Consequentalist Theory Applied to the Practice of Interrogative Torture

To many Americans, the word torture may conjure up images of the Dark Ages, with black hooded torturers applying their craft in dank, dark dungeons. If the practice is associated with modern times, it is assumed that it is something that only an under

developed country would engage in. Unfortunately, this topic has become more relevant to our own society in recent years. It has become an issue that can impact national security. Since the attacks of September 11th, we have had to question just how far should we go to obtain intelligence about future attacks.

We now have to decide if the use of torture is an acceptable means to obtain this information. If we decide that this is an appropriate path to take, then how can we apply the practice in a morally acceptable fashion? By relating different forms of moral thought to this debate, I hope to show that the use of torture to extract information from terrorists might be justified using a consequentalist form of moral thought.

Although America had experienced terror incidents in the past, the attacks of September 11th heightened public awareness of the threat and underscored the need for preventative measures to be taken (Combs, 2003, p. 276). Prior to September 11th, the terrorist group al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for attacks against the World Trade Center in 1993, US embassies in Kenya and Nairobi in 1998 and the USS Cole in 2000 (Combs, 2003, p. 67). Post 9/11 attacks by Al-Qaeda in Bali and London established this organization’s vitality and only reinforced the fear that many Americans felt about the possibility of future attacks on our homeland.

The terrorist organization al-Qaeda remains a real threat to national security. Members of al-Qaeda are extremely dedicated terrorists who launch meticulously planned attacks, resulting in high casualties (Combs, 2003, p. 56). Owing to the War on Terror, we now have several high ranking al-Qaeda officials in custody. Naturally we should interrogate them, to learn more about their organization and to uncover plans for future attacks. How far we should take our interrogation is the matter up for debate.

Al-Qaeda operatives can be classified as “Crusader” terrorists (Combs, 2003, p. 52). The crusader often believes he is serving a higher cause through terror, and has low expectations of survival in his quest. Not surprisingly, this type of person does not voluntarily disclose information that he feels will derail the mission of his organization. The information that he is not divulging, such as plans for a future attack or the location of a terrorist cell, can indeed be life saving for hundreds if not thousands of American citizens if the proper authorities become aware of it.

A more emergent situation is called the “Ticking Bomb” scenario (Kennedy, 2003, p. 8). In this scenario, a detained terrorist is believed to know the location of a bomb that will cause many injures and deaths if it is not defused. With an understanding of terrorist ideology, we can expect that he is not likely to answer any questions. Is it appropriate to apply some physical coercion once conventional interrogation has failed?
By analyzing several different forms of moral thought in the paragraphs that follow, I hope to illuminate some issues surrounding this debate. By doing so, hopefully the answer to the question I posed above will become clearer.

Ethical Considerations Deontology
When we examine the morality of interrogatory torture from a deontology standpoint, we need to look at principles or obligations that are associated with the action. For example, some might feel that we are obligated to uphold human rights, no matter the circumstances. If that were the case, then we would declare interrogative torture to be immoral. Although there may be disagreement among deontologists about what is obligatory, in general deontology places a high value on respecting human rights (Casebeer, pg. 3).

Immanuel Kant provides some guidance as to how we can best extend this respect to others through his “categorical imperative”, in which he states that you should “Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, as an end, and never as a means only”(Casebeer, 2003, p. 3). We should not use another person to further our own agenda. Clearly torture violates Kantian respect, because not only are we using that person, but we are also inflicting pain as we do so. Undoubtedly a deontologist, who holds respect for others as the principle by which they gauge moral decisions, would condemn this action.

Since deontologists do not always agree on what is obligatory, it is possible for there to be more than one viewpoint on a single issue. It all depends on what the individual holds as obligatory. For instance, in his paper Can Interrogatory Torture Be Morally Legitimate?, Kennedy stated: “One of the most fundamental and solemn obligations of the rulers of a nation is to protect the innocent” (p. 9). This is interesting because it shifts the obligation to the rulers. If we believe this to be true, then as average citizens we are really more concerned with the end results of intelligence gathering that will protect us, and not in the means with which the intelligence was collected.

