Against torture

If you read the public discourse, the standard argument for torture is that in some situations the moral harm of torturing someone is outweighed by the moral benefit of preventing some other bad thing. The standard response is to talk about the value of life and human rights. One reason the two sides seldom convince one another is because deontological argumentation is not persuasive to a consequentialist and visa versa.

What’s a more persuasive consequentialist argument against torture? There are some common arguments. Torture doesn’t work. Torture cases backlash which strengthens our enemies. I won’t bother repeating these. Some are less common, more broadly applicable and are not brought up often enough. The simplest one of these is that clear moral norms are useful and their erosion has has serious long term costs which likely outweigh any short term gains. One such norm is that society and the state should not abuse human beings. Allowing torture erodes that norm. Another one worth considering is that our states cannot be trusted to use torture judiciously and morally. Hence even if torture is morally acceptable in certain situations, it’s legalisation or tolerance would mean it’s used in many situations where it is immoral.

I think each of these arguments could have a whole article about them with flowery dialogue and facts and complex argumentation. For the norm erosion argument it would be about the long moral journey the west has made, how deeply rooted certain beliefs/norms are and how quickly they can fall away leaving the worst of society free to come out. It would paint a vivid picture of how our humanitarianism shapes us. How it stems from both christianity and later the enlightenment. It would paint an equally vivid picture of the times in history where we rejected these norms and where that lead. The holocaust. The civil wars in Yugoslavia or other places. Slavery. Etc… For the untrustworthy state argument it would be a chomskeyesq long expose of the horrors the US/UK have done abroad. From funding and arming horrific, torturous groups in Latin America to consistently crushing secular arab nationalism and feeding the forces of reaction to Asia and the support for the Khamer Rouge, mass killing of “socialists” in Indonesia and so on. At the end it would chronicle or interview people tortured by the US/UK wrongly and the effect it had on them, possibly talking to a torturer as well about why they found torture dehumanising and wrong, before ending on a note saying that most experts believe torture is ineffective.

Weaving stories is satisfying. It’s also encouraged and rewarded by our society. It feels good. It’s not. A stories persuasiveness only loosely correlates to its truth value. Most normal people can’t extract arguments from a narrative. Most people, normal or not, don’t even try to. Complexity and stories don’t reveal truth. They hide it.


  • Maybe the norm thing is just a unfalsifiable justification I make up to rationalise my existing view, that torture is wrong.
  • There are plausible arguments in favour of torture. Some of them also aren’t common in the public discourse. By choosing to not make them and instead only give the anti-torture argument, I’m lying by omission.

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