Home > applied ethics > Why Sam Harris is just plain wrong about torture

Why Sam Harris is just plain wrong about torture

In this blog post, Sam Harris once more defends an argument he made comparing torture and collateral damage in The End of Faith. This detailed defense is worth reading, and I think Harris is basically right to compare torture and collateral damage in war, both being willfully done evils which people defend on morally and factually implausible “greater good” grounds. But he’s still wrong about torture, even if he’s basically right about collateral damage — and exactly why he’s wrong is interesting and subtle. Here is the tricky bit that exposes exactly where Harris’ reasoning goes off the rails:

It is widely claimed that torture “does not work”—that it produces unreliable information, implicates innocent people, etc. As I argue in The End of Faith, this line of defense does not resolve the underlying ethical dilemma. Clearly, the claim that torture never works, or that it always produces bad information, is false. There are cases in which the mere threat of torture has worked. As I argue in The End of Faith, one can easily imagine situations in which even a very low probability of getting useful information through torture would seem to justify it—the looming threat of nuclear terrorism being the most obvious case. It is decidedly unhelpful that those who claim to know that torture is “always wrong” never seem to envision the circumstances in which good people would be tempted to use it. Critics of my collateral damage argument always ignore the hard case: where the person in custody is known to be involved in terrible acts of violence and where the threat of further atrocities is imminent.

Harris is simply wrong in thinking that “torture does not work” necessarily means that torture never works or always produces bad information, nor is a critic of his argument logically compelled to take any such extreme and probably unjustifiable position. Rather, the perfectly plausible and evidence-supported claim that torture is massively unreliable is sufficient, because there is no way for an interrogator to know at the time of interrogation whether the information extracted by torture is even remotely true, or in contrast is deliberately misleading. The problem here isn’t that torture always produces false information, but that it often does, so that [1] there is every reason to think that torture is as likely or more likely to produce bad information or no information than good information, and [2] there is no way of knowing in any particular circumstances whether this is an occasion where torture will produce good information that will help alleviate a threat, rather than bad information that will exacerbate a threat by wasting time and resources investigating phony leads or mobilizing forces in the wrong fashion.

That torture has on some past occasions produced good intelligence is something that was determined after the fact, just as the fact that torture has resulted in false confessions and other sorts of harmful misinformation on many, many occasions was determined after the fact. The problem, however, is that we don’t have access to that after-the-fact knowledge until, well, after the fact: Interrogators are unable — and almost certainly always will be unable — to determine whether any particular occasion where torture might be considered, including the most radical ticking time bomb “hard case” scenario conjured by Harris or the fevered imaginations of the writers of 24, will after the fact prove to be one of those occasions where torture provides good intelligence rather than harmful misinformation. We cannot know the future in this way except based on probabilities, and the probability of getting misleading and even positively harmful misinformation from torture is high, quite possibly higher than the probability of getting useful intelligence.

Harris not only fails to compare the chance of getting useful information to the chance of getting harmful misinformation, he also fails to compare torture to the obvious alternative: When Harris talks about a scenario in which “even a very low probability of getting useful information through torture would seem to justify it,” the appearance of justification is only preserved by failing to compare torture to non-torture interrogation. It simply isn’t sufficient that torture has some probability, however low, of getting information that could save many innocent lives: To justify its use, torture must have a demonstrably higher probability of getting useful information than non-torture interrogation methods — and it does not.

We know for certain that torture is unreliable. We also know for certain that non-torture interrogation techniques are also unreliable. But there is no good reason to think non-torture interrogation is less reliable than torture, and many reasons to think that it torture is in fact the more unreliable technique by far. What we do not and probably cannot know is whether any particular interrogation situation which confronts us right now, in a given moment, is one where torture would more reliably provide useful intelligence than non-torture interrogation.

If the justification for torture is to commit a moral evil to prevent a greater evil, we must have a reasonable basis for believing that the evil we commit is genuinely worth it. Given our imperfect knowledge of the future, we can only make such a calculation based on probabilities, and Harris utterly fails to consider the appropriate comparisons between probable outcomes. We cannot consider the possibility that torture will net us information that can be used to prevent great harm in isolation, we must compare that possibility to the possibility that torture will net us information that exacerbates the harm or makes it more difficult to prevent the harm, and we must also compare it to the possibility that we could get equally reliable or even more reliable harm-averting information by using well-established interrogation techniques that do not involve torture. Harris’ argument fails to make either comparison, and fails to recognize the need to do so.

In summary, we cannot possibly be justified in committing one moral atrocity to prevent another without having good reasons to think that the moral atrocity we commit has both [1] a better chance of preventing than exacerbating the atrocity we seek to prevent, and [2] a better chance to prevent the atrocity than any other action we could take that does not involve committing an atrocity of our own. I think it is highly dubious that we have good reason to think [1], that torture is more likely generate useful information than misleading misinformation: Certainly, Harris has not made this argument convincingly, nor even perceived the need to make it. I think that the preponderance of the evidence already shows that [2] is false, although I am open to evidence to the contrary if anyone can produce it: Again, Harris has not provided evidence for [2], nor even perceived the need to make a case for it. With good prima facie reasons to think that [1] and [2] are false, and in the absence of any convincing arguments I am aware of that both [1] and [2] are true, universal and unqualified moral opposition to torture is wholly justified. It is justified without relying on any absolutist assertion that torture never produces reliable intelligence, but only on the theoretically coherent and empirically supportable (and I think already quite adequately supported) claim that torture produces less reliable intelligence than well-established interrogation techniques which don’t involve torture.

The error Sam Harris has made here is very much akin to recommending a drug by citing only data comparing the efficacy of the drug to a placebo, and ignoring data comparing the efficacy of the drug to other drugs which are already established as being effective against the same condition and have fewer side effects. This is an error so basic and obvious that someone who is scientifically trained should not miss it — and I think Harris would not miss it, if it weren’t his own flawed reasoning he is defending.

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Categories: applied ethics
  1. 2011/05/01 at 5:58 am

    “To justify its use, torture must have a demonstrably higher probability of getting useful information than non-torture interrogation methods — and it does not.”
    Two questions:
    1) Is it true that if torture *did* provide a demonstrably higher probability of getting useful information then you *would* favour its use in some cases? (I know you only stated a necessary condition, but that actually goes without saying, so I would like to hear your views on the more interesting question of what, if anything, might provide a sufficient condition.)
    2) How do you know that it does not? (I wouldn’t expect that the research necessary to answer that question would pass muster with most academic ethics committees, so I am not sure how anyone outside the shadow-world could ever be sure that torture-based interrogation methods are never more effective than torture-free ones.)
    3) Sam Harris is often a pretty sloppy writer, but when he says “one can easily imagine situations in which even a very low probability of getting useful information through torture would seem to justify it” I think he deserves the indulgence of being interpreted as meaning “getting a higher expected value of useful information than through non-torture methods”. I won’t defend the “seem to justify” bit, but I can’t imagine not being able to imagine a hypothetical situation in which torture might actually work.

  2. 2011/05/01 at 8:29 pm

    I’m not completely sure about the answer to your first question, actually. I was sticking to Harris’ own utilitarian reasoning, considering only the (probable) consequences of actions — but I think there are deep problems with strictly utilitarian ethical theories.

    As for evidence, there has certainly been a fair amount of research conducted and evidence gathered for the most effective non-torture techniques. As for evidence of the ineffectiveness of torture to gather useful intelligence — yes, it’s quite practically and morally problematic to study the matter scientifically. But here are a few points to consider: Interrogation experts for the most part agree that torture is ineffective. Historically, torture has been used more often to produce misinformation (such as phony confessions) than to extract real intelligence. The intelligence community outside the ranks of interrogation experts seems to agree, since analysts routinely flag information gathered from torture as highly questionable. And then there’s the recent historical evidence: With all the motivation in the world to justify what the Bush administration euphemistically called “enhanced interrogation techniques,” why can’t any defenders of the policy come up with a single concrete example of where important, life-saving intelligence was gathered? Dick Cheney rather famously offered what he considered proof that those methods work, but checking his claims against all the available records and evidence proved conclusively that he was lying his ass off.

