The Characteristic of Justification for Torture

Torture: Often Morally Justifiable

Given the events of the last ten-year, most notably U.S. Military techniques in Abu Graib, the subject of torture is ever a popular one and ever controversial. For the purposes of this paper, torture will be defined as “the intentional infliction of on some non-consenting, defenseless, other person for the purpose of breaking their will. I note that a person might have been tortured, even if in fact their will has not been broken; the purpose of the practice of torture is to break the victim’s will, but this purpose does not have to be realized for a process to be an instance of torture” (Miller, 2005). Torture is all things that a civilized and peaceful society stands against. Torture is not something which is at all palatable or which seems to be the actions of an evolved and just collective of people. This paper intends to demonstrate that there are certain instances and moral constructs which can justify torture.

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Consider the following example: a car is stolen. There is a child in the backseat. The thief abandons the car and runs off. The police catch the thief. The thief denies having stolen the car and claims he has no idea where the car is. Meanwhile the child is trapped in a hot car and is dehydrated and his life is in serious damage. In this case, reasoning and threatening the criminal do not work. The criminal continues to deny that he stole the car and no threat, pleas or justification do anything to help the police secure a location for the vehicle. The criminal has no problem demonstrating his sheer and intense contempt for the police. In this incident, what ended up happening was that the police administered a rain of blows to the criminal, and made it clear that this beating would not stop until he offered up a location of the car so the child could be recovered. According to deontological ethics, such a mode of action is not justifiable as deontological ethics believes in the morality of separate choices. In fact, according to U.S. Law such an act is also not justifiable: “Additionally, the U.S. of 1996 even prescribes the death penalty for grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions (torture included). Even if someone’s perverted system of morality deems torture to be permissible, it is plainly illegal in the United States and in virtually any country on the planet. Any minimal commitment to the rule of law requires us to renounce torture” (newsherald, 2013). Thus, according to this legislation, the police officers in the above scenario broke the law. However, according to a more , the police officers did the right thing (standford.edu). They realized that in this case, the greater good revolved around being able to save the life of the child. This was absolutely crucial and the much more important priority. It’s all very well and good to have these lofty moral principles, not in a passive sense, but as something for society to actively aspire to. However, there are more compelling moral principles at work, such as saving the life of an innocent child and working to do that with immediacy. Thus, in that case, these police officers worked with dexterity and speed, and one could argue were actually brave in the torture that they instigated.

This brings us to the most common defense of torture, which is known as the “ticking time bomb” scenario. Consider the following example: a terrorist group has placed a nuclear device in the basement of a building in a major metropolis. This group has successfully administered other terrorist attacks in the past and if this nuclear device goes off, it will kill thousands of people. The bomb is set to go off in 20 minutes, and the police have apprehended the terrorist. In this case, torture is the only and best option because the terrorist has already taken actions to kill thousands of innocent lives. “The terrorist is culpable on two counts. First, the terrorist is forcing the police to choose between two evils, namely torturing the terrorist or allowing thousands of lives to be lost” (Miller, 2005). The terrorist knows he is putting the police in a severe moral dilemma by not disclosing the location of the bomb. “Second, the terrorist is in the process of completing his (jointly undertaken) action of murdering thousands of innocent people. He has already undertaken his individual actions of, say, transporting and arming the nuclear device; he has performed these individual actions” (Miller, 2005). As Miller demonstrates, the terrorist is completely different from a bystander who just happens to know where the bomb has been placed. In this regards, the terrorist is more akin to someone in the process of murdering someone else. Engaging in the use of force through torture is akin to the police engaging in self-defense for the defenseless (the thousands of innocent people). These innocent lives are unable to defend themselves, and the use of the police to fight on the behalf of these people.

Ultimately, there are several instances when torture is not just morally justifiable, but it’s morally correct as well. In the cases outlined in this paper, torture is often the most morally correct option. Torture is often the only action which will prevent the murder of numerous individuals or their reckless endangerment. These examples illustrate that while lofty moral virtues are good ideals to have within society, they’re often impractical and do little in most practical situations.


Miller, S. (2014). Is Torture Ever Morally Justifiable? Retrieved from csusb.edu: http://rocket.csusb.edu/~tmoody/ijap192-Miller.pdf

Newsherald.com. (2013, January). The use of torture can never be justified. Retrieved from newsherald.com: http://www.newsherald.com/opinions/letters-to-the-editor/the-use-of-torture-can-never-be-justified-1.84139

stanford.edu. (2014). Deontology’s Foil: Consequentialism. Retrieved from stanford.edu: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-deontological/

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