Saturday, June 13, 2009

Moral Absolutism, Torture & Kidnapping

An oft-referenced recent poll about religion and torture showed that a full 71% of Americans believe that torturing terrorists can sometimes be justified -- even if only rarely. Only 25% took the position that it could never be justified. That number fluctuates depending on the poll, but it is safe to say that the moral absolutist position against torture -- ie. that torture is inherently wrong and can never be justified under any circumstances -- is a minority position. Yet this vociferous minority feels justified in demonizing anyone who disagrees as un-American, uncivilized, immoral, or whatever other term they choose as a substitute for rational argument.

It is also likely that true moral absolutists, who would refuse to bend their beliefs to fit a particular circumstance, are only a tiny fraction of a minority. Anyone who claims to take a moral absolutist position might want to consider the following situation. And although I'm using a hypothetical, there have been a number of actual occurrences of this type. I'm talking about the kidnapping scenario.

Your child, wife, husband or other loved one has been kidnapped. Police arrest the kidnapper, but the victim is still missing. There is no question that they have the right person. He freely admits to the kidnapping. When the police question him about the location of the victim he laughs, says they'll never find him/her, says the victim will be dead soon anyway, and demands a lawyer.

Torture or even just the threat of torture might succeed in revealing the victim's location in time to save him/her. Are you in favor of torture to save your loved one? If you make an exception to your moral absolutism -- even in this personal case -- you join the vast majority of people who believe that torture is sometimes justified. Then the only question concerns the exact circumstances in which it can be justified. Think about that the next time you wonder why some people support the torture of terrorists.

If you'd leave your loved one to die because torturing a kidnapper is just too horrible to contemplate, then congratulations, you are indeed a moral absolutist. In my opinion you are also a fool. 


  1. Hypothetical situations are based entirely off assumption. The assumption that you have the right person, that they haven't lied in their confession, that they don't have an accomplice, and that they actually know the location of the victim. The list goes on. Hypothetical situations, and even real situations, are not an excuse to violate a human's fundamental rights.

    I am not a moral absolutist, I hold a different viewpoint. I believe that torture is unjustifiable because it is not only immoral and illegal under US and international law, but it is also ineffective. Just because you torture someone doesn't mean you gain the information you want. Not to mention the repercussions that occur in the political sphere due to the use of torture.

    The reason so many people hold the viewpoint that torture is sometimes justified is because they are unaware. They haven't researched the topic and have been roped into these hypothetical situations. It simply doesn't justify violating human rights.

  2. Also this is really bad philosophy. Simply because someone would do something doesn't mean they think they were morally justified in doing that.

    E.g. The terrorist has my family. I know torturing the terrorist will get my family back safe. I decide to torture the terrorist.

    Does not follow that I think what I did was morally good or justifiable.