to deter similar behaviors. For example, I believe that in Singapore a person can be "caned" for writing graffiti on a wall. In Syria, children are being beaten for the same offense. Although some may not call this torture, its goal is to convince others not to do the same thing. Singapore claims to have a very low crime rate because of their handling of petty crimes.
There is no question that some of the terrorists in the United States never willingly gave up information essential to the security of this nation. It took waterboarding to get them to talk. Was it right? Was it ethical? Maybe not. Did it get results? Yes. Were people permanently harmed? Probably not.
As a huge fan of the television series 24, I have often debated this concept with myself, since torture for the greater good is a central role in the show. The main character often tortures people to serve the greater good. He is persecuted for his actions, which he feels is unjust since harming one "criminal" saves thousands of innocent lives. If you are interested in the subject of torture, I would highly recommend this series.
Personally, the only way I could see torture being justified is if the person in question is a PROVEN criminal, and the information could stop a catastrophe. Even then, it feels wrong to me though... but I understand that a greater good is sometimes beyond a necessary evil. I wouldn't feel bad about the torture if the information saved the lives of my children.
No doubt that your post will get various responses because self reflection is necessary. Who is to say what is justified and what is not? Who is to say what life is more important than another? I have read reports that state torture is really not an effective way to elicit information. No, I do not think torture should be used under any circumstances.
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