Do We Live in a Simulation, Or Are We Already Dead in the Real World?

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Some say that we live in a computer simulation, and that we just don’t know it yet. Perhaps God-like creatures, on another planet somewhere, have colonised us and put us in Matrix-style liquid-filled pods, our brains attached to a computer and fed with fake experiences. Proponents of the simulation hypothesis rightly point out that it may be wrong to call such experiences “fake”. We do have them after all, and whether these experiences come from a real world interacting with us or from a computer program pretending to be a world doesn’t make a lot of difference as long as we don’t know the truth of the matter. “Truth” may be a similarly slippery concept. (Nozick’s experience machine is a whole different case, because in that thought experiment the point is whether we would choose to live in such a machine. Here we assume that we don’t have such a choice).

Elon Musk has recently popularised the simulation hypothesis, although it’s centuries old. Descartes’ “dieu trompeur” is a famous example: an evil demon presenting a complete illusion of an external world to our senses, or maybe directly to our minds, or mind in the singular.

Also, rather than Matrix-style pods, we may simply be brains in a vat, or even less: emulations of brains “living” in a computer.

Whatever the merits of this hypothesis, I think they pale in comparison to another one: we are, in fact, already dead. The latter is, in my opinion, much more likely and fits better with the available evidence. Let me have a go.

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The simulation hypothesis can indeed explain all the evidence – since all evidence is facts and all facts can conceivably be simulated by some or other entity. The problem however is precisely this entity. Who or what could it be? The most likely explanation is that the simulating entity is part of humanity itself, perhaps a future generation. But why? Why on earth (or elsewhere) would they enslave physical human bodies, put them to sleep, immerse them in vats and connect them to computers in order to feed them sensations of a non-existing world? Why would they remove their brains or emulate their brains? I don’t see the point. The Matrix plot – humans as a power source – is obviously ridiculous. Emulated brains as instruments of computing power is a similarly weak rationale for the simulation hypothesis (when it becomes technologically possible to emulate brains, there won’t be a reason to fool them; just use their computing power if you don’t have better, non-brain based computing machines, which seems unlikely to me). The same lack of rationale applies to the possibility of aliens or Gods as simulating entities. It seems likely that they as well, just like future humans, would have better things to do.

Whomever is the simulating entity, it must have a reason for its actions. Even the fun of it or outright sadism could not support the simulation hypothesis: it wouldn’t be much fun to the simulators, not even if they’re sadists: our possibly simulated world is often awful but not awful enough to be the product of a sadist entity seeking to enjoy itself at our expense.

So the evidence seems to be against the simulation hypothesis. What about my alternative? Let’s call it the Cotard hypothesis after the well-known Cotard delusion: a mental illness in which the affected person holds the delusional belief that he or she is already dead. Although of course in this case we’re not dealing with a delusion. The delusion would be that we’re still alive.

Think about unrequited love, the glances in the subway that went unnoticed, the promotion that you failed to get, the times that your husband ignored what you were saying… Often trivial and banal occurrences, but taken together they may have some weight. Perhaps more weight than the simulation hypothesis. Countervailing evidence can also be explained. The times when you weren’t ignored may have been wishful thinking. After all, it’s easier to believe that you are alive than that you are dead, and so your mind may fabricate “evidence” to convince you that you are in fact alive. Such fabrications are not unheard of: there’s the just world fallacy, we have adaptive preferences and suffer from confirmation bias. And a lot of these biases are unconscious.

Think also about the sadness of some of the memories of early childhood. Good memories maybe, but also sad at the same time because that world is gone, that life is gone. Your life is gone. This fits also nicely with the increasingly popular notion that there is no such thing as en enduring personal identity. We “die” every moment.

(An interesting fictional treatment of the Cotard delusion is the TV-series Talking to the Dead – forget the IMDB ranking, it’s BS. And there’s of course The Sixth Sense).