    As for your third point, I think the reading you are suggesting is not merely charitable, but unwarranted attribution of an argument Harris simply doesn’t make. Moreover, I pointed out two different missing essential comparisons in Harris’ argument. Even if I were to charitably read him as you suggest and include the comparison to non-torture interrogation methods as implied, he still would have ignored the fact that torture seems every bit as likely to produce potentially harmful misinformation as it is legitimately useful information. If the low probability of useful information is countered by a low (but possibly higher) probability of getting misleading misinformation, I don’t think his conclusion follows. The “ticking time bomb” scenarios favored in this sort of argument may justify torture on the grounds of its presumed production of results more swiftly than traditional interrogation methods, but no tweaking of the scenario can allow an honest reasoner to ignore the fact that torture historically produces lots of useless misinformation. (So much useless information, in fact, that Dick Cheney and other defenders of torture during the Bush administration have yet to produce a single, evidence-supported example of information extracted by torture that proved to be both true and useful after the fact.) In addition, misinformation is likely to be *especially* harmful in those scenarios when time is of the essence, because time is wasted following phony leads and manpower is mobilized in useless ways.

  3. Alex SL
    2011/05/03 at 4:34 am

    Nicely argued. But here I disagree:

    Harris is basically right to compare torture and collateral damage in war, both being willfully done evils which people defend on morally and factually implausible “greater good” grounds.

    If you allow me, I cross-post what I also wrote on WEIT…

    “Remember those famous trolley experiments? There was a situation in which the participants were presented with a situation in which three helpless passengers were sitting in a trolley hurling towards a cliff, but you could save them by pulling a lever that diverts the trolley onto a safe side track where it would run over some random guy. The gut feeling of most participants across cultures and traditions of superstition was, if I am not completely mistaken here, to sacrifice random guy – it is one vs. three, after all.

    However, if presented with superficially similar situations, like being a doctor with three patients experiencing acute organ failure and healthy random guy coming into the hospital, it was considered amoral to butcher him up to save the others.

    Now we could pull a Harris and say, as indignantly as he does in the HuffPo piece re torture and collateral damage, essentially, “you’re all not thinking clearly if you consider these cases to be different”.

    However, I am a more evidence minded person, and I would rather not try to develop moral guidelines from a comfy armchair. Perhaps we should entertain the notion that there might be some difference and ask ourselves what we can learn about moral instincts here. My first idea is that it is about intent, and the directness of your culpability. If you have the aim to bomb Dr Evil and happen to kill random guy, the latter’s demise was not really what you wanted to happen. (The real point is still whether it is justified to bomb Dr Evil instead of giving him a trial.) But if you strap Dr Evil to a chair and start playing Celine Dion records, you are torturing him much more directly and consciously than you killed random guy in the other case.”

    Does not mean I do not despise the blatant disregard for the invisible victims who are euphemistically called collateral damage.

  4. 2011/05/03 at 2:12 pm

    I don’t think anyone would argue that we should replace standard interrogation methods with torture. But how do you deal with the scenario in which standard interrogation techniques have not worked? Do we do nothing and let the atrocity occur, or do we supplement standard techniques with torture in limited cases?

  5. 2011/05/03 at 3:25 pm

    As I noted in response to Alan Cooper’s third question, proposing such a scenario does nothing to resolve the problem that torture seems every bit as likely to produce potentially harmful misinformation as it is legitimately useful information. In fact, it seems quite plausible that a suspect on whom standard interrogation methods have completely failed is exactly the kind of hard case who is more likely to provide harmful misinformation than legitimately useful information.

  6. 2011/05/03 at 3:46 pm

    Right, but in most of these hypothetical cases obtaining false information would be the functional equivalent of obtaining no information. So, if conventional interrogation tactics have failed, getting false information via torture wouldn’t put the authorities in a worse off situation than they already were, but getting good information would make them (and the hypothetical victims of the hypothetical atrocity) significantly better off.

    And just for the record, even though I think there are cases in which torture could be morally justified, I actually don’t favor it being legal, even in extremely circumscribed cases. I oppose torture for the same reason I oppose capital punishment. I don’t trust our government to implement it in any kind of principled fashion.

  7. 2011/05/03 at 3:48 pm

    Alex SL: I’m not sure how much weight I want to give human moral instincts, exposed through thought experiments or otherwise. In all sorts of matters, moral and otherwise, we are inclined to make many distinctions on an intuitive or subjective basis that do not make any difference at all when looked at rationally and objectively. Speaking more generally, if human moral instincts were reliable and sound, none of us would engage in or need to engage in the sorts of discussions about morality we’re conducting here.

    That said, I think the specific argument you make here doesn’t wash because your parallel isn’t at all parallel. In the situation you describe, collateral damage is not only unintended, but unforeseen (“happen to kill a random guy”), and that is probably false in most real-world cases, and it is surely false in the cases Harris is talking about in his argument: When you order bombs to be dropped on cities and villages, you know damned well that innocent human beings will be slaughtered along with your targets. That’s what “collateral damage” means.

    More generally, your discussion of what you intend to do vs. what you actually do sounds a lot like the litany of rationalizations that Catholics dress up with the pretty name “the doctrine of double effect,” which (obviously) I don’t find a particularly convincing principle of moral reasoning.

  8. 2011/05/03 at 4:08 pm

    OysterMonkey said:

    Right, but in most of these hypothetical cases obtaining false information would be the functional equivalent of obtaining no information.

    I’m not at all sure this is true. Typically, the hypothetical case for torture is grounded in imagined situations of extreme and urgent danger, i.e. ticking-time-bomb scenarios. In those circumstances, it seems that misinformation that wastes time and misdirects manpower is quite a bit more harmful than simply not getting information. After all, the whole point here is that one doesn’t KNOW whether the information one gets during interrogation is true or false — and that torture is at least as likely (if not more likely) to produce misinformation as legitimate information.

  9. Alex SL
    2011/05/04 at 1:26 am

    Alex SL: I’m not sure how much weight I want to give human moral instincts, exposed through thought experiments or otherwise… if human moral instincts were reliable and sound, none of us would engage in or need to engage in the sorts of discussions about morality we’re conducting here.

    Well, I am not a philosopher but a scientist, and so I am not be very well versed in these discussions. But the gist I seem to get is that it probably impossible to develop a moral codex from first principles; perhaps even more crucially, even if we could simply sit down and develop a coherent and completely rational moral philosophy, we would still likely not find a significant number of humans who would or could live by it, or it might turn out that it is not workable for a society. Just imagine (purely hypothetically), Ayn Rand would be completely correct, and her “philosophy” was the most rational prescription for behaviour we could ever develop. It would still fail, because humans just aren’t the way they would have to be to make that work, and a society as she envisions would collapse from hunger revolts in its first decade. Conversely, stealing, cowardice and lying are not considered vices because somebody 200,000 years ago sat down, thought for a while and came to the rational conclusion that they are evil, but because a society that considers these behaviours virtuous simply cannot function.

    What I want to say is not that we should not think and argue about these issues theoretically, but that we should consider empirical evidence informative. Morals are only good for anything if they do not completely run counter to human nature and if they allow to build a stable society. In that sense, the results of these experiments are very informative: humans are hard-wired to see a difference where we naively would not see one from a theoretical perspective. Maybe then we should think harder, maybe there is one.

    That said, I think the specific argument you make here doesn’t wash because your parallel isn’t at all parallel. In the situation you describe, collateral damage is not only unintended, but unforeseen (“happen to kill a random guy”)

    Then I have expressed myself not clearly enough. The participants were faced with the moral choice of hypothetically saving three by killing one, or dooming three by deciding that the one did not deserve to be sacrificed. They would intentionally kill him to save the others in some scenarios, and not in others, and at first sight these different decisions appear puzzling.

    In fact, that is even more clear cut than some collateral damage scenarios. Obviously, if somebody fires a missile into a house where Mr Bad Guy lives with his wife and three children, then they do know damn well that innocents are going to die, and it is bigotry for people not to worry about this. But if somebody bombs a military post and one bomb misses and flattens a nearby house, it is rather stretching things a bit to say that they callously accepted the death of the civilians in that house. There was a certain risk that that might happen, but it was not the intention, nor was it guaranteed as in the first example. There is a certain risk that I run somebody over when I go by car, after all.

