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Tiller, Torture, and Ticking Bombs: A Thought Experiment

Brian Leiter, rightfully, condemns torture, eschewing utilitarian justifications for it, e.g., the ticking bomb scenario. That is, even if torturing X may lead to the saving of many lives, torturing X is not justified and ought not to be performed by any moral agent. Suppose our government tortures X, an Al-Qaeda operative who has participated in many murders prior to his capture. Our government's torturing, not surprisingly, results in important intelligence that leads to the government thwarting a terrorist plot that would have resulted in the horrific deaths of an estimated 2,000 U.S. citizens, including hundreds of elementary school children. Suppose that Leiter condemns the torturing as unjustified and a grievous wrong, but at the same time condemns X as an immoral person responsible for the deaths of many innocent human persons.

Would, at this point, Jeremy Shipley, who recently accused Ed Feser of insincerity, suggest that Leiter is "insincere," or would he do the intellectually decent thing and examine the moral philosophy that informs Leiter's judgments on such matters. And if he did, he would see that Leiter's judgment is perfectly consistent, and hardly the consequence of a character defect called "insincerity." And would real-world Leiter (or "Leiter Prime," LP) say of Imaginary-world Leiter (or IL), that IL is an "apologist for torture"? Would not we think that LP does not truly grasp IL's point of view, or would we say that IL is "insincere." You be the judge.

Comments (28)

Is there not an important moral difference between doing a gratuitous evil (*) "so that good may come of it" … somehow! … and doing an evil to prevent an even greater known evil?

Isn't is supposed to be the "fundies" ... you know, people like me ... who dabble in wooden-mindedness?

(*) I intentionally used the more neutral, or more ambiguous, word ‘evil,’ rather than the unambiguous word ‘wicked.’

Don't need to go the ticking bomb route.

Reveiew the prep work for Operation Fortitude. If you don't recall, Op Fortitude was the concealment plan devised for Operation Overlord. The idea behind Fortitude was to get the Germans to believe that despite landings in Normandy, the main punch was still going to fall on the Pas de Calais. Towards that end, almost a score of captured Germans were thoroughly tortured to gain their "cooperation" for wireless signal deception.

We don't need to go imagining anything to review the competing claims regarding torture. And here we ARE discussing REAL, LEGITIMATE, BONA-FIDE TORTURE, not bogus "enhanced interrogation techniquess," that silly liberals, from their arm chairs on the sidelines, are apt to critique because it doesn't pass their peculiar and ahistorical standards.

Men, with the lives of other men in their hands, are going to do what it takes to prevail.

Silly and sophomoric types, lounging around tossing out idiotic one-liners, all in the interest of gaining the respect from the establishment, as usual, such creatures don't know what the h*ll their chirping and blogging about.

The actions and utterances of such creatures are an inexorable result of luxus.

How sad for them to realize that even the super fraudulent messiah Obama has reserved unto himself the power to order "torture." But that doesn't stop them preening.

Nothing will.

Had a few, but won't bother to correct some errors. I'm sure the gist can be ascertained.

The reason for invoking the "ticking bomb" scenario ... and, therefore, the reason "liberals" (whether religious or secularist) are so scornful of it ... is to test whether the absolute that the "liberal" is asserting really is an absolute.

And the reason that "liberals" shriek non-stop that waterboarding is torture is precisely because they do not want anyone to engage in a rational and logical examination of their assertion that it is utterly immoral and never permissible. So, as is typical of “liberals” (whether religious tools of secularists, or secularists who already know what they’re after), they turn to emotion to shut down and delegitimize thought.

Dear Q,

I wonder if we'll move beyond the rhetoric because even in your rhetoric, morality is usually assumed to be of a peculiar content and "ahistorical" when regular followers of this blog are either natural law theorists about morality, or divine command theory of ethics. In both cases, morality is ahistorical. As such, it is not on that point that the bemusing group of liberals is wrong (given such a generalization could be helpful, which I think it is not) on that alone.