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Terrorism and Human Rights (41): The Ticking Time Bomb Scenario

I recently wrote a blind referee report for a paper about the so-called ticking time bomb scenario (a short intro about the concept is here), and it occurred to me that it may make a useful blogpost. I can’t show you the paper itself, since it’s not published yet and I don’t know who wrote it (that’s what blind refereeing is about), but I don’t think that’s necessary in order to understand my comments. Undoubtedly, by publishing my comments here I also violate the blind refereeing process, since there’s a chance the author(s) of the paper, whomever it is, might find my comments here and hence find out who I am. It’s a small chance, since this is a small blog. But, truth be told, I don’t care because I object to the whole blind refereeing thing: it stifles discussion. I only go along with it because I get to read interesting papers.

So here goes:

While the authors do an excellent job of doing what they set out to do, I have an objection to their basic objective. The paper is intended as a defense of thought experiments in philosophy in general and of the Ticking Time Bomb scenario (TBS) in particular. That in itself is a laudable objective, and the discussion of the ways in which the use of TBS as a thought experiment has been misunderstood, especially by opponents of torture, is on the mark.

However, it is my view that the authors focus too much on TBS as a philosophical device and as a thought experiment and lose sight of common usage of TBS. As a result, they run the risk of producing a paper on a topic that is irrelevant to the main discussions regarding the topic. If one were willing to count, one would find that a large majority of citations of TBS are not in the context of strictly philosophical discussions regarding our deeply held moral intuitions, but rather in a context in which philosophical discussions about TBS are intended to have policy implications. In fact, TBS is hardly ever a purely philosophical device and almost always a philosophical slash political device. A paper on TBS – even a philosophical paper – should not lose sight of the ways in which discussions about TBS are often intended to have policy implications, especially when these intended policy implications are highly disturbing.

The authors make assumptions about the motivations of proponents and opponents of discussions about TBS. For instance: proponents are assumed to use TBS as a merely philosophical device intended to highlight our moral intuitions, whereas opponents are assumed to be motivated by their fear of the – supposedly non-existent – policy motivations of proponents. The authors seem to be arguing two things:

  1. Those who use the TBS in order to argue that a ticking bomb should perhaps authorize torture only or mainly do so in order to highlight moral intuitions, not in order to actually promote the use of torture were a ticking bomb to be found.
  2. Those who object to the use of the TBS as a means to argue that a ticking bomb should perhaps authorize torture therefore miss the point.

I believe that both arguments are wrong, sociologically speaking. The authors would probably agree and respond that they do not speak sociologically but philosophically and that their point is an “ought” rather than an “is”: even if TBS “is” used as a policy device and a means to promote torture, it “ought” to be used as a mere philosophical device (“the proper use of the TBS is not intended as a policy-making device”, p. 12). Be that as it may, the paper would benefit from

  1. A clearer statement of this difference.
  2. A clear recognition of the actual way in which a majority of citations of TBS are evidently philosophical slash political in nature rather than merely philosophical.
  3. A more thorough discussion of the respective motivations of proponents and opponents of the use of the TBS experiment.

The paper also contains some statements without arguments. For example, the already cited phrase “the proper use of the TBS is not intended as a policy-making device” (p. 12). While the usefulness of TBS as a philosophical thought experiment is very well argued elsewhere in the paper, the claim that this and only this use of TBS is the proper one is merely stated, not argued. Many actual users of TBS would disagree and would claim that it is and should be a policy making device. For example, one could make the case that the frequent use of TBS by Bush/Cheney officials was intended as a justification of actual torture. Another phrase that does not receive sufficient argument: “strenuous attempts to show that the TBS … leads to terrible social policy are misguided” (p. 26). Perhaps actual torture during the Bush/Cheney administration combined with frequent citation of the TBS by that administration would indicate that those “strenuous attempts” are not in fact “misguided”. If the authors wish to maintain the two cited phrases, they’ll have to make the argument.

More posts in this series are here.

Terrorism and Human Rights (37): Torture is Social and Political Suicide

When democratic governments consider the option of torturing someone, the stakes are usually high. They won’t consider it just for some marginal benefit. The paradigmatic case is the ticking time bomb that’s about to kill thousands or even millions. Torture is supposed to be justified because the benefits are huge, or – stated negatively – because the possible harm resulting from a failure to torture is huge. Combining the size of what is at stake with the urgency of the threat makes the case for torture even stronger.

