Can torture ever be moral? (interview)

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http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/201...ore-155596

EXCERPT: Gary Gutting: What’s your overall view on the morality of torture?

Jeff McMahan: I think that torture is almost always morally wrong and that, for moral reasons, it ought to be prohibited absolutely in law. Torture has been used to extract confessions, to terrorize people associated with the victims, to punish presumed wrongdoers, and even to gratify and amuse sadists and bullies. These uses are always morally wrong. The only use of torture that has any chance of being morally justified is to gain important information. But even when torture is used to gain information, the torturers are usually wrongdoers seeking information that will help them to achieve their unjust aims. And even when those seeking information have just aims, their victims are often innocent, or lack the information sought, or are sufficiently strong-willed to mislead their torturers, so that the torture is ineffective or counterproductive. Still, both those pursuing unjust aims and those pursuing just aims will continue to be tempted to engage in torture if they can do so with impunity. Hence, torture has been widely practiced, though its use has almost invariably been wrong. This means that the overriding goal of the law ought to be to deter the wrongful use of torture, even at the cost of forbidding the use of torture in those rare cases in which it might be morally justified. The legal prohibition ought therefore to be absolute; for those who think that torture would be advantageous to them will always be tempted to try to exploit any legal permission to use it.

G.G.: But you do agree that torture can, in extreme cases, be moral. Why do you reject the absolute view that any instance of torture is immoral?

J.M.: Torture can be morally justifiable, and even obligatory, when it is wholly defensive – for example, when torturing a wrongdoer would prevent him from seriously harming innocent people. It could do that by forcing a person to reveal the location where he has planted a bomb, or hidden a hostage who will die if not found. It can be morally justifiable to kill a person to prevent him from detonating a bomb that will kill innocent people, or to prevent him from killing an innocent hostage. Since being killed is generally worse than being tortured, it should therefore be justifiable to torture a person to prevent him from killing innocent people. In cases in which torture is defensive in this way, the person tortured is not wronged. Indeed, he could avoid the torture simply by doing what he is morally required to do anyway – namely, disclose the location of the bomb or hostage....




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