    Note that I am not saying that I, personally, would consider it justified to bomb a terrorist leader. I would always say they should be captured, extradited, and tried. Always. That is civilized behaviour. But the fact that many people see collateral damage as less problematic than torture is not something to be brushed off the table with “you’re all idiots”, as Harris is implying, but if may actually tell us something interesting.

  10. 2011/05/04 at 1:47 am

    I agree, but you have to take into consideration what is considered by “torture”. Not all torture involves water-boarding or any other physical method. Some people may get a nervous breakdown by just having an officer interrogate him “in your face” for 5-10 minutes… he could consider that torture.

    If you put a muslim, for example, in a room with no windows, no possibility of knowing where “east” is, eating nothing but bread, water and vitamins once a day… is that torture if the interrogations are civil, without shouting or hitting him? I am against torture, but prisoners should not be treated to tea and crackers either. If there is an imminent threat, how far are you willing to go to try and get to the bottom of things? Talking only does so much.

    Let’s look away from torture and look at strikes and sit-downs, for example. If workers are treated unfairly, they talk to their bossess and nothing happens. They talk, and talk, and talk… eventually they will stop working, damn the consequences. If you try and get information from a prisoner and it does not work… again, how far are people willing to go? Deep down, we are all animals.

  11. 2011/05/04 at 5:06 am

    We’re all animals deep down — and on the surface for that matter — because humans are animals. But we are animals capable of reasoned reflection. Amongst the product of our reasoned reflection are thoroughly researched and field-tested interrogation methods that work — or at least, work better than letting our more primitive instincts determine our actions.

    Thus, the answer to your rather rhetorical question, Secular Dentist, is that professional interrogators should be willing to do what their training, expertise, and experience tells them will be effective. And, as it turns out, well-trained professional interrogators reject torture as not only ineffective, but counterproductive.

  12. 2011/05/04 at 5:55 am

    @ Alex SL #9: I take science and empirical evidence very seriously; in fact, I wrote my doctoral dissertation about the intersection of evolutionary biology and ethical theory. Many plain empirical facts are of course vastly important for moral reasoning: There would be no prohibitions against torture or murder if it were not a plain fact that we are mortal creatures who suffer and die, no obligation to feed the hungry if we did not hunger. But still, facts are not values, so taking facts about how human think about certain moral questions as determining how we ought to think about those questions is simply a category error. In fact, it may be two different errors at once, as it also confuses opinion for truth without additional evidence. We definitely *should* think carefully about what our collective and individual moral instincts tell us, but to “think harder” about such matters cannot and should not equate to taking fairly common (but not universal) moral intuitions at face value — which segués into your other point.

    I was indeed a bit confused about the point you were making, since the sorts of thought experiments you are talking about really don’t map onto collateral damage in the military sense very clearly. Frankly, I think the real reasons people ignore collateral damage has nothing to do with the sorts of issues gotten at by the experiments you refer to, but instead are simply the result of psychological and social distance: Unknown people — people from a different culture in a faraway land — are too easily overlooked or dehumanized. Genuine moral reasoning not only attempts to, but is specifically structured to rise above those sorts of psychological limitations and biases, much like scientific reasoning is structured to overcome other natural human psychological limitations and biases.

    But if somebody bombs a military post and one bomb misses and flattens a nearby house, it is rather stretching things a bit to say that they callously accepted the death of the civilians in that house.

    This, however, I simply don’t buy. Bombs miss, and those who bomb know that perfectly well, as do those who order bombs dropped. Of course it is callous and calculating, and it is simply disingenuous to claim otherwise. Military leaders coldly decide what level of civilian casualties are “acceptable” in a given engagement or theater of operations as a matter of course. They don’t crow over making such calculations in public, naturally, but they damned well make them.

  13. Alex SL
    2011/05/04 at 7:40 am

    We are mostly agreed! I just wanted to stress that I consider the comparability of torture and collateral damage s.l. to be far from obvious, and then that gut reactions may actually tell us interesting things that we might look into. This does not mean that we will necessarily be lead to a useful insight, it could just as well turn out that this gut reaction is simply based on a fallacy, but it is worth looking. And again, I myself do not want anybody to bomb, torture or assassinate at all or play these activities down, I merely suggest to analyze the moral judgments of others instead of discounting them as “poorly thought through”.

  14. 2011/05/04 at 12:49 pm

    I have always been deeply dissatisfied with Harris’s arguments regarding torture, and his supplementary article did not seem to help, and now I see why. There is no question, I believe, that you have hit the nail on the head, and that it is the failure to consider all the different options and their probabilities of success that is the most serious failure of Harris’s argument. I did not myself see the argument, but was always vaguely dissatisfied with Harris’ conclusions, and now, as I said, I see why. Thank you for this very clear presentation of the case.

  15. 2011/05/04 at 2:37 pm

    “Bombs miss, and those who bomb know that perfectly well, as do those who order bombs dropped.” Yes, but as AlexSL pointed out, cars malfunction and those who drive know that perfectly well and yet they still do so anyhow. Of course this too is callous and calculating, and it is simply disingenuous to claim otherwise. We all do things that put others at risk and the issue is not whether or not to do so at all, but rather what level of risk is acceptable. As a mathematician I am relieved to see that this seems to make “calculating” something to be required and admired rather than disdained.

  16. 2011/05/04 at 2:52 pm

    thephilosophicalprimate :
    Thus, the answer to your rather rhetorical question, Secular Dentist, is that professional interrogators should be willing to do what their training, expertise, and experience tells them will be effective.

    This seems to imply that, in response to *my* first question, your “final answer” is an unqualified “yes” (which I do find rather disturbing especially since your *only* criterion appears to be effectiveness of the technique!).

  17. sailor1031
    2011/05/04 at 2:57 pm

    “To justify its use, torture must have a demonstrably higher probability of getting useful information than non-torture interrogation methods — and it does not”

    I’m sorry but this a totally ethically deficient position. Torture whether effective to some degree or other is wrong. As a primate you know this.

    Also, it isn’t the case that you normally have to torture only one person to get all the inormation you need. You have to torture a lot of people maybe getting only one (or no)useful piece of information from each. The picture, right or wrong is built up later by analysts from all the torture results. Some of teh subjects may indeed be very evil, dangerous people but many are likely to be innocent or fairly innocent people who didn’teven know they had an important piece of information.

    You can read about all this in histories of the french war in Algeria. Start with “My battle of Algiers” by Ted Morgan (aka Sanche de Gramont). And yes, the torture was effective in that case – but hey had to torture a lot of people to get the nformation they needed. Are you up for being the torturer? Is Sam Harris? If not this is all just so much blowhard bullshit anyway!

  18. 2011/05/04 at 3:34 pm

    Leaving aside the problems with strictly utilitarian ethics, your argument about torture being unreliable more often than non-torture techniques is flawless. Thanks for a well-written and enlightening piece. Keep them coming.

  19. 2011/05/04 at 4:30 pm

    @Alan Cooper #15: I agree that recognizing the inescapable need calculation of risk. Note, interestingly, that this is the one respect in which collateral damage is very different from torture, in that the harm done (in order to advance some other good or prevent some other harm) in a calculated fashion is statistical rather specific. One knows which particular human is a suspect to be tortured — although, in the real world, one rarely knows with genuine certainty whether a given suspect is in fact guilty, something Harris assumes we are certain about in his oh-so-hypothetical examples. In bombing and other military collateral damage situations, the people harmed are innocent and somewhat random — just people caught in the metaphorical or literal crossfire. This is, I think, one of those differences that have a great deal of psychological impact — deliberately picking out one particular person to harm as opposed to accepting a calculated risk that you know will lead to harming a certain number of people without being able to know which particular people — but have no genuine moral importance. People harmed are people harmed, and if we are considering the harm, the statistical nature of how that harm is distributed should not matter.