However, this justification of torture has some unsettling side effects. Given the urgency, and given the fact that terrorists are probably trained to withstand torture, a free society would have to

maintain a professional class of torturers, and to equip them with continuously-updated torture techniques and equipment. Grave dangers to democracy and to individual freedoms would be posed by an institutionalized professional “torture squad”. (source)

Such a highly trained and continuously available torture squad would be necessary to inflict torture that is likely to succeed in extracting the information on a reliable basis and within an extremely short time frame. It would also be necessary to inflict levels of pain sufficient to procure the victim’s compliance but insufficient to kill or render incapable of communication. Amateur thugs will not suffice. You really need professionals.

This is the institutionalization of torture. It’s difficult to see how a free society could survive the presence of such a torture squad. It would infect our entire society to know that there are people among us who torture for a living. The squad members themselves will most likely fail to remain well-intentioned, and the mere existence of such a squad corrupts morality in a society. It’s naive to think that the members of the torture squad will return to normality once their job is done and function like normal law-abiding and non-violent citizens in between emergency sessions. Torture leads to the destruction of a democracy and a free society that decides to go this way.

Terrorism and Human Rights (36): There Are No Ticking Bomb Cases

The so-called ticking time bomb case is supposed to prove that there shouldn’t be an absolute ban on torture, and that torture is in some cases justified if it can help to prevent catastrophic harm. Maybe there shouldn’t be an absolute ban, but the ticking bomb case is the wrong way to prove it.

Just a brief reminder of what the ticking bomb case is about. Suppose a ticking bomb has been hidden in a densely populated area and will soon kill thousands or millions if not disarmed. The authorities have managed to capture a terrorist who has either hidden the bomb himself or knows where it has been hidden. (One can replace the “ticking bomb” with another and similar type of deadly device without changing the nature of the argument. The “ticking bomb” is in fact a “pars pro toto”, encompassing cases which do not necessarily involve an actual ticking bomb but which are nevertheless similar with respect to their circumstances and consequences).

The authorities are sure the captured person knows where the bomb is and how to disarm it, but the problem is that he obviously doesn’t want to reveal this information. However, the authorities are also pretty sure that he will do so under torture. There is no other or alternative way to extract the information, and simply evacuating people isn’t an option given the urgency and the lack of knowledge about the exact location of the bomb. Are we therefore not morally allowed to use torture in order to get the information and save numerous lives? Or, a somewhat stronger claim: are we not morally obliged to torture given the enormous benefits for large numbers of people compared to the limited costs for the tortured individual?

Given the choice between inflicting a relatively small level of harm on a wrongdoer and saving an innocent person, it is verging on moral indecency to prefer the interests of the wrongdoer. (source)

The problem – if it is a problem – is that this thought experiment can’t justify torture. It can’t because it’s loaded with so many hypotheticals that the chances of a case like it occurring in real life are close to zero. People simply have to know too much and yet just – just – not enough. That state of affairs is very unlikely, as is the application of torture that is so effective that it delivers accurate information in a very short time frame (remember, the bomb is ticking…).

Hence, if we won’t see a case like it in real life, the thought experiment can’t justify real life torture. At most it may be able to justify torture in theory. The purely theoretical nature of the whole affair is supported by the absence of ticking bomb cases in history. Some cases that are claimed to have been ticking bomb cases – such as the torture of Abdul Hakim Murad – were in fact, after closer examination, none of the kind. Murad only gave away his information after a month of torture, and it came as a surprise. He was tortured not because of an imminent threat. There was no such threat, and the torturers did not act on the assumption that there was.