Virtue Theory
When we talk about virtue in ethics, we are really talking about how we live our lives, and how others perceive us as we go about doing so. It is a measure of character. Aristotle talked about how humans strive for eudemonia, which translates to flourishing or proper functioning, essentially living a good life (Casebeer, 2003, p. 5),. How humans attain this is by exhibiting human excellences, or virtues such as honesty, compassion and kindness. Vices, such as anger, vengeance and violence, are those character traits that detract from the fundamental goodness that virtue theorists envision.

It is not surprising then, that a virtue theorist would not be reconciled to justify torture under any circumstances. As Jeff Jacoby wrote in The Boston Globe in 2005:
Torture is never worth it. Some things we don’t do, not because they never work, not because they aren’t “deserved”, but because our very right to call ourselves decent human beings depends in part on our not doing them. Torture is in that category (p. 2)

I agree with the emphasis of this statement. Torture is truly abhorrent. I do believe that there is harm in becoming a nation that practices torture. I admire virtue ethicists, who feel encourage us to strive for human excellence. However, I feel that human excellence is an endpoint that is reached over time. The events of 9/11 did distract us from that end, but that’s what terrorism is supposed to do; it terrorizes. We need to overcome that, and endeavor to achieve that excellence. At the same time, we need to make sure our nation is not attacked in this way again. It is imperative that we ensure the safety of our citizens. It would indeed be wonderful if we could resolve our differences in a peaceful way, because that would exemplify virtue theory and move us closer to attaining excellence. However, that is not the way al-Qaeda does things. As a group they are not interested in bringing about peaceful solutions to the problems they perceive.

Viewing the debate from a justice standpoint would look at the fairness of interrogative torture. To evaluate justice in this circumstance, we would look at libertarian justice, or how the fairness of an action is determined through honoring agreements. In his 2002 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Mark Bowden wrote this about torture: “ it would violate the U.S. Constitution, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights”(p. 1). By not honoring these agreements, the United States is not acting in a just manner. However, two paragraphs later, Bowden quoted philosophy professor Michael Levin:
Torturing the terrorist is unconstitutional? Probably. But millions of lives certainly outweigh constitutionality. Torture is barbaric? Mass murder is more barbaric. Indeed, letting millions of innocents die in deference to one who flaunts his guilt is moral cowardice, an unwillingness to dirty one’s hands (Bowden, 2002, p. 1).

We can acknowledge that there is a libertarian justice argument against torture. However, this argument may be invalidated when viewed relative to the enormous loss of life associated with a terror attack that could have been prevented. Allowing an attack to occur because of reluctance to violate the rights of a terrorist is not fair to the intended victims. By maximizing fairness for a large number of innocent citizens, it can be said that we are practicing utilitarian justice.

Consequentalist Thought
Consequentalism examines, as the name implies, consequences that are associated with ethical decisions. A consequentalist will consider the results of their actions in terms of benefit versus harm. The ends justify the means. When decisions are made in this manner, the goal is to maximize benefit and minimize harm in the end. One tool that can be useful in the decision making process is the harm/benefit ratio.

John Stuart Mill’s “Greatest Happiness Principle” states that the right decision is the one that provides the greatest amount of happiness for all involved (Casebeer, 2003, p. 3). Happiness here can be interpreted as the presence of pleasure or the absence of pain. It is important to note that Mills was talking about everyone affected by the decision when he measures happiness. In the “Ticking Bomb” scenario, we would consider the happiness (or pain) felt by the terrorist. We would then apply these same measures to the intended victims. For example, if we fail to gain substantive information from our terrorist through interrogation, and choose to not pursue the information we seek with more force, the terrorist feels no pain. However, when the bomb goes off, that pain is borne by the victims, their families and even the Nation. By making the decision to not torture, we maximized pain for a large cohort of people, and maintained happiness for one. The result is a high harm/benefit ratio. Under consequentalist thought, this cannot be construed as ethical behavior.