    As for your comment #16, it only looks that way if you quote it partially, leaving off the second sentence. Actually, even the quoted sentence rules out torture, insofar as I meant something quite specific when I referred to “professional interrogators.” As it turns out, professionally trained and experienced interrogators (such as those used by our own military intelligence) are NOT trained to torture, because it is both ineffective and illegal under the Geneva Convention. When the Bush administration decided to use torture, their interrogators refused and they instead sent CIA agents (who were not primarily trained as interrogators) to go learn waterboarding techniques from those who trained Navy SEALS to resist waterboarding. (The last time waterboarding was used extensively against U.S. troops? During Vietnam, where it was used not to extract information, but to force false confessions.)

  20. 2011/05/04 at 4:57 pm

    @ sailor1031: As I mentioned above (comment #2), I was sticking with Harris’ own purely utilitarian reasoning in order to counter his argument on its own terms, but I’m dubious that utilitarianism is a complete and convincing ethical theory. Moreover, you seem to be reading Harris’ argument carelessly, and mine even more carelessly. Harris thinks torture should be illegal, and he thinks none of the actual cases of torture as it has historically been and is currently being used are justified. But, based on reasoning I criticized here, Harris still thinks that there are possible hypothetical situations of the sort usually referred to as “ticking time bomb scenarios” where his (frankly, rather naive) utilitarian reasoning suggests that torture would be justified. I argued that his justification for those cases fails even on its own terms.

    What you are pointing out is that real-world situations rarely look like such hypothetical situations. Harris knows that. I know that. So your criticism shows that you’re missing the point. This is a purely theoretical discussion: It’s about thinking carefully through the ethical principles that we use to justify our actions, not about the sorts of concrete real-world decision situations where those principles are put into play. If you want to refer to all such theoretical discussions aimed at analyzing our underlying principles as “blowhard bullshit,” you’re welcome to. But you should probably stop reading philosophy and blogs by philosophers, then.

  21. 2011/05/04 at 6:06 pm

    WTF are you talking about?

    You say: “Harris is simply wrong in thinking that “torture does not work” necessarily means that torture never works or always produces bad information, nor is a critic of his argument logically compelled to take any such extreme and probably unjustifiable position.”

    Yet Harris makes no such claim (that torture newer works). He says right up-front “Clearly, the claim that torture never works, or that it always produces bad information, is false.”

  22. Living Life Without a Net
    2011/05/04 at 6:27 pm

    I didn’t read all the comments, so sorry if I’m parroting. Another thing Harris has not included in the equation is that from at least historical record, collateral damage IS an effective means to an end in certain circumstances. The planned invasion of the Japanese mainland was expected to result in as much as 40% casualties for the Allies. (To say nothing of the number of Axis losses, considering that the side who lost 40% was betting on being the winners.) The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki can hardly be viewed as anything but collateral damage. The victims were almost all civilians.

    And that was enough to end the war. Collateral damage worked.

    So… the comparison between torture and collateral damage fails when it is properly aligned: When collateral damage is used to further a war effort, it sometimes works, and generally does not hinder the effort to get to the enemy. When torture is used to further a war effort, it is wildly unreliable, and has the potential to hinder the effort to get to the enemy. (Imagine the only remaining bomb squad running around to fifty false locations while the bomb ticks away…)

  23. Living Life Without a Net
    2011/05/04 at 6:30 pm

    Also… to be precise with definitions, I’m viewing the atomic bombs as bazookas used to shoot houseflies. There were certainly useful targets in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the bombs got them.

    I realize that not everyone views them this way, but isn’t collateral damage almost always a matter of interpretation?

  24. 2011/05/04 at 9:26 pm

    @ Lambert: Read again, more carefully. I didn’t say Harris made the claim that “torture never works.” I said he accused those who disagree with him of making such a claim, and I argued that no one need make such an extreme (and I agree, implausible) claim in order to disagree with him.

  25. 2011/05/04 at 9:49 pm

    @ Live Without a Net: I think that you are not, despite your protest, being at all precise about definitions. Deliberate attacks on largely civilian populations (the London Blitz, Hiroshima & Nagasaki, arguably the fire-bombing of Dresden, etc.) are not usually termed “collateral damage.” By definition, “collateral” means casualties that are incidental or accidental consequences of an attack on a primary target, not casualties who are the targets by deliberate design.

    That bit of pedantry aside, in terms of straightforward utilitarian calculus used to make hard choices about lives lost and misery inflicted and so on, Harris certainly could have included discussion of such matters in that argument. However, I don’t think it’s as neat and clear as whig historians like to portray it that Hiroshima & Nagasaki (and Dresden, and other of the more civilian-slaughtering military operations by the Allies during WWII) actually were justifiable by cost-benefit analysis of lives lost and such. The debatable character of such claims, I suspect, is why Harris chose instead to compare torture to more ordinary cases of collateral damage. There is widespread acceptance that inflicting a certain number of civilian casualties is an unfortunate but necessary feature of war — or at least, that it is necessary when the war itself is justified by its defense or pursuit of what is morally important (e.g. WWII). This “unfortunate but necessary” under certain (very limited) circumstances line of argument parallels what Harris tries to justify with respect to torture as well. I don’t think his argument works, but as I noted, I do think his underlying comparison of torture and collateral damage is reasonable.

  26. Living Life Without a Net
    2011/05/05 at 7:41 pm

    Well… I suppose I should have been more explicit. Part of the point I was trying to make is that “collateral damage” is largely defined by the “good word” of the morally superior combatant. (Yes, I know that’s full of fail, too…) When we speak of torture and collateral damage, we’re not just comparing apples and oranges. We’re comparing “maybe some fruit (or maybe not)” and “maybe some other fruit (or maybe not).”

    I say (hypothetically) that atomic bombing a city was attacking military targets and accepting the collateral damage. You say sleep deprivation in painfully bright light is “aggressive questioning.” Yes, there are international guidelines, but the U.S. proved that such guidelines are little more than helpful suggestions when there’s a legal loophole to be found. And frankly, if Bush and Co get away with it in the long term, it will have rendered international law effectively meaningless. After all, we have bases everywhere and have shown perfectly good “nation building” skills wherever we’ve decided we preferred our dictator to theirs.

    So in practical terms, if the U.S. calls it collateral damage, it’s collateral damage. And I don’t believe for a second that high level meetings didn’t include frank discussions of the psychological impact of huge civilian death tolls in Iraq, and factor that into the decision to go with all out city invasion instead of covert special forces surgical strikes.

    The Iraqi civilian casualties can be called collateral damage because there wasn’t a big boom that leveled entire cities. But in practical terms, the number of deaths and U.S. attitude (at high levels) towards those deaths don’t seem that different to me.

  27. Living Life Without a Net
    2011/05/05 at 7:47 pm

    Pardon my early “Submit.” Broad point being: If Harris is going to compare torture to collateral damage, he needs to also compare it to “intentional” collateral damage, since the practical effect for the victims is essentially the same, and calling something “collateral” is more a function of an appropriate loophole than a humanitarian gesture in so many cases.

  28. 2011/05/05 at 8:24 pm

    Actually, I think exactly what you are saying is more or less in line with Harris’ purpose in drawing the parallel: Insofar as it is almost always a foreseeable consequence of ones military actions, collateral damage is every bit as deliberate as torture. Frankly, it simply doesn’t matter for the purpose of strictly utilitarian analysis, which looks only at the consequences of the actions, whether the civilian casualties are the primary purpose of a given military action or only an unfortunate but unavoidable side effect of the action (as the term “collateral damage” is typically used to indicate, whether it’s used honestly or not). I was suggesting that Harris chose to focus on collateral damage (defining it in terms of honest intent rather than self-justifying rhetoric) only to avoid muddying the waters with considerations that are extraneous to his purpose.