In 1995, the police in the Philippines tortured Abdul Hakim Murad after finding a bomb-making factory in his apartment in Manila. They broke his ribs, burned him with cigarettes, forced water down his throat, then threatened to turn him over to the Israelis. Finally, from this withered and broken man came secrets of a terror plot to blow up 11 airliners, crash another into the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency and to assassinate the pope. … it took more than a month to break Mr. Murad and extract information – a delay that would have made it impossible to head off an imminent threat. (source)

I assume that all those who come up with the ticking bomb to justify torture want to use the case not to justify ticking bomb torture but other, more mundane forms of torture. After all, when you think you’ve managed to crack open the door a little bit – even theoretically – maybe it will swing wide open.

More about the ticking bomb case. More about torture.

Terrorism and Human Rights (34): Terrorism Reduces Respect for Human Rights

And I don’t mean that in the obvious sense: terrorism is a human rights violation and therefore reduces respect for human rights. I’m more interested in the indirect effects of terrorism on human rights. According to this study, terrorist attacks substantially diminish governments’ respect for human rights. Extrajudicial killings, political imprisonment, torture, attacks on privacy etc. are much more common in countries that have witnessed terrorist attacks. One commonly cited reason for this is the perceived necessity of balancing human rights and security. However, it’s not clear whether restrictions on human rights do indeed work to deter or fight terrorism – perhaps such restrictions just make terrorism more likely in the long run (oppression creates resentment). It’s also unclear whether terrorism is the real reason for the restrictions or merely a pretext.

If terrorists are indeed motivated by their hatred of “our freedom“, then they are extremely successful because they have forced democratic countries to destroy a substantial part of their own freedom. Examples are here.

And whether or not restrictions of freedom do effectively improve security in the short and in the long run, governments can’t claim that what they do is what the public wants:

Terrorism and Human Rights (32): What is Torture?

This question has to be answered, and not just because answering it is intellectually satisfying. Those who engage or want to engage in torture are constantly trying to redefine the word downwards. Nobody wants to be a torturer, but many want to use force during interrogations. because they think they have to, because they believe it helps, or simply because they’re insane and evil.

Hence, if one can manage to exclude certain forms of interrogation from the concept of “torture” by way of some definitional acrobatics, those forms become somewhat more acceptable. An example is the infamous torture definition proposed by John Yoo and the Justice Department (who, I believe, belong to the “we have to” camp):

Physical pain amounting to torture must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death. For purely mental pain or suffering to amount to torture (under U.S. law), it must result in significant psychological harm of significant duration, e.g., lasting for months or even years. (source)

On the other hand, we don’t want the concept to cover too much. There are some cases in which the deliberate infliction of pain is justified and shouldn’t be called torture. Sadomasochistic relationships between consenting adults should not be prohibited. And some forms of criminal punishment cause pain – typically mental pain – and yet are commonly accepted. Likewise, we wouldn’t want to outlaw all types of war, no matter how intensely we yearn for peace.

So, let’s propose the following definition, based loosely on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy lemma on torture: torture is

  • the intentional and non-accidental infliction of severe physical – and in some cases mental – pain or suffering (mental suffering can be a mock execution for example)
  • by one person on another, non-consenting and defenseless person who may or may not be guilty of a crime (the torturer may or may not be a government official or someone employed by a government official)
  • while assuming complete control over the victim’s body and autonomy
  • with the purpose of:
  • extracting information (forward-looking)
  • extracting a confession (backward-looking)
  • punishing the victim
  • degrading the victim
  • coercing the victim to act in a certain way or believe certain things
  • terrorizing, intimidating, pacifying or oppressing the victim, or
  • terrorizing, intimidating, pacifying or oppressing the wider society.

This definition is compatible with, although somewhat wider than, the definition offered in the United Nations Convention Against Torture:

Torture is any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a male or female person for such purposes as obtaining from him, or a third person, information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in, or incidental to, lawful sanctions. (source)

This UN definition has the advantage of explicitly including second-order torture, namely torturing a person – for example a relative – in order to get a confession, information etc. from another person.

Both these definitions exclude, correctly I believe, acts of self-defense, masochism or other types of consensual violence, as well as violent acts between combatants and “collateral damage” (accidental injuries to civilians) in the course of war. However, it’s not because these actions are excluded from the definition of torture, that they are necessarily morally right.