Moreover, while we may be complaining about the liberal politicians, it is quite another thing to forget that liberal moral philosophers might be different in kind with tested arguments as to why they think that waterboarding is wrong, and is a candidate for the impermissiblity for torture. As a whole, moral philosophers working with Ross's notion of prima facie justification for moral cases typically construe moral dilemmas as nuanced cases of judgment with various contextual considerations, among them the ticking-time bomb scenario. This is also the case with me.

However, I wonder at the virtue of torturing and the acts relation to our society as a whole. If this is the best way we can manipulate someone, and forget ourselves throwing all leniency for moral harms to the wind under the guise of being secure, then at what cost to the virtue of our society does permitting torture engender? Certainly, we're more clever than that.

Secondly, the moral cost to torture undermines the value we often esteem to others about America's greatness. We list several features of our principles to others and among them of those listed, likely, are the few Bill of Rights that constitute our due-process system. The fact that we start making distinctions between who they apply to and those it doesn't means that justice is no longer blind. Justice becomes a matter of prudence for being safe, secure and cozy. At that point, we msut really wonder what permitting torture says about us, and the fact that we would rather lapse into a consequential justification only for its permissibility when consequentialism has very little to offer us as well in terms of normative theorizing. HOwever, that's a separate post for a much later time.

You are completely undermining Frank's analogy. According to you, it is historically ignorant or insincere to criticize any method that prevails no matter how wrong it may be. Ergo, a knowledgeable person like Dr. Feser should be suspect in his sincerity for criticizing a method that undoubtedly prevented further murders.

In reply to Step2, the prolife position is not utilitarian: it rejects the idea that reduction of abortion is an end that may be achieved by means that are immoral, whether it is the means offered by Doug Kmiec or the guy who murdered Dr. Killer.

(For the reasons why I think that Doug Kmiec's suggestion is flawed, read this: http://www.whatswrongwiththeworld.net/2008/06/doug_kmiec_between_barack_and.html )

Water boarding, especially the way we did it with doctors present telling the prisoners they would not be hurt, is not torture. What the Islamists do is torture; cutting off hands and feet, using acid to extract information, raping wives and children in front of the husbands and fathers- I could go on.
That said, I would not care if it is torture. We are in a war. The first object of going to war is to win. If a government is not prepared to do what it needs to do in order to meet that objective, it has already accepted defeat, and should not engage as more people will die as a result.
No wonder our enemy is laughing at us. Our soldiers fight to win, but our government, under Obama has accepted defeat. Indeed defeat seems to be our president's main objective.

Your position so far has been outnumbered by the "anything to win" brigade. Good luck with that.

"Your position so far has been outnumbered by the "anything to win" brigade. Good luck with that."

Wouldn't be the first time. The lions outnumbered the Christians, and the Soviet Union had more platoons than the Vatican. But now the Colesium is a tourist attraction, the Soviet Union doesn't exist, and we've had Slavic and German popes. It is always better to strive for eternal goodness than temporal victory.

"It is always better to strive for eternal goodness than temporal victory."

If I were on the other side, I would definitely want my opponents to hold this view.

Take the torture scenario and apply Ivan Karamazov's question: if you could eliminate all the evil in the world forever by torturing one small child to death, would you agree to it? I once had a very intelligent, thoughtful, and truly caring liberal woman tell me, yes, it would be worth it. I said, "Really?" She replied, "Yes, but I couldn't be the one who did it." In other words, fine, as long as someone else does it.

Speaks volumes, I think.

(It also shows that a person can be thoughtful, intelligent and caring and still be quite brain-addled when it comes to moral questions, and this of course isn't limited to liberals.)

Rob G,
I would say that what the experience you relate speaks volumes of is the utter folly of ever imagining that "caring" is the criterion of morality.

Steps: "Your position so far has been outnumbered by the "anything to win" brigade."

