Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Ticking Bomb Scenario & Torture

While surfing the left-wing blogosphere, I came across a short post by John Cole at Balloon Juice entitled:  "Tick Tock, You Don’t Stop." Cole is referencing an op-ed piece by Reuel Marc Gerecht, and a subsequent exchange between Gerecht and Andrew Sullivan.  Cole argues that
every attempt to justify torture inevitably returns to the mythical ticking time-bomb scenario

But of course there's nothing mythical about a ticking time-bomb or an analogous situation.  Why is it so difficult for left-wingers to understand that information can be time-sensitive? Unlike what Cole seems to believe, there is an excellent reason the ticking time bomb scenario comes up so often in arguments about torture.

There are three broad positions regarding torture.  Most people subscribe to one of them, although there is some overlap between groups.  The first I'll call Moral Absolutism. Moral Absolutists oppose torture on any and all occasions, because they see torture as morally wrong and indefensible.  The ends never justify the means.  The second position I characterize as Utilitarian.  Utilitarians evaluate torture on the basis of its effectiveness alone.  They aren't swayed by moral concerns.  This is the position often taken by torturers themselves, who argue that their actions were both necessary & effective -- the best way to save lives or whatever. The last group is almost certainly the largest, I'll call them Ticking Bomb Theorists.  Ticking Bomb Theorists tend to oppose torture in most cases.  But unlike Moral Absolutists, they believe that there are certain situations where torture might be justifiable, such as of course, a ticking bomb. Obviously the devil is in the details, and different people in this category can have far different thresholds for the use of torture.  

The ticking bomb scenario is just a convenient, easily understood scenario that illustrates why most people are not moral absolutists.  No one expects moral absolutists to agree.  But it would be nice if they'd stop pretending that possible real-world situations are nothing more than myth.


  1. Just for the record, opposition to torture does not a "left-winger" make.

  2. It's pretty tough not to be an "absolutist" when the alternative is blatantly breaking the law.

  3. mikespeir,

    "Just for the record, opposition to torture does not a "left-winger" make."

    Agreed. There are people on the right who also oppose torture in all cases. And there have been plenty on the extreme left, most communists for example, who embraced torture.


    The legality of an action is a different matter than whether or not an action is justifiable or moral. Laws can be moral, immoral or subject to interpretation either way. For an obvious example, consider the Fugitive Slave Law. I don't think you'd argue that anti-slavery activists should have refused to help runaway slaves because their actions were illegal under that law.