Does the "ticking time bomb" hypothetical justifies the use of torture in general or only in extreme circumstances?

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M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

From a deontological perspective (ethical duty), our essential nature would reject unethical treatment, such as torture, under any circumstance basically because, if we go by the Greek definition of what ethics are, the duty of all individuals is to do good, and never wrong others. This is the deontological argument that anchors the debate of whether torture is applicable to a Ticking Time Bomb Scenario. Hence, it is always unjustified if you take that perspective.

From an utilitarian (outcome-based) viewpoint, the Ticking Time Bomb scenario certainly warrants the use of torture particularly if lives are at stake. Under this hypothetical, torture should be applied because the physical and mental "cost" of the torture applied to one dangerous individual is of lesser consequence compared to the amount of harm this same individual is about to cause onto others. 

There has never been an answer to whether a situation where dangerous information is held by a rogue uncooperative individual lends itself to a torture/answer scenario. Those who go by deontology say no, while utilitarians say yes. The debate is so divisive that even a lawyer in ethics such as Alan Deshowitz, to the surprise of many, could not even take sides himself and, instead, suggested that "warrants" are determined by an ethics committee in which specific elements must be present to execute an order to apply torture to, say, a terrorist who is holding information and not to a terrorist who just happens to get caught.

This is what leads the second argument: is torturing different than inhumane punishment?

Again, the two ruling houses of public opinion come into play. Think about the paradoxical nature of "inhumane punishment": when is it ever OK to relinquish our human nature (humanity) except if we, literally, turn into something other than human? Moreover, punishment is "inhumane" it is already violating the deontological tenet that ethics are based on the human responsibility of doing good onto others. That is the classical ethical argument.  

Contrastingly, if torture is  justified under the utilitarian viewpoint the same question must be asked: are we more or less human ethically speaking when we award justification to cause harm onto others?

Therefore, although there is no final answer, politicians resort to consult the most important book of rules: the American Constitution. By breaking down each and every constitutional right contained within OUR COUNTRY and by OUR citizens, the ultimate choice of whether to apply torture or not to someone endangering the constitutional rights of Americans will fall on our government. And as we know, torture has been applied in myriads of circumstances whether justified or not. 

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