I ended yesterday’s post with the question, “if killing is worse than torturing, why should we ban the latter–especially if it proves an efficient means of preventing casualties?” I said “if” because this is a controversial empirical hypothesis. Human rights groups argue that torture does not work. It does not prevent terrorism or other grave evils, because those who are tortured can lie or can change their plans once they are captured. It generates false information that justifies even more torture without actually serving national security or any other acceptable end.
This sounds at least plausible. But it isn’t impossible to imagine a situation in which a particular form of torture (duly limited and overseen) actually has beneficial net effects on human happiness. That is, the few people who suffer under torture may–in this hypothetical world–cough up enough true information that there is less terrorism, tyranny, or war. Their suffering is far outweighed by the increased security of numerous others.
What I find interesting is that I don’t want this scenario to be empirically true. I believe in universal human rights, which rest on a sense of the dignity and intrinsic worth of all people. I also think that virtue excludes the use of torture, which is dishonorable. However, I am not so much of a “deontologist” that I’ll stick to principles regardless of their consequences. I won’t say “fiat lex pereat mundus”–let the [moral] law prevail even if the world perishes. Instead, I hope that the effects of torture prove harmful, because then arguments about consequences will line up with arguments about principles and virtues and the case will be easy.
One could, however, be a consistent consequentialist and argue that we should institute torture (with appropriate safeguards and limits) if and only if its net effects are positive. If that is your view, you should actually hope that torture is highly effective. If any practice, P, has both costs and benefits, a consequentialist should want its benefits greatly to outweigh its costs and should then press to institutionalize P. A consequentialist should oppose torture if, as the human rights groups say, it doesn’t work. But I see no consequentialist grounds for hoping that it doesn’t work.