    On further thought, I would argue that civilian casualties which are side effect rather than the intended purpose of military actions makes a better parallel with torture. After all, the primary purpose of torture is NOT (supposedly) to inflict pain on the subject or punish the subject, but to extract valuable intelligence from the subject; and if torture can be justified (as Harris argues it can and I argue it cannot), it is justified by the positive value of the intelligence objective outweighing the disvalue of torture — and if there were other means to accomplish the objective without the disvalue, those means would be better. Similarly, the primary purpose of a military action is NOT (usually) to cause civilian casualties, but to accomplish a valuable military objective like inflicting military casualties, impairing military production, or cutting off supply lines; and if civilian casualties can be justified (and I doubt they can be the vast majority of the time), they are justified by the positive value of the military objective outweighing the disvalue of civilian casualties — and if there were other means to accomplish the objective without the disvalue, those means would be better.

  29. Living Life Without a Net
    2011/05/06 at 8:21 pm

    So if I understand correctly, “honest” collateral damage does have measurable and relatively predictable benefit, while torture is basically unpredictable. Therefore, from a utilitarian perspective (which I am playing along with, not necessarily endorsing), the comparison is valid, but torture is not justified. Yes?

  30. 2011/05/06 at 8:35 pm

    Basically, yes, with a few caveats: In response to your questions, I made the case for why Harris chose to compare the two on utilitarian grounds — and I think the comparison is not entirely unreasonable, within the framework of utilitarian reasoning (which I’m playing along with as much as you are). As for predictability, I’m not sure military objectives are, on the whole, that much more predictable than the value of intelligence produced by torture: In any event, I never said so, and it’s not relevant to the point I was making. I was just arguing that the two situations are plausibly legitimate parallels with respect to offering justification for actions where one knowingly commits harm that it would be preferable to avoid on the grounds that the benefits outweigh the harm.

    For my part, I think torture can never be justified on *any* grounds, although in countering Harris I only argued for that conclusion on the utilitarian grounds he uses. I also think that civilian casualties at the very least ought to be taken a helluvalot more seriously than they ever are by the privilege-blinded, power-drunk military and political types who make decisions about them.

  31. Living Life Without a Net
    2011/05/06 at 8:47 pm

    This is one of the reasons I shy away from utilitarianism, even when it comes up with what I believe is the “correct” answer. I agree with you that collateral damage is a very, very serious thing. I’ve been thinking about that in terms of Bin Laden’s death. Do I think it was worth the thousands of Iraqi civilians who died? No. (Even if Iraq had been the correct target, I wouldn’t believe it was worth it.) As I opined on my blog today, I’m having a hard time thinking of what you or I, or anyone we know, or anyone they know has tangibly gained from Osama’s death. Thousands are dead, cities are destroyed, and we get a collective fist pump and “fuck you.” And we’re not safer today than before he was dead.

    This is clearly a case of collateral damage that wasn’t taken seriously enough. But I’ve been trying to think of the last time in recent history I’ve thought: “Well, I certainly feel like my life has improved because of all that collateral damage.” So far, I’m coming up blank.

    That being the case, my moral compass is telling me the utilitarian conclusion that collateral damage is sometimes good is… questionable.

  32. 2011/05/06 at 9:03 pm

    I see your point, but I don’t think you can pin any of that shit on utilitarian reasoning. U.S. policies are built on transparent, short-sighted rationalizations, not any sort of remotely valid moral or even political reasoning. Most of our policies in the past decade haven’t even accomplish their stated goals, nor any selfishly beneficial goals that might possibly have been intended without being stated. They have done us literally NO good, only vast harm.

    Frankly, I don’t think there’s a sensible moral or political philosopher in the world — utilitarian or otherwise — who could look at U.S. military policy in the last 10 years and say of any action we’ve taken, “Sure, that was a reasonable and plausibly justifiable action to take.” And you can go back a lot farther than 10 years. WWII was a just war, I think, but that doesn’t condone every action taken to win it. Since then… I think that maybe, possibly, Clinton’s military intervention to help thwart ongoing genocide in the former Yugoslavia was justifiable. And perhaps *some* sort of post-911 military operation in Afghanistan was warranted, but not what we did or the way we did it. And Iraq? I said that was a wholly unjustifiable cluster-fuck-in-the-making as soon as the noise machine building up to it started, and count that among the least surprising absolutely correct predictions I’ve ever made.

  33. JJonas8
    2011/05/06 at 10:03 pm

    To justify its use, torture must have a demonstrably higher probability of getting useful information than non-torture interrogation methods — and it does not.

    By this argument, we must not imprison people for some period of time unless that penalty has a demonstrably higher probability of achieving our objective than some lesser penalty, like a fine, or a shorter period of imprisonment. We must not drop a bomb on an enemy target in wartime unless that act has a demonstrably higher probability of achieving our objective than some less harmful act. The general form of your claim is that we must never cause harm unless we can demonstrate that there is no less harmful alternative for accomplishing the same goal. In the real world, it is rarely if ever possible to do this. We just try to make the best choices we can from the limited information available in each case. You cannot prove that it is really necessary to sentence a criminal to 10 years in jail rather than 5 any more than I can prove that it is necessary to use torture rather than some less harmful interrogation method.

  34. 2011/05/06 at 10:31 pm

    JJonas8: While you are more or less correct about the general form of the utilitarian claim that I’ve made, you’ve oversimplified it quite a bit. But before I discuss the oversimplifications, it’s worth noting that it isn’t *my* argument as such: I am using the same utilitarian reasoning Harris uses, but pointing out that he neglects some comparisons that he ought not to have neglected. Any and every utilitarian in the world thinks that we ought to act so as to bring about the greatest good and least harm. While I am not a strict utilitarian by any means, I don’t think the basic moral reasoning behind the principle of utility is obviously stupid — nor that it should be casually dismissed by hand-waving claims about how tough it is to know for certain what the results of our actions will be in the “real world.” Yes, as some wag (attributions vary) once put it, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” But surely when it comes to the moral consequences of our actions, we are obligated to use our best judgment, and to think carefully about what that entails.

    To return to oversimplification, then, the biggest one you make is ignoring my repeated reference to probability. I did NOT demand certainty, or anything like certainty, about the benefits versus harms of torture — although you imply that I did by your emphasis on limited information and your use of words like “demonstrate” and “prove.” Instead, I demanded evidence for the plausible probability that the proposed action (torture) would provide more benefit than harm – and explained exactly why the case Harris makes for torture fails by that standard. Moreover, while the potential for obtaining beneficial intelligence or harmful misinformation from torture may be difficult to discern, the actual harm being done by the act of torture is at least clear and predictable. Is it not quite reasonable to put the burden of justification on the person who claims it is justified to deliberately inflict certain harm on others for notably uncertain benefit? And, especially in the case of torture, isn’t it reasonable to demand a pretty high standard of evidence? I think it is. If you don’t, I think you need to have your moral compass realigned.

  35. JJonas8
    2011/05/06 at 11:39 pm

    Yes, I was sloppy in some of my paraphrasing, but it doesn’t change the central problem with your argument. I’ll rephrase my description of that problem as follows: The general form of your claim is that we must not perform an act that causes harm unless we can demonstrate that that act has a higher probability of accomplishing our goal than some alternative act (or lack of action) that is less harmful. In the real world, it is rarely if ever possible to do this. We certainly do not provide any such demonstration when we impose civil or criminal penalties on people, or when we engage in harmful military actions. So if torture is always unethical if it is used in the absence of such a demonstration, why aren’t these other kinds of act also always unethical under those circumstances?

    It’s not your goal of minimizing harm that’s the problem. That’s a laudable ethical principle. It’s your selective application of this “demonstration of probability” requirement to torture but not to other, and much more common, harmful acts.

    In any case, I think we can avoid your objection in the case of the ticking time bomb with a few tweaks: Conventional interrogation techniques have been used on the prisoner for days or weeks without success. We also have evidence that the prisoner has a low threshold for pain and that he is likely to reveal the location of the bomb shortly after the torture begins, perhaps even after the mere threat of torture. I think that would serve to “demonstrate” that torture has a “higher probability” of working than the continuation of conventional interrogation.

  36. JJonas8
    2011/05/07 at 1:47 am

    although you imply that I did by your emphasis on limited information and your use of words like “demonstrate” and “prove.”

    As I said above, I was sloppy in some of my paraphrasing. I think I’ve accurately represented what you wrote in my most recent response above.

    But I just want to point out that the word “demonstrably” (as in, to demonstrate) is yours.