More on torture here.

Terrorism and Human Rights (28): Torture and the Ticking Bomb

In 1987, a judicial commission of inquiry headed by former [Israeli] Supreme Court Justice Moshe Landau had reported that “moderate physical pressure” [by the Israeli General Security Services G.S.S.] was defensible in cases in which an interrogator “committed an act that was immediately necessary” to save lives from grave harm. Israeli human rights organizations had monitored G.S.S. interrogations and concluded that some eighty-five percent of Palestinians interrogated had been tortured – subjected to methods almost identical to those currently being used in American military detention – and questioned whether such an enormous percentage of detainees were indeed “ticking bombs”. If those being tortured were all “ticking bombs”, why, asked an Israeli human rights organization shortly before the Supreme Court hearing, did interrogators take weekends off? “The lethal bomb ticks away during the week, ceases, miraculously, on the weekend, and begins to tick again when the interrogators return from their day of rest.” (source)

Whatever you think about the persuasiveness of the ticking bomb argument in favor of torture, or even it’s relevance to actual cases of torture, it’s difficult not see the risk of a slippery slope, especially given evidence like this. 

Terrorism and Human Rights (25): A Theory of No Resort

In just war theory, the concept of “last resort” means that force, violence and other violations of human rights are allowed only after all peaceful and viable alternatives have been seriously tried and exhausted or are clearly not practical, and when force etc. is clearly the only option. In the current “war on terror”, the use or torture is often justified as a last resort, as the only option available, in certain circumstances such as the “ticking bomb”, to avoid an outcome that is worse than the use of the last resort.

There are many possible and convincing arguments against the use of torture, but one which isn’t mentioned a lot is the fact that justifications for torture emanate from a philosophy that sees risk as something to be completely overcome. Torture is justified as an extreme measure to overcome a last remaining and very small risk. That is evident from the ticking bomb case: the case itself is by definition rare, so the risk that it occurs is very small. Even smaller is the risk that we have to resort to the use of torture as a means to avoid the risk of the bomb going off (if, exceptionally, we find ourselves in a ticking bomb situation, other means short of torture may well allow us to avoid the risk).

This philosophy of using extreme measures to avoid or eliminate as much risk as possible is, I think, mistaken. If I’m right, the justification of torture as one of such extreme measures is void. And don’t say I’m fighting windmills here: this philosophy is omnipresent. Look at the swine flu hysteria for example, or the recent and silly airport and air travel security measures after the “Christmas Day Attack” (e.g. forcing passengers to sit down during the last hour of flight). Maybe we need a theory of no resort rather than a theory of last resort. Maybe we should learn to live with the fact that bad things happen and that often we can’t do a thing about them.

Terrorism and Human Rights (19): The War on Terror and the Right to Privacy

During an apparently never-ending war on terror (what could be the end of such a war?), people are quick to believe their “liberal” governments when they tell them that a bit less privacy is a cheap price to pay for more physical security.

However, many of those governments, because they claim to be “liberal” and “democratic”, feel uneasy about this. After all, if rights are tradeable like this, if they depend on the circumstance and should be surrendered when the circumstances become more difficult, what is left of them? They become a luxury for good times, rather than a safeguard in bad times. (Another sign of this is the way in which the war on terror is eating away at other rights as well, e.g. the right not to be tortured; but let’s stick to the right to privacy here).

Because of this unease, governments claim that the right to privacy isn’t really being sacrificed. “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about”. It’s only the terrorists whose right to privacy is being limited. But in the meantime

  • DNA databases are being established for almost entire populations
  • CCTV is omnipresent
  • “data mining” is used extensively (after all, how can you determine if someone is a terrorist if you haven’t first violated his or her right to privacy?)
  • etc.

I don’t mean to imply that rights such as the right to privacy are absolute or that there can never be a good reason to limit one right for the sake of another. On the contrary. But limiting rights can only be done when there is a “clear and present danger” for other rights or for the rights of others. A vague and everlasting “war on terror” provokes limits on rights when there’s no such danger. Limiting rights becomes the normal MO of governments keen to prevent such a danger from ever occurring. And that’s unacceptable. Obviously, terrorism is a danger, but governments can only limit rights in order to prevent it when the danger is clear and present, and imminent. A general and vague fear of terrorism will not do.