Francis Beckwith: "Wouldn't be the first time. ... It is always better to strive for eternal goodness than temporal victory."

Or, perhaps it is the case that, in resorting to emotive charges and accusations (and which are, frequently, hypocritically -- and transparently -- made for purposes of mere partisan advantage) so as to shut-down rational consideration of the specific issue, "liberals" are *growing* the "anything to win" brigade.

Obviously, I meant Step2

It was reported today on a news report that the Tiller killing suspect Scott Roeder stated that he knows of other plans to kill other abortion providers. Seems like an opportunity to interrogate him to save lives.

Hi Casey, if I read you correctly, you align yourself with God's enemies against Gods wisdom. btw, I'm no pacifist and I dont think Francis' statement necessarily implies that.

I'm not seeking to undermine the "ticking bomb" scenario, rather, what I'm doing is seeking to introduce some real history into the discussion.

Everybody who presently decries "torture," even their weirdly strained version of torture, is able to do so because past Americans, in exegent circumstances, didn't hesitate to put it to America's enemies. We've often heard that Americans haven't availed themselves of torture, {though we did in Operation Fortitude, which was the cover plan for Operation Overlord, the anniversary of which, Obama just celebrated}. That's historically false.

Just flat-out false.

And Operation Fortitude should be discussed.

Clarity about the past is apt to lead one to be clear about the future.

Don't ya' think?

First off let me respond to the query about the damage "torture" does to our society?

Did victory in World War Two, which was partially gained through the use of real torture, did such victory in any way damage America's social fabric, her laws, her morality?

Doesn't the question beg the answer? The answer is no. Absolutely not.

America emerged MORE moral, not less, from that struggle, not just despite her wartime measures, BUT BECAUSE OF THEM.

Did the use of torture in our Revolutionary war in any damage the social fabric of the colonies? What was going on in the Southern colonies made waterboarding look like the joke that it is. Was America irrevocably ruined by such measures?

"The moral cost to torture" is itself a tortured take on the subject. There's no "moral cost" incurred by the United States, not now, not in the past. That theme is exactly the type of easily tossed out thought piece one is apt to encounter emerging from the faculty lounge. And those who launch such easy asides are able to do so because of the rough and ready measures taken by Americans in the past, measures that they now affect an Olympian detachment from.

It's unreality cubed, because it's unrelated to common human experience throughout all of human history, it's unrelated to the present, and it reveals an uncaring and thus unrelated attitude towards our future.

It's not a coincedence that those who have serious problems with America, radical leftists, should seize upon something to render an America they rabidly dislike open to future attack.

Is morality "peculiar?"

Well that depends. If you believe in Natural Law, then the answer is no. If you don't believe in Natural Law, then you're out there on shifting sands, with a finger in the wind.

Is it possible for something to be truly moral in the 1300s, but immoral today?

Why was it perfectly moral and appropriate for NAZI war criminals to be strung up, but today, for hanging to be deemed violative of the 8th Amendment. Not 75 years have passed since prominent NAZIs swung from the gallows, yet now their method of execution is deemed utter horror.

This is pure cultural, moral and intellectual incoherence.

And "Honest Questioner," your entire last paragraph was a string cite of cobbled together value statements wholly unsupported by history.

As a statement of the modern take on the subject, that's a bullseye. But it's wholly outside the distilled wisdom of human experience on the subject.

Step 2,

Yes, I do accuse the Left of rampant insincerity. That's implicit for me, doesn't even need to be stated. For further reading on that subject, {the Left's bad faith} check out David Horowitz's THE POLITICS OF BAD FAITH.

The Left wouldn't know how to win without bad faith. Look at Obama's recent campaign for instance, an exercise in bad faith ab initio. Recall his speech at AIPAC, now compare his words there to the intellectual and moral nonsense he spouted at Cairo the other day.