  37. 2011/05/07 at 2:09 am

    We certainly do not provide any such demonstration when we impose civil or criminal penalties on people, or when we engage in harmful military actions.

    Maybe we should. In fact, we definitely should. What passes for criminal “justice” in this country would be a joke if it weren’t so damned tragic; we have a higher per capita prison population than any country in the civilized world — and more than most countries in the not-so-civilized world. And what passes for just war theory and due consideration for civilian casualties and other sorts of innocent bystanders is even worse.

    Moreover, repeated appeals to “the real world” like yours are a recipe for supposedly pragmatic but actually amoral rationalizations of conclusions already determined in advance for less than solid reasons. Either you can justify your claims with plausible reasoning and evidence or you can’t. The way it works on the real world — the way it has to work in the real world, if we take our moral responsibilities seriously — is that we gather all the evidence we have, we exercise all the careful skepticism we can muster, and we use our best judgment.

    When I read your final paragraph (in comment #35), rationalization in support of an already-determined conclusion is exactly what I see. You talk about the real world, then cite a hypothetical situation where you simply posit that we know exactly the sort of thing that we can never know in the real world. Generally speaking, all we know for certain when a prisoner has a low threshold of pain is that the prisoner will say something, anything to make the pain stop or avoid pain: That’s why torture is so useful for eliciting false confessions and insincere recantations: More useful for that purpose than for eliciting legitimate information, experts widely agree. Oh, I don’t doubt that torture would yield something: But how will the torturers know that it’s legitimate and useful instead of harmfully misleading? They won’t. They can’t. You can’t “tweak” that problem out of existence, and you certainly can’t exclude it by hypothesis while expressing concern about how things work in “the real world.” You are simply repeating Harris’ flawed reasoning without in any way addressing the criticisms I’ve made of it.

  38. JJonas8
    2011/05/07 at 3:27 am

    I have no idea how you think we could apply the kind of test you are demanding for torture to our criminal justice and military actions. How would we demonstrate, each time a criminal penalty is imposed, that it has a higher probablity of achieving our criminal justice goals than any lesser penalty? How would we demonstrate each time we launch an air strike against an enemy target in time of war that it has a higher probability of achieving our goal than any less harmful action? I think the idea that we could do this is absurd. And so it is with your demand that we demonstrate that torture has a higher probability of working than any alternative interrogation method. In the kind of ticking time bomb scenario Harris is talking about, torture would not be used indiscriminately. It would be a last resort, when time is running out and conventional interrogation techniques had been tried and failed.

    The fact that we do not impose this test on our criminal justice or military actions, which involve far more common and far more serious acts of harm than Harris is proposing in his ticking time bomb scenario, suggests that you have simply invented it for the express purpose of rationalizing your opposition to Harris’s position.

    I see this kind of thing all the time in the arguments of anti-torture absolutists. A while back, the New Yorker published a piece by Atul Gawande making a detailed argument that the practise of solitary confinement in America’s prisons is a form of psychological torture. Given the sheer scale of this policy, the tens of thousands of inmates who are subjected to these conditions every day, one would think that people who claim to be so concerned about torture, the people who get so passionate and sanctimonious any time Sam Harris or anyone else dares to suggest that there may be cases in which torture is justified to prevent terrorist attacks, would be screaming bloody murder about solitary confinement. Yet there has barely been any response to Gawande’s piece at all. You want us to believe that your opposition to Harris is principled and rational, but it’s really just crude and emotional.

  39. JJonas8
    2011/05/07 at 4:03 am

    Oh, I don’t doubt that torture would yield something: But how will the torturers know that it’s legitimate and useful instead of harmfully misleading? They won’t.

    By verifying it, of course. The prisoner, under torture, provides an address where he says the bomb has been planted. The interrogators immediately radio the address to a helicopter team that is standing by to retrieve the bomb. The team flies to the address. If the bomb is there, the team gets to work defusing it and/or transporting it to an uninhabited location. If it isn’t there, they immediately inform the interrogators, who continue and intensify the torture. The whole process takes minutes. The prisoner has a huge incentive to provide the true location of the bomb to stop the torture.

    You can’t “tweak” that problem out of existence, and you certainly can’t exclude it by hypothesis while expressing concern about how things work in “the real world.”

    Sorry, but if you’re claiming that there are no circumstances in which torture would work to thwart a ticking time bomb, you can’t arbitrarily exclude circumstances in which it would.

  40. 2011/05/07 at 4:42 pm

    Interestingly, your argument mistakes both the extent of our possible knowledge and the extent of our ignorance. We definitively *can* make well-informed opinions about benefits and harms in various criminal justice matters by conducting investigations, and even experiments to help determine what actually leads to better outcomes: Social policy informed by actual information is generally better than social policy formed by assumptions and emotive rhetoric. Of course, that isn’t case-by-case reasoning — but I never said that such decisions can or should be decided on a case-by-case basis. In my original argument, which I begin to doubt you read so much as skimmed, I focused very clearly on making judgments about these things based on general trends and probabilities precisely because we cannot possibly know all the details we would need to know in any and every given scenario. That holds true even if you pretend that we *can* know sometimes, in a case you made up in your head in order to “prove” it.

    I have never said that there are NO circumstances in which torture would work; I’ve said that we cannot possibly know whether any particular circumstances we find ourselves in just happen to be the rare exception in which torture would work rather than of the overwhelming majority of circumstances where it would do more harm than good. Given that unavoidable ignorance, we have to make our judgment on the probabilities. That’s the only basis for sound utilitarian reasoning, as opposed to ad hoc rationalizations based on one’s conviction that one already has all the answers.

  41. Cameron
    2016/02/12 at 2:07 am

    Hey George,

    In you most “recent” comment (May 2011) you write:

    >I have never said that there are NO circumstances in which torture would work; I’ve said that we cannot possibly know whether any particular circumstances we find ourselves in just happen to be the rare exception in which torture would work rather than of the overwhelming majority of circumstances where it would do more harm than good. Given that unavoidable ignorance, we have to make our judgment on the probabilities.

    Ok here’s a hypothetical: a guy with an encrypted laptop containing information about a planned nuclear attack. Let’s say the attack won’t happen for a long long time, like 5 years. So it’s a very slowly ticking time bomb.

    The only thing the authorities need is the laptop password. We don’t need to worry about the guy giving bad information, because if he provides a password it takes only a second to check if it’s correct or not.

    The authorities use every single non-torture interrogation technique they can think of, but the guy doesn’t reveal the password. Is this not a circumstance where we would be pretty sure that torture would be likely to do more good than harm?

    Here’s another hypothetical – if in the future, a new torture technique is invented that is virtually guaranteed to provide accurate information. In that circumstance would Sam Harris’ argument be sound?

    -Cameron

  42. 2016/02/12 at 5:08 am

    If we are creative enough and try hard enough, we can almost always find some sort of hypothetical scenario where extremely unlikely circumstances combine to overcome an objection of the sort I made here. Interestingly, you are the first person commenting on this thread (there was a lot of discussion when it was new) to come close. Maybe I can poke holes in your scenario this way: The “we can test the password” element only *seems* to remove the uncertainty in the scenario you describe, because in fact there doesn’t seem to be any way we can know that we will actually discover the information we *think* is on the laptop even if we do get the password via torture. Your second scenario is just science fiction, and seems pointless — why not imagine a magic machine that allows to read minds without torture instead?

    But even if you can patch the hole in your more realistic scenario, or I grant your science fiction scenario (somehow we discover a perfect torture method), I will just refer you to the half-dozen times I said above in the comments that I was just playing along with Harris’s own strictly utilitarian reasoning — objecting to his argument on his own terms — but my actual opinion is that utilitarianism is an incomplete (at best) ethical theory. 🙂

  43. Cameron
    2016/02/17 at 4:02 pm

    Hey George,

    Thanks for your reply.

    You wrote:

    Maybe I can poke holes in your scenario this way: The “we can test the password” element only *seems* to remove the uncertainty in the scenario you describe, because in fact there doesn’t seem to be any way we can know that we will actually discover the information we *think* is on the laptop even if we do get the password via torture.