Terrorism and Human Rights (8): Torture and the Ticking Bomb

If torture is the only means of obtaining the information necessary to prevent the detonation of a nuclear bomb in Times Square, torture should be used – and will be used – to obtain the information. … no one who doubts that this is the case should be in a position of responsibility. Richard Posner

During numerous public appearances since September 11, 2001, I have asked audiences for a show of hands as to how many would support the use of nonlethal torture in a ticking-bomb case. Virtually every hand is raised. Alan Dershowitz

People have come up with many arguments to justify torture, but the most famous one is the “ticking bomb argument“: suppose we capture a terrorist, and we know that he or she knows where the ticking bomb is hidden that will soon kill thousands or millions, or where and how another type of terrorist attack will take place. However, this person will only reveal the information under torture. Are we not allowed to use torture in order to get the information and save numerous lives? Are we not morally forced to torture given the enormous benefits for large numbers of people compared to the limited costs for the tortured individual?

This argument is flawed, because it is based on a number of untenable assumptions:

Assumption 1: A real-life case

This seems to be a thought experiment rather than a real-life dilemma. The example of the captured terrorist with information about a ticking bomb is unlikely to happen in real life. Law enforcement officers or military and intelligence personnel usually do not arrest terrorists or accomplices before the terrorist act takes place (usually they make the arrests afterwards, and sometimes they don’t even manage to do that). We all know that most real cases of torture have absolutely nothing to do with the example given in the ticking bomb argument.

Assumption 2: Knowledge and knowledge about knowledge

But let’s assume that it does happen, and that one is, in exceptional cases, able to arrest someone before the terrorist act takes place. For the ticking bomb argument to be valid, we have to be positively sure that the terrorist or accomplice has the information that is required for us to stop the attack or explosion to take place. How can we be sure about this? And if we’re not sure, can we start torturing this person in order to know that he or she has the information?

The latter would mean that we don’t just torture in order to get life saving information. We torture in order to know whether this person has or doesn’t have such information. It’s obvious that in this case we will torture many people who don’t have information. And if they don’t have information, we may be torturing innocent people, or at least people who, although accomplices, are not justifiable objects of torture since the argument is that torture is justified because it is necessary to obtain life saving information. These people don’t have such information, and hence their torture isn’t justified. Some other justification is required in order to be able to use torture on people who do not obviously and undoubtedly possess life saving information. This seems to fall outside the ticking bomb argument, an argument which is therefore incomplete.

And, by the way, torturing people in order to find out if they have information is the worst kind of torture: since many of them don’t know anything, they will be subject to the longest and deepest forms of torture.

Assumption 3: It works

Again, let’s assume that all of the above is irrelevant, that we do hold someone who has vital information, that we know for certain that he or she has this information, and that we didn’t have to use torture to be certain. These are already a lot of assumptions, but a further assumption of the ticking bomb argument is that torture is a efficient tool to extract reliable information. We all know that it isn’t (see here). People who are tortured say anything in order to make it stop.

And what if torturing the terrorist doesn’t make him or her speak? In that case, the ticking bomb argument also justifies torturing the terrorist’s family and children (a kind of indirect torture aimed at “convincing” the terrorist to give information). If torturing him or her is insufficient, then further options are equally justifiable. The cost-benefit analysis on which the ticking bomb argument is based justifies torturing the family. The guilt or innocence of the family, or of anybody else who is tortured, is irrelevant. What counts is that the cost of torture doesn’t outweigh the good it does, i.e. the number of lives it saves.

But this begs the question: how many lives have to be saved if the cost of torture is to be acceptable? A million? 10.000? 10? … Difficult to tell in borderline cases, but then the answer would be: at least it’s clear when we go into the really big numbers. Torturing even a few dozens of people in order to safe a million is a “no-brainer” (in the words of former Vice-President Cheney). The reality is however, that most terrorist attacks do not kill millions or even thousands.

