A while ago I asked a question from some people about where they stand on torture. I asked whether torture can be ethical in any situation but then it wasn’t about whether it can be justified, rather I asked about an specific situation.

At first people told me that it depends on the situation. So I had to ask, can torture be ethical in any way? And if yes, where do we stand on methods? Tickling can be torture, as is punching the teeth out of someone’s