    I don’t understand this objection. Why do we need to be 100% certain that the laptop contains valuable information?

    My understanding is that the relevant comparison is “non-torture interrogation techniques” vs “torture interrogation techniques”. The “password” scenario is an example where it looks like “torture interrogation techniques” are superior.

    You objected to Sam’s argument by claiming that (correct me if this summary is inaccurate) “in all circumstances, ‘non-torture interrogation techniques’ are superior to ‘torture interrogation techniques’ – therefore we should never torture”.

    This is an empirical claim, and a pretty bold one. It has to cover all potential interrogation subjects, all potential methods of torture, and all potential circumstance. It seems extremely unlikely to me that torture will always be the less effective technique. And the “password” scenario is just one example of where it seems that torture would be the more effective technique.

    Also, I think the “password” scenario is actually quite realistic. It doesn’t need to include the “ticking time bomb” component, just a computer with some potentially valuable information about a potential future attack or serious crime. Virtually unbreakable encryption is readily available to everyone, so it seems very likely that the “password” scenario could arise.

    Here’s a list of situations involving crime and encrypted computers/phones:

    http://scienceblogs.de/klausis-krypto-kolumne/when-encryption-baffles-the-police-a-collection-of-cases/

    If I can simplify Sam’s argument, it says: “IF you agree that collateral damage is justified in some circumstances THEN you must agree that torture is justified in some circumstances”. (Or as Sam puts it: “if we are unwilling to torture, we should be unwilling to wage modern war.”)

    Sam asks for a counterargument – an argument against torture in principle. He writes:

    I have invited readers, both publicly and privately, to produce an ethical argument that takes into account the realities of our world – our daily acceptance of collateral damage, the real possibility of nuclear terrorism, etc. – and yet rules out a practice like “water-boarding” in all conceivable circumstances. No one, to my knowledge, has done this. And yet, most people continue to speak and write as though a knock-down argument against torture in all circumstances is readily available.

    You seem to assert that such an argument exists. You wrote:

    For my part, I think torture can never be justified on *any* grounds, although in countering Harris I only argued for that conclusion on the utilitarian grounds he uses.

    Would you mind writing up your argument that torture can’t be justified on *any* grounds? Or pointing me toward someone who has?

    Best,
    Cameron

  44. 2016/02/17 at 10:41 pm

    You objected to Sam’s argument by claiming that (correct me if this summary is inaccurate) “in all circumstances, ‘non-torture interrogation techniques’ are superior to ‘torture interrogation techniques’ – therefore we should never torture”.

    No, that is a quite inaccurate summary of my argument because it ignores the central point at issue. My argument does not rest on the dubious empirical premise that torture is always less effective than non-torture interrogation. Rather, it just relies on the completely CERTAIN empirical premise that WE KNOW TORTURE TO BE UNRELIABLE. Torture will sometimes — probably very often (which is why interrogation experts don’t use torture, as I noted in my reply to the first comment above) — yield no information or false information. The torture victim will say anything to stop the torture, but that doesn’t mean the torture victim will say the truth. When faced with a particular situation in which we are making the decision whether or not to torture, we have no way of knowing in advance whether THIS situation will be one where torture produces reliable information or unreliable information.

    Remember, utilitarian arguments are always a matter of weighing positive and negative consequences. If you re-read my original argument carefully — and I’ve already explained the mistake you just made in the comment thread as well — you will see that the lack of certainty about the purported good consequence of torture (obtaining vital life-saving information) plays an essential role in the utilitarian argument. We KNOW for certain that we are inflicting grave harm on a human being when we torture someone. What we DO NOT KNOW with any certainty is whether we will get any worthwhile information from the suspect we torture. In the real world, we are often not even certain that the suspect is actually guilty (i.e. that the suspect is actually a terrorist involved with a plot to harm the public). And even if we *are* absolutely certain that the person we are interrogating is involved in a terror plot, we don’t know whether the information received from torture will be accurate, or if it will be a waste of valuable time and resources by misinforming us, etc. Such uncertainties about whether the torture will actually yield benefits that outweigh the harm done is absolutely essential to making any honest utilitarian argument, and both your summary of my argument and Sam Harris’ original argument leave out this vital fact.

    And that is why I noted that, while your scenario does remove the uncertainty about wasting time and resources via misinformation (no ticking time bomb, we can immediately know whether the password is correct), it does not remove the uncertainty about whether or not torture will actually yield valuable information. For all we know, the secured laptop might not contain any vital information at all — and there is no way of knowing for certain in advance that it does. So here, as in all the other torture-for-information scenarios I have ever encountered, the torture advocate is saying that we should commit a certain and grievous harm for a not-at-all certain benefit. So even staying within the bounds of strict utilitarian reasoning, the use of torture is not plausibly justified in this scenario either.

    In response, you could keep tweaking and reinventing new scenarios, hypothetical situations wherein we are certain about more and more of the things that in real life we can hardly ever be certain about — but you will make the scenario less and less plausible every time you do.

  45. Cameron
    2016/02/17 at 11:30 pm

    Sorry to drag this out, and I appreciate your willingness to engage, but I’m still not following you.

    You wrote:

    We KNOW for certain that we are inflicting grave harm on a human being when we torture someone. What we DO NOT KNOW with any certainty is whether we will get any worthwhile information from the suspect we torture.

    And you wrote:

    So here, as in all the other torture-for-information scenarios I have ever encountered, the torture advocate is saying that we should commit a certain and grievous harm for a not-at-all certain benefit. So even staying within the bounds of strict utilitarian reasoning, the use of torture is not plausibly justified in this scenario either.

    I really don’t understand this. By this logic, we should never punish any criminal, because the harm to the (alleged) criminal is certain, but their guilt is not (we are never certain that a criminal is guilty).

    Does strict utilitarian reasoning not contemplate uncertainty and probabilities?

    I would pay $1 for a 50% chance to win $3. Even thought I know for certain that I’ll loose $1, and I do not know whether I’ll win $3.

    Yes, we can never be certain that information obtained via interrogation (torture or not) will be worthwhile. But we can reasonably assume that there is some non-zero probability of obtaining worthwhile information – sometimes even a high probability of obtaining worthwhile information.

    And if the potential harm to be averted is large (e.g. a major terrorist attack), then wouldn’t torture be sometimes justified under a utilitarian calculation?

  46. 2016/02/17 at 11:32 pm

    For the second part of your challenge, you are making a different but no less fundamental error. You are assuming I will simply concede to the moral assumptions embedded in Harris’ challenge. I do not. A very large proportion of what we do — both we humans in general and we Americans in particular — in modern war is morally reprehensible. I do not casually accept that collateral damage is morally justified in any general way. “Collateral damage” is just a morally evasive term used to describe the mass murder of innocent people who have the misfortune to be it the way of a military objective one wants to accomplish. Currently and throughout the history of war, the moral calculations used to justify such deaths have almost never been thoughtful or serious. Rather, they rely on and spring from the morally deplorable (but psychologically natural) habit of dividing the world into people whose lives matter more (our soldiers would be at risk in a ground operation against this enemy position) and people whose lives matter less (aerial bombardment of the enemy position is likely to result in large number of civilian casualties, but our soldiers would be at minimal risk). When Harris counts “our daily acceptance of collateral damage” as simply one of “the realities of our world” that must be accounted for in any argument which will satisfy his challenge, he’s smuggling in a HUGE and entirely unwarranted assumption: He is insisting that a morally reprehensible starting premise must be accepted into the framework of any moral argument against torture which would satisfy him, which is ludicrous on the face of it.

    In any event, I am under no obligation to provide Harris (or you) with the argument he demands, since the argument he made in favor of torture in the first place fails for the reasons I have given. Surely the burden of proof lies on the person who proposes to morally justify torture, an obviously immoral action that is generally agreed to be immoral by everyone — that has even been the subject of international treaties, so universal is the realization that it is morally reprehensible. Harris has spectacularly failed to satisfy that burden of proof, so his “prove me wrong” challenge places no rational obligation on anyone at all.

