The Ethics of Torture

An investigation is underway by the UK Intelligence Services Commissioner into whether or not the British government was complicit with the torture of insurgents in Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere. Article 3 of the European convention on human rights states “No one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”. The organisation Liberty, which campaigns for human rights, believes that the British government has tried to sidestep, ignore or undermine its legal and moral obligations to prevent torture. The convention was written with the atrocities of World War Two in mind, and the terrible acts of barbarism and inhumanity that marked the treatment of many prisoners. Britain signed this convention and therefore is bound by it. It is International Law.

It is claimed that insurgents, people arrested or captured on suspicion of being involved in preparing for, or carrying out, terrorist acts, were moved to locations where CIA operatives in Guantanamo Bay or in third countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan and Morocco, carried out interrogations in which the conditions of the convention were broken, and British secret agents were in some cases present or in other cases complicit with acts of torture to retrieve information.

British involvement in this was reported in the Guardian newspaper on 6 December and 12 September, 2005. Airports at Biggin Hill, Birmingham, Bournemouth, Brize Norton, Farnborough, Gatwick, Heathrow, Luton, RAF Mildenhall, Northolt, and Stansted allowed CIA or CIA-chartered jets to land temporarily since 2001.

Former detainees of Guantanamo Bay who have now been released have alleged that they were tortured. Military trainers at Guantanamo Bay since December 2002 ran classes which used resources produced from a 1957 Air Force study of Chinese Communist torture techniques used during the Korean War. This study detailed methods of obtaining confessions. A chart showed the effects of “coercive management techniques” including “sleep deprivation”, “prolonged constraint”, and “exposure”.

Three British Muslim prisoners were released from Guantanamo Bay in 2004 without charge. Known as the ‘Tipton Three’ they alleged torture including acts of sexual degradation, forced drugging and religious persecution by US forces.

Setting aside the human rights legal framework, and the question of whether Britain has broken any international laws, and the political implications of breaking agreements we have made with other countries, there remain a number of ethical questions.

– Is a brutal act against one person justified if it saves many lives?
– Should ethical principles about the treatment of prisoners ever be sacrificed for pragmatic needs?
– In a just war or conflict, are there limits on what can be done to win?
– If brutal processes are adopted by just states, will those processes corrupt the state and undermined the principles it holds dear?

Utilitarians may offer a justification for torture, for a justification may be made that in certain individual cases, the benefits of the information found out through torture could save lives. Think of the disrupted terrorist attack where many innocents are saved. The pain and suffering of one, could surely be justified by the good of the many. If the person being tortured is innocent then this is unfortunate but perhaps that individual can be sacrificed for the many.

Utilitarians might think there is a principle that is greater than the good of the potential lives gained, however. They may argue that the onset of torture brings about a world in which authorities use torture systematically, and that the greater good of a just society for all is lost. Rule utilitarians may be particularly concerned that permission to do these sorts of things will ultimately bring into being a worse world.

The key features of a Kantian approach must seek to apply the categorical imperative. It must treat the person never only as a means to an end but also as a end in his or herself. It must apply norms universally. It must base moral decisions within a view of the hypothetical kingdom of ends. When considering torture, there are distinct ethical elements including both the question of the acts of torture, and any complicity in them, and also the possible justifications for those acts. The acts of torture affect both the tortured and torturer. One can imagine a world in which people routinely torture and it is a terrible vision.

Torture based on some greater consequence would run into difficulties with Kant’s approach to human persons. The detainees must be treated as ends in themselves as well as means. Kant thought the human person was incredibly important, of a worth beyond price. Torturing a human being seems to be a specific example of treating a person as only a means to an end – the end being the information that might stop a terrorist attack. One might try to argue that it is for the detainees own good that he or she is tortured – perhaps we could imagine that if the atrocity is not prevented the detainee will then feel remorse and may than realise the wrong they have done.

However the universalizability test throws up its own difficulties. Torture is something that is justified by particular extreme circumstances. If one was to universalize the possibility of torture, it would become routine and the very world that is trying to be avoided through the use of torture, would in fact come about. Ethical theories based on deontological rules, such as natural Law, might find it difficult to ever break these rules, though exceptions may be made if a ‘self defence’ argument can be made. Perhaps the torture of a person can be thought of as a proactive self-defensive act. If a terrorist is captured and he or she has knowledge of a forthcoming atrocity, perhaps torturing him / her is an act of self defence. However, in the case of torture there is a special danger. If torture is self defence, then what are the limits of what a government can do to an individual? Many philosophers were very concerned about precisely this problem and the danger that individuals would be treated badly by those who have power. The question of torture becomes a question about how much the state can be trusted. The outcome of the investigation will give some indication of this for Britain at least.

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