Assumption 4: No alternative

Again, let’s accept all the above assumptions, for the sake of argument. One of the supposedly strong points of the ticking bomb argument is the lack of an alternative to torture. There seems to be nothing else one can do. But there is something wrong with the timing in the argument:

On the one hand, to represent some type of ticking bomb scenario, the timing of attack must be far enough in the future that there is a realistic chance of doing something to stop it. On the other hand, if it is so far off in the future that the loss of life can be prevented in some other way (evacuation, for instance) then the supposed “need” for torture simply disappears. (source)

Assumption 5: Exceptional

Given the urgency in the example of the ticking bomb, and given the fact that terrorists are often trained to withstand torture, a free society would have to

maintain a professional class of torturers, and to equip them with continuously-updated torture techniques and equipment. Grave dangers to democracy and to individual freedoms would be posed by an institutionalized professional “torture squad”. (source)

Torture corrupts people, and it is not farfetched to assume that a “torture squad” would infect an entire society. The squad members themselves will not remain well-intentioned, and the mere existence of such a squad corrupts morality in a society. This shows that torture in the ticking bomb argument starts as an exception but tends toward institutionalization.

Assumption 6: The Greater Good

It’s not obvious that the rights of one person can be sacrificed for the benefit and rights of others. Once you start this kind of trade off, you will quickly find yourself in a world in which it is allowed to “break some eggs if you want to make an omelet”. Terrorists also assume that they fight for a greater good and that they are allowed to sacrifice some in order to save others. Torture then puts the tortures on the same level as the terrorist.

What motivates the ticking bomb argument?

It’s not difficult to see some of the underlying motives of those using the argument. It seems to me that the dramatic force and moral clarity and simplicity of the example, even if it is very unrealistic and far removed from the much murkier and complex cases that confront us in reality, can be used by those who are in favor of torture in order to open the door and make some cracks in what is still, for many, a moral absolute (similar to the prohibition of slavery and genocide).

The United Nations Convention Against Torture, which took on the force of federal law in the U.S. when it was ratified by the Senate in 1994, specifies that

No exceptional circumstances, whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.

The ticking bomb argument is intended to show that an absolute ban on torture is unwise and ultimately detrimental to the survival of a free society. Opponents of torture are labeled moral absolutists, unwilling to confront the darker sides of reality and isolated from the tough problems that people in the field have to deal with. By making it impossible to “deal” with these tough problems, absolutists endanger the nation.

Once the absolute is broken, and some forms of torture are allowed in some circumstances – and even necessary if we want to protect freedom – then those who fight for democracy and for the right of people to express their opposition to torture, are able to do their jobs and make their hands dirty.

The torturer becomes the patriot; those defending the moral values of a nation are ivory tower intellectuals unaware of the realities of life and de facto allies of the terrorists. It’s not the example of the ticking bomb that is simplistic; it’s the moral absolutism that obscures that complex choices of real-life anti-terrorism.

The obvious objection to breaking the absolute is of course the slippery slope. I mentioned above that the ticking bomb argument would allow torturing many more people than just the captured terrorist holding vital information.

Terrorism and Human Rights (3): Torture

A few words on the infamous “ticking bomb argument” in favor of torture: suppose we capture a terrorist, and we know that he knows where the ticking bomb is hidden that will soon kill thousands or millions. Are we not allowed to torture him in order to get the information which can save these people? Are we not morally forced to torture him?

I don’t believe this simple cost-benefit analysis (low-cost torture to individuals compared to enormous gains for large, threatened groups) is a realistic description of torture, given the facts that

  • the example of the captured terrorist with information about a ticking bomb is unlikely to happen in real life, and
  • most actual torture cases are very different.

One should also consider the consequences of allowing torture, even in extreme cases:

  • installing a certain mentality in the minds of the torturers, sometimes destroying their mental health
  • the damage to judicial and democratic institutions
  • the reciprocity of our enemies (they will also use torture if torture is inflicted on them) …