The Left is about winning, about power, about power over others, about the raw, unchecked power to ram their anti-Christian vision down all of our throats.

They're not creatures liable to a sentimentalism regarding good faith argument.

It was reported today on a news report that the Tiller killing suspect Scott Roeder stated that he knows of other plans to kill other abortion providers.

I seem to recall the same thing happening after 9-11. 8+ years later, the Islamist onslaught is still... underwhelming...

**the experience you relate speaks volumes of is the utter folly of ever imagining that "caring" is the criterion of morality**

Very true, if one makes it the sole criterion; patently false, if it is seen as one of several criteria. Otherwise, be prepared to jettison large chunks of the New Testament.

**Is it possible for something to be truly moral in the 1300s, but immoral today?**

Nope. But it's certainly possible for us to have been wrong about it in the 1300's, but right about it today. Would you want to bring back, say, burning at the stake, disembowling, or breaking on the wheel? I sure hope not.

The introduction of "real history" into a discussion is only a rhetorical trick, an appeal to an empty faucet. We appropriate history for understanding our own dilemmas that challenge our current self-understanding of ourselves and our world. This Gadamerian insight is perhaps one of the more useful insights produced by phenomenological hermeneutics. It's not like we transcend our own culture, glean historical facts that now all of a sudden ring "ahaa!" then come back down to earth for conclusions lit anew. You should appeal more to saying this is a more appropriate interpretation of history. Yet, it is clearly self-serving, the dish that becomes the criticism.

The criticism is that somehow by saying that a current practice might incur a moral cost and assuming you knew what I meant by moral cost. By not asking me to disambiguate the sense of what I meant by moral cost, you think I somehow mean a reverberating karma that condemns the fate of the United States in some weird cosmic way---refuted by the fact that the United States is thriving even though it has its own dark past. Obviously, we are not condemned! We're thriving in the world. In another thread, I was condemned for throwing in some trick Greek words like aretaic, even though my interlocutor thought it best to just assume what I meant without inquiring into my ethical and meta-ethical treatment of the topic under discussion. Instead, I am just detached in the faculty lounge, which is just another rhetorical trick to make me somehow undeserving of a proper response. Before we go any further, what I mean by proper is a dialectical response to an argument put forward by an interlocutor regulated by a philosophical dedication to the truth.

Now let's see what type of fancy trick is done here:

Why was it perfectly moral and appropriate for NAZI war criminals to be strung up, but today, for hanging to be deemed violative of the 8th Amendment. Not 75 years have passed since prominent NAZIs swung from the gallows, yet now their method of execution is deemed utter horror.

Wow, so you presuppose the very thing you want to prove as a premise to persuade others that the Left is wrong in holding capital punishment qua hanging is wrong. You assume it is perfectly moral to begin with, but the burden of such a statement rests on your ability to argue for it. Before taking the step you want to take, you have to take two-steps back. The same goes for just assuming the validity of your meta-ethical objectivity of natural law before engaging the theoretical concerns of other meta-ethical and normative theories. I'm not just waving in the wind as a proponent of virtue ethics, and I too want the same level of objectivity out of morality as you do.

Next, I would think that it is disanalogous to use hanging as illustrative about Leftist moral intuitions regarding current day waterboarding. The reason why someone might plausibly think that Nazi war criminals should hang, but be against torture is that someone can be logically consistent in maintaining the wrongness of one distinct type of act versus another act if contexts pull them apart. Punishment and information-gathering are two distinct types of acts. It's not a sign of "intellectual incoherence." If I were guilty of that, you would have to show what reasons I have stated do not logically mesh with others I have also stated (perhaps you are not a philosopher).

