The Oxford English dictionary defines torture as ” the action or practice of inflicting severe pain on someone as a punishment or to force them to do or say something, or for the pleasure of the person inflicting the pain.”(OED). Under the Geneva conventions, torture is banned under Article 3:1a. In the United Nations Convention Against Torture in which 55 countries signed specifically bans the performance no matter the justification. Finally, in the United States Bill of Rights, under the Eighth Amendment where it clearly prohibits the use of cruel and unusual punishment. So is torture ever justifiable? In order to determine if torture is justifiable, we must determine what we truly mean by “torture”. Most notable definitions come from David Sussman and Michael Davis. Both men state that in order to define torture we must first separate it from coercion and manipulation. We must also figure out if such things as sleep and sensory deprivation, as well as prolonged isolation and extended questioning should count as torture(Sussman 2005). They came to the conclusion that the intentional infliction of suffering on a non-consenting and defenseless being is, torture. This definition differs in that all forms of suffering, mental and physical, count as torture, but the party being tortured must A, be defenseless in that s/he is unable to defend or protect him/her self and B, non-consenting in that s/he has no choice but to be there, e.g tied to a chair.(Davis 2005) The U.N convention identifies four reasons for torture: to obtain a confession, to obtain information, to punish and finally to coerce the sufferer or others to act a specific way.(Waldron 2005). So with this we can reason that the point of torture, at least in a general sense, is to break the “will” or their ability to operate autonomously, of the tortured.
With this definition, we can determine on a purely moral stand that since torture intentionally inflicts severe physical suffering for the point of destroying autonomy, it is inherently evil there for morally wrong. But on what scale do we judge it by? Is, for example, murder a more inherently evil act? Since we do not include murder in our definition of torture, how do we determine which is morally worse than the other?
Torture is as we defined earlier, a taking away of the right to autonomy. Murder, on the other hand, is the taking away of the right to life and since there is no person after, the right to autonomy as well. Now taking away the option of an after life; once a person has been murdered, they no longer exists in any physical sense. While, in torture we can assume that after survival, they still exists but not as they did before. There have been many examples of PTSD and a general lack of social capabilities after torture, so the question boils down to rather or not merely existing is preferable to not existing. If we assume that survival is the number one goal of every living creature, taking a life is a more morally wrong action than simple torture because it takes both the autonomy of that person and its life.
When we discuss the ethical justification of torture we can separate it into two groups, One-off acts in emergencies and legalized or institutionalized torture. For the first one, the assumption by most is that there are morally justifiable situations where one-off acts of torture are justifiable in the case of an emergency. Two key proponents of this argument are Bagaric and Clarke(2007:29). They offer a form of the famous ticking bomb scenario using the their utilitarian view that the suffering of a few for the benefit of the many is morally justified. Though to counter that one could argue that the torture of a few innocents can be justified, as long as it provides pleasure for a much larger number sadists(Miller,2011). However, Clarke and Bagaric only want the guilty to be tortured and then again only for the purpose of extracting information....