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.