In conclusion, I have offered no substantive argument for why torture is wrong, nor have I put my own theoretical concerns into an argument for their defense against others here. In this post, I have only shown that Q's caricature of my response is empty. In criticizing me, you have presupposed the accuracy of your own perspective before offering a defense for those things you cannot get for free in philosophical dialogue. I have shown this in one instance. Finally, I have shown that someone could be logically consistent in maintaining the morality of capital punishment and the immorality of torture since both have different contextual considerations arising from the fact they are both distinct types of acts. Thus, I have perhaps only accomplished the modest goal of showing that I am not intellectually incoherent, and would hope better of my interlocutors on this thread.

Kind regards,


Recall his speech at AIPAC, now compare his words there to the intellectual and moral nonsense he spouted at Cairo the other day.

Why are you so scornful of David Horowitz?

The Left is about winning, about power, about power over others, about the raw, unchecked power to ram their anti-Christian vision down all of our throats.

It's a good thing you've demonstrated such restraint. Oh, you want raw, unchecked power to abuse prisoners. WWJD?

If you have a legitimate point to make, make it, don't whine about everyone else.


Rather, what would Jesus have us do in this situation. Jesus didn't ask the the Roman Legion soldiers to live by "What would Jesus do."

That's kind of a heretical take on the subject. That's very islamic. In islam, the believer is to take the great and creepy warlord as his beau ideal, and as an unfailing guide in every single one of life's decisions. Compare that take to that of Saint Thomas More, who realized God gave man a mind, and did so for a reason.

How am I "scornful" of David Horowitz, when I recommended his book for support of a point I made.

"Restraint," if you mean that faux restraint that has become the affectation of would-be modern "scholars," sure, I've no such "restraint." I'm not about to affect a "restraint" when it comes to modern NAZIs, I'm not about to affect an Olympian detachment when it comes to Al Qaeda. Nor am I going to affect an utter disinterest when it comes to the continuation of the United States, of America, of all things American. Rather, I'm going to be mindful of the ancient Greeks, who understood that often times too much "education" can lead to moral and intellectual atrophy. Creatures who affect a "scholarly" detachment in the collision of good and satanic evil, are neither "scholarly" nor educated for that matter. What such creatures are is conditioned. See C.S. Lewis on that subject.


Let's begin with a simple point of departure. Every society on the face of the Earth has at one time or another, resorted to torture. They did so for various reasons, many dark, some in extremis. But one thing all shared is the understanding that torture works. People of all races and climes intuitively understand that there are few who can endure horrific suffering imposed on them. And again, here we are discussing REAL torture, crushing testicles, gouging out eye balls, locking someone imobile in an ice box, threatening the execution of their families right in front of them, sodomy {a favourite of islam that last}. These are REAL tortures.

And every socieity has availed themselves of real torture, {though not necessarily the ones aforementioned}.

That's a given.

That historical fact, which could only be challenged by someone involved in intellectual bad faith, is something that the opponents of torture try to ignore.

Why? Where else is a resort to the historical record on a subject termed a "rhetorical trick?" If we spoke of abortion, isn't resort to the historical record important to understanding how increasingly throughout the West the deed was seen as shameful, and became unlawful, only in the era of moral confusion to become not just lawful, but celebrated. If we were discussing the NAZIs, would reference to the historical record of the Weimar years be deemed some scheme, designed to prevent a more informed take on the subject. I can't think of any other topic where the history gets in the way of an understanding.

Why is the Left so shy when it comes to the history of the subject? Because it wars against their conclusions. And why is that, because their "conclusions" are a cobbled together string-citation of value statements, western projections upon the motivations of the "other" and dubious legal/cultural takes on the subject, {such as the canard that such activities wreck a "moral toll" upon the nation}. Listening to Libs wax hot about torture calls to mind O'Connor's ruling in the Casey abortion decision, which Scalia thoroughly skewered, as again, nothing but a string-citing of value statements. And be mindful too, that this canard of "tolls" is getting tossed around by those who are DEFENDERS of abortion "rights." Watching such creatures fret about "tolls," moral or cultural, is a bit of a stretch.


the modern take on torture is a pose, it's like walking the political catwalk, strutting for the establishment to see, to ooh and ahhh, to validate and embrace the one strutting. The craving to be embraced by the establishment was recently on display at Notre Dame, that craving to be thought well of by an establishment hostile to just about everything Christ stood for is something to be wary of.

