Initial Thoughts on Human Rights.

Human rights include the right to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of opinion and expression, the right to work and education, and many more. Everyone is entitled to these rights, without discrimination.1UN: Human Rights

Human rights are not free-floating abstractions, but come with reciprocal obligations. A “right” implies that someone else has a duty to fulfill or respect that right.

The right to free speech implies others have a duty not to censor or repress that speech. The right to a fair trial implies prosecutors and judges have a duty to follow due process.

Typically, when people speak about rights, they focus on the rights that they want, while ignoring the corresponding duties and obligations that these rights impose on others.  They speak as if rights can exist in a vacuum without costs or trade-offs.

Rights must be balanced with responsibilities.

And in practice, we already do this when it comes to criminal law. For instance, “Human rights include the right to life and liberty, but you only have the right to liberty if you follow the law. If you don’t, society deems that it is just to put you in a concrete box, potentially for decades at a time.

And so let’s jump in directly to what I had in mind when I started to write this morning: Is it ever justifiable to torture someone?

Obviously, we are not talking about sadistic torture for the sake of it, but of extracting information from an individual that will save lives and make the world a better place.

This is a complex ethical issue with reasonable arguments on both sides.

Many would argue that torture is never morally justifiable. Causing intentional harm violates human dignity and universal human rights. Torture is condemned by international laws and treaties. Essentially, we bring ourselves down to a level that may cause significant long-term consequences that outweigh the short-term benefits of extracting information.

The infamous Franklin quote comes to mind:

Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.

The counter-argument is simply an argument to utilitarianism. While torture violates individual liberties and human dignity, utilitarian philosophy would judge actions based on their overall consequences: do the benefits of torture outweigh the costs in any given situation. If torturing a suspect, for example, provided information that prevented immense harm to innocents, the utilitarian calculation may be that this “greater good” outweighs the harm caused to the suspect. As abhorrent as torture may be, if it could prevent significantly more suffering than it causes, strict utilitarian ethics may well justify it. By this logic, hypothetically torturing one person to save many others could potentially be the ethical choice in certain dire circumstances, even if it violates core civil liberties.

Let’s think through a scenario to make this conundrum vivid.

Imagine the authorities have apprehended a known terrorist with a proven history of fatal bombings. Credible intelligence from multiple sources confirms this suspect recently smuggled a nuclear device into New York City, though the precise location is unknown. Geiger counter readings and intercepted communications remove any reasonable doubt the suspect intends to detonate a nuclear weapon, killing millions of innocent people. The terrorist has informed the authorities that the nuclear device will detonate in the next four hours, which does not give enough time to search the city to find the device. Normal interrogation has failed – the fanatical suspect refuses to talk.

What is a reasonable step to take here? Do we jeopardise our principles and start sawing the person’s foot off until they gives us the precise location?

Is there an upper limit to the level of pain that we would be willing to inflict on this person? Yes, the upper bound would be when they can no longer give us useful information; either because they are dead, insane, or they have lost the ability to speak. There is also another theoretical bound, where the pain inflicted on that one individual is more than the harm that they will cause on everyone else, but in the case of detonating a nuclear device we would never reach that level.

Of course, situations are never this clear cut. You never have perfect intelligence, you can never be sure that this is the right person. There is the potential for a slippery slope scenario, where torture works in a given situation, which then teaches everyone involved that this is a valid technique that can be used in other adjacent situations.

One could argue that we sometimes have to walk on the slope and risk slipping.

In an absolute catastrophe, where lives are imminently at stake, one could contend we may have little choice but to inch onto the slope, even knowing risks like normalisation exist. Preventing massive loss of life may warrant extraordinary means.

However, it would be imperative to define clear limitations and oversight around any use of torture. It would need to be restricted to specific cases where strict criteria are demonstrably met, rather than up to individual discretion. Oversight could help mitigate risks of expanding its use. Safeguards like transparency and accountability would be essential to ensure torture is not abused or normalised. Accepting that there are always alternatives, we’d have to convince ourselves torture is the last resort before reluctantly utilising it.

We must maintain perspective, remembering that in nearly all cases, upholding our principles serves us better than compromising them.

My current personal opinion is that torture must obviously remain illegal. However, I imagine scenarios where I think it is reasonable to use torture, however abhorrent that thought may be, to save a significant amount of lives. This makes me deeply uncomfortable. Employing torture as a last resort to gather critical intelligence appears to be the lesser of two immoral choices.

Perhaps further debate and soul searching on this issue will lead me to conclude torture is never justified, no matter the circumstances. For now, I remain conflicted, uneasy at the thought of pulling that metaphorical lever in the trolley problem. But our principles exist precisely to guide us through murky moral quagmires. Upholding them consistently may prove wiser than compromising them conditionally, if we hope to remain on stable ethical ground.


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