A high harm/benefit ratio also results if a terrorist who knows nothing beyond his individual role in the organization is tortured during interrogation. The harm to the detainee is high, and the benefit to society is negligible. This too is unethical by any standard.

One way we can avoid the situation I described in the preceding paragraph is to adopt an act utilitarian policy toward interrogative torture. Act utility looks at specific situations, and determines what action would maximize happiness in that situation. Rule utilitarianism sets rule for maximizing happiness that can be applied to a broader scope of situations. Because they are crafting rules for a variety of circumstances, rule utilitarians tend to be more conservative and mindful of individual rights (Casebeer, 2003, p. 4). In our case, a rule utilitarian might make a rule that torture cannot be considered until thirty days of conventional interrogation have passed. This sounds like a fine rule, until you have a terrorist withholding information about a dirty bomb attack that is expected in seven days.

To contrast, an act utilitarian would look at individual detainees during normal interrogation. If a determination is made that an act of torture would likely produce useful information in a given subject, then it can be justified. The timing, intensity and type of torture would be adapted to what is expected to work for the individual detainee. Interrogative torture regulated by act utilitarianism would torture the right people, for the right reasons, using the right method. It sounds barbaric, but if we are going to torture a detainee, we better get some results and demonstrate how those results saved lives.

Consequentalists would also look at potential problems associated with interrogatory torture. One problem identified by Casebeer (2003) is the possibility that torture could be established as an institution (p. 4). In other words, to make torture effective, intelligence personnel would need to be trained in the proper administration of it. This could lead to research into the most efficient use of torture or textbooks about torture. Would we as a people want to be associated with such things? We can see that this consequence quickly becomes a matter of virtue.

Consequentalists would also worry about the image the United States would present to the rest of the world by practicing torture. Would it make us seem less virtuous as a people? This concern is closely related to virtue arguments made against interrogative torture. While I do believe that this can dampen our image in the eyes of the world, we have to ask if our perceived image is worth more than real American lives that can be lost in a terrorist attack. In my opinion, there is nothing more important than protecting Americans from another terror attack.

One of the tragedies of terrorism is that we as a society now have to make decisions like this. Ultimately, we must balance out the harm torture does, to the good it can present in terms of saving lives from terrorist attacks. Harm not only comes to the terrorist, but also to the society that inflicts torture upon him. Likewise, harm from a terrorist attack is not only from the loss of human life. Everyone in a nation that is struck by terror becomes a victim.

By realizing the true extent of the harm that is associated with a terror attack, it becomes more apparent that our government is obligated to prevent another such occurrence. As I reviewed different forms of moral thought in this paper, I identified how interrogative torture could be opposed from each viewpoint. I was able to counter these concerns by adopting a consequentalist stance. By applying consequentalist thought to the problem, it becomes clear that greater harm is risked by not meeting the aforementioned obligation. Understanding that al-Qaeda is not going to make it easy for us requires an act utilitarian policy of using torture in select cases, and only then applying just enough physical coercion to get the results we need.

I agree with the virtue theorists that say permitting torture will prevent us from excelling as members of the human race. I think the times that we are living in will only assent to letting us be good enough.

Works Cited

Bowden, Mark. (2002). Torture a necessarily evil tool in unlocking terrorist secrets.
[Electronic version] Philadelphia Inquirer, N/A. Retrieved October 29, 2007, from Student Edition via Gale:

Casebeer, William. (2003, January). Torture Interrogation of Terrorists: A
Theory of Exceptions (With Notes, Cautions and Warnings). Paper presented at the Joint Services Conference on Professional Ethics. Retrieved October 28, 2007 from

Combs, Cindy. (2003). Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle
River, NJ: Prentice Hall

Jacoby, Jeff, (2005) Why not torture terrorists? [Electronic version] The Boston Globe.
Retrieved October 28th, 2007 from

Kennedy, Robert. (2003, January). Can Interrogatory Torture be Morally Legitimate?
Paper presented at the Joint Services Conference on Professional Ethics. Retrieved October 28, 2007 from