Nobody likes being on the outside, nobody enjoys being on the receiving end of jokes, railery and mockery, but the pose about torture has REAL-WORLD consequences.

Recall the boarding agent who allowed the satanically filled Atta to board. When the hate-filled creature approached the agent, the agent was struck as he later described, by a blast of malice and hate. His senses were overwhelmed by an unseen psychic attack. The first thing he thought was that this guy was a "poster child" for terrorists, but then, politically correct conditioning took hold, and he actually castigated himself privately for thinking such thoughts, which he dismissed and allowed Atta to board, and the rest as you well know is history.

That history you suggest has no bearing upon the subject at bar.........

Just think about that for a moment. World War Two history isn't helpful, Revolutionary War history does not provide assistance to us, and now much more recent history on the dangers of politically correct conditioning we are too perhaps discard as well?

In extreme situations the poses break down. Everybody recalls the pose of RAF Fighter Pilots during the Battle of Britain, how they sat around cigarette in mouth, leafing through some magazine, idly chattering, just waiting for the klaxon to sound to rush off to their aircraft to rise to take on the Germans. That's the myth, that's how British like to see themselves. The reality was altogether different. Men who couldn't eat because they couldn't hold anything down, men who embraced a certain fatalism, young men screaming to their deaths as their planes plunged from the skies. Even in battle the stoical cool broke down as screams of panic and alarm intermixed with primal screams of exultation.

It all breaks down when man is thrown against the wall.

This will have to be finished later.


My points were entirely missed, and there's no continuity in your post. You aren't doing philosophy, but ranting.

That's not covering any of the previous criticism I laid against you about the disanalogy, the difference between acts of punishment and information-gathering, nor the challenge raised as to how it is that various people appropriate history for their current self-understanding.

Next, does it matter that previous historical practices have come to fruition in past societies to rationalize the practice today? Should I own slaves since every past society has owned slaves? That's logically consistent with the type of conceptual appeal you're making to history. We ethicists usually want something else out of morality that transcends the historicity of the current dilemma. If I were to ask a Kantian how to determine whether or not torture is immoral, we would definitely conclude that torture violates the Formula of Humanity. Other philosophers might suggest that torturing doesn't maximize the best state of affairs, and as a society, allowing the practice doesn't lead to America flourishing. It undermines the virtue of justice. Maybe you think this is some blank Liberal politicized skew of seeing the world, but it has a deep intellectual traction that doesn't suffer bad faith.

So the argument against torture would be pretty simple, and ahistoric since this is a conceptual argument as we do in ethics. Torture infringes upon the dignity of a human being's intrinsic worth since in torturing we reify someone to use as a means to an end. We forget the victim's humanity in the practice. Thus, Kantians would be in a good position to reject torturing as a practice and would not be simply "posing."

Of course, conceptual analysis might be a tool you're not schooled with. Perhaps, you're not a philosopher. You just tend to politicize the entire discussion. I would hope that someone here is capable of more.

How do you mean bad faith? In the Sartrean way?

A string of value statements leading to a conclusion is called an argument, especially if the value statements are morally justified in the appropriate moral framework. I'm really fine with that.

If you want to finish this, try harder.


I'm having a problem getting to the gist of Q's argument. Even if we accept the notion that liberalism's opposition to torture is incoherent, wrongly argued, mere play-acting, etc., I don't see how that touches on conservative opposition to it, unless Q is arguing that all opposition to torture is tainted by liberalism/modernism.

That something that was once deemed moral is now considered immoral can be the result of an errant phenomenological outlook, but it is not necessarily so. One need not be a phenomenologist to believe that, for instance, disemboweling and breaking on the wheel are not morally warranted.

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