Can Torture Ever Be Morally Justified?

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  • Topic: Torture, Ticking time bomb scenario, Pain
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  • Published : January 3, 2011
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Question 4 Basing your arguments on the decision of the House of Lords in A(FC) v. Secretary of State for the Home Department [2005] UKHL 71 and the article by W.L. Twining and P.E. Twining ‘Bentham on Torture’ at vol. 24 Northern Ireland Legal Quarterly 305, what is morally wrong with torture? Can it ever be morally justified? If so, when? If not, why not?

Torture is not a popular practice amongst any developed society. To some, it is an extremely emotive word, the mere utterance of which brings to mind feelings of disgust and hatred towards those who might even think of employing torture, for whatever purpose. However, perhaps these people are too quick to dismiss torture without really thinking about it. For all that is wrong with torture, there may be justified uses for it. Though such a situation which gives rise to acceptable torture is an extreme rarity, it could be a mistake to simply prohibit the use of torture absolutely. One could regret such a decision when the time comes that torture is not just acceptable, but necessary, for a greater good. This will be considered in much greater depth later on in the essay.

To give clarity to the argument, it shall be split into three sections followed by a conclusion. First it will be necessary to define the word ‘torture’. It is a notably broad term so some limits insofar as its use within this essay is concerned will be required. Secondly I will address the question of what is morally wrong with torture. It is hard to deny that nearly everything about torture is morally objectionable. However, as I will attempt to argue in the third part of the essay, there are times when torture could be morally justified. Some examples will be given to help illustrate these situations. A short conclusion will follow. Throughout the essay, references will be made to the judgment of the House of Lords in A(FC) v. Secretary of State for the Home Department [2005] UKHL 71, W.L. Twining and P.E. Twining’s article ‘Bentham on Torture’ at vol. 24 Northern Ireland Legal Quarterly 305 as well as various other sources.

Torture is a very ambiguous word. The term can be applied not only to situations where one is intentionally inflicting pain on another, but it can also be used to describe any form of severe pain no matter how it is caused. In order to limit confusion it is essential to narrow down what is meant by ‘torture’ in the context of this essay. Its definition varies from dictionary to dictionary but the general consensus is that is involves the infliction of severe mental or physical pain for reasons of retribution, gratification or coercion. At this stage I wish to point out that in no situation is torture for the purposes of retribution or gratification ever justifiable. Even in the case of the most prolific, horrendous offender, the exercise of torture would not be acceptable merely in pursuance of the ‘eye for an eye’ rationale, or for mere satisfaction. One need only look at human rights legislation and conventions around the world to understand how universal this view is. A distinction is necessary, therefore, between these sorts of torture and torture for the purpose of coercion. Jeremy Bentham defines torture in this sense as ‘where a person is made to suffer any violent pain of body in order to compel him to do something or desist from doing something which done or desisted from the penal application is immediately made to cease’[1]. This is the definition to bear in mind within this essay. Any form of torture which is to be acceptable for this purpose would have to be acute and temporary. If a torture ‘victim’ knows the pain of the torture will last well after its application, he has less of a compulsion to do what is required of him. Most of the controversy on torture lies around torture for coercion, as there are a number of advocates of torture to justify an end, such as Bentham himself, particularly where torture is blatantly the lesser of two evils. This theme...
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