    Harris’ invitation also embeds the assumption that the only possible moral argument one can offer is utilitarian in character. The phrasing “realities of our world” and “in all circumstances” presumes that the only relevant reasoning will be in terms of good and bad consequences of various courses of actions, ruling out non-consequentialist moral reasoning entirely.

    And yes, I would mind writing up a specific argument on this topic because what would seem to be required to satisfy you (and Harris, who assumes utilitarianism is the only valid sort of moral reasoning) is a comprehensive education on the defects of utilitarianism as an ethical theory and a justification for one or more other alternate approaches to ethical theory. That’s far beyond the scope of a comment thread. Also, I have a job. And a life.

  47. Cameron
    2016/02/18 at 12:05 am

    Okay, so the general form of Sam’s argument is: “IF collateral damage is justified in some circumstances THEN torture is justified in some circumstances”.

    I’m not sure if you reject the “IF” statement or not. You write:

    I do not casually accept that collateral damage is morally justified in any general way.

    But you also wrote in a previous comment:

    WWII was a just war, I think, but that doesn’t condone every action taken to win it.

    Even without condoning every action, I think it’s fair to say that it would have been impossible for the Allies to fight WWII without some collateral damage.

    So I’m not sure of your position on collateral damage.

    If one accepts the “IF” statement (and I suspect a significant percentage of people do), then it seems difficult to reject the “THEN” statement.

    You have made an empirical argument essentially to the effect of “torture doesn’t work”. I disagree with this empirical argument.

    The thing that I’m most interested in is this: is there a principled way to be for collateral damage in some circumstances but against torture in all circumstances? This seems like an interesting ethical and philosophical question, but I haven’t been able to find a good answer…

  48. 2016/02/18 at 12:19 am

    At this point, I’m going to have to ask you to read the original post more carefully and read the comment thread. I feel like I have answered this question many times. The short answer is yes, utilitarian reasoning does in fact account for probabilities. And even your scenario involves ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN HARM against only PROBABLE benefits. Your desire to say “But the benefits are HUGE compared to the harms” is understandable, but I’m not sure it bears close examination. Keep in mind that you took the urgency out of this example by design. But if there is no urgency — if this laptop just might contain some information about an attack that terrorists are planning for months or years in the future — then there is no reason to rule out the possibility that we can enjoy the same benefit (preventing the terrorist attack) without the inflicting the certain harm of torture. We can continue with non-torture interrogation for months or even years, we can continue to pursue other lines of investigation, turn up new evidence, etc. And if you change the scenario again in a way to make it more urgent, then you don’t know whether the information you get from the laptop (if there is any there) will actually be useful or if it will just be one step in a long chain of evidence that won’t lead us to the bomb in time. The price of urgency is greater uncertainty.

    In short, you cannot hypothesize uncertainty out of any realistic scenario, because real life involves uncertainty. Here’s another problem that occurred to me: Why on earth would any truly secure laptop not have a security feature that erases the hard drive if the wrong password is entered three times, with a timer so that you need to re-enter the correct password within thirty seconds of entering an incorrect code (to allow for typos)? The suspect (whether tortured or not) could simply give you a bad password and smile while you foolishly erased the very information you want. And once that is admitted to be a possibility — which it surely is — how would you know that THIS laptop doesn’t have such a feature?

    Real-world scenarios involve real uncertainty. I might allow that, potentially, if someone devised a sufficiently unrealistic (but theoretically possible) scenario, it might (barely) be possible to make the case that in that unrealistic-but-possible situation, torture has a high probability of yielding VERY important information that would save hundreds or thousands or millions of lives. But wait! In that exact same situation, we have no way of knowing that non-torture-interrogation WOULD NOT yield the exact same information. Remember, we’re weighing ALL the options if we’re being good utilitarian reasoners. You keep focusing on the question “But what if we can’t get the vital information without torture?”; however, the question “But what if we CAN get the vital information without torture?” is just as essential to ask. And then, we must compare the probabilities of both answers. But we already have pretty solid evidence that, as a general rule, non-torture interrogation is at least as successful on average as torture (and probably much more so according to all interrogation experts). Your scenario doesn’t really resolve or get around that issue in any way: Yes, we can check a given password we get from non-torture interrogation immediately — but if a given password fails, we don’t have any way of being sure that we would get the *correct* password if only we tortured the guy, or that we wouldn’t eventually get the correct password if we just kept at the non-torture interrogation methods. Even if non-torture interrogation has failed so far, it’s still more likely that non-torture interrogation will work over the long term than torture. (And, as already noted, if you make it more urgent that we get the information NOW, that urgency makes it less likely that the information we get will be useful, and more likely that we won’t get the information — if we do get it — in time to make a difference.)

  49. 2016/02/18 at 12:57 am

    Here’s the difference: We can know with a fair degree of probability what the outcome will be when we are weighing different courses of action in a military context. Course of action A will involve this much cost to our troops, do this much harm to the enemy, and involve this much risk of so many civilian casualties. Then there’s course of action B, course of action C, and so on. There are many possible courses of action in response to various situations, and we can make fairly reasonable assessments of the likely consequences of many of those courses of action. In some situations, those probability assessments might be much more difficult — making it harder to justify any course of action, and especially hard to justify a course of action involving collateral damage because the payoff is uncertain but the harm is usually clear. But at least some of the time, there could conceivably be (and probably would be) sufficient information to judge the various consequences of various courses of action with a fairly high degree of likelihood — so it is theoretically POSSIBLE to justify collateral damage on utilitarian grounds, even though in fact it is rarely justified in any honest way by those who rationalize it.

    In torture scenarios, there is one unknown that is profound and inescapable. You can literally NEVER know with any high degree of probability that the presumably very valuable information you could extract by torture could not have also been extracted from the subject by non-torture methods. You just can’t know that in advance — and anyone who says otherwise has a helluvalot of justification to do, justification requiring empirical evidence that simply does not exist. (Also, I can’t even imagine any way of gathering the required empirical evidence which doesn’t involve lots of experimental torture, which is obviously immoral.)

    The whole reason that these arguments typically focus on ticking-bomb scenarios is that the urgency of the situation is intended to be a deciding factor: The one thing about torture is it can definitely be enacted FASTER than non-torture interrogation methods, even if all the evidence suggests it is less reliable in obtaining true, useful information. But the more urgent the need for information, the less time there is to act based on any information gathered to avert harm, and so the higher the likelihood that false information (which is always a possible result of interrogation, by torture or not, but is more likely from fast torture than from slow, patient non-torture interrogation) would divert vital resources and thus increase rather than decrease the risk of the harm one hopes to avert.

    Thus, the ticking bomb/urgency aspect of these scenarios doesn’t plausibly get around the problem of fundamental uncertainty I just articulated. And neither will any other scenario realizable in the real world, because it’s a fundamental fact about the limits of our knowledge of human psychology in all particulars that we just don’t know with any high degree of likelihood that any information we might extract via torture COULD NOT also be extracted with a higher likelihood of success and accuracy by non-torture interrogation. Torture always involves trading a certain harm — torturing someone — for an uncertain overall benefit: whatever information we extract via torture might have extracted just as effectively, and according to all available evidence more effectively, without torture. Non-torture interrogation does not require us to engage in the certain harm to enjoy the same benefit. Hypothetical scenarios of exaggerated urgency try to set up the situation so that the same benefit cannot be obtained from non-torture interrogation as can be obtained by torture, but the very same urgency both decreases the likelihood of benefiting from any information extracted by torture and increases the likely costs of misinformation.

    I think I could have gotten to the heart of your question more clearly, but I wrote this original argument (and all the responses on the comment thread) YEARS ago. But if you read my original argument and the comment thread above carefully, you’ll see that I already gave exactly this answer. I even described the primary fault of Harris’ argument as “failing to compare torture to non-torture interrogation” in bold print in the original post. That’s still the problem, and neither you nor anyone else has provided any way to resolve it.

  50. Cameron
    2016/02/18 at 3:20 am

    Well, I don’t think we’ve ended up agreeing on everything, but this has been fun, and I appreciate all your replies. Cheers!

    -Cameron

  1. 2011/05/04 at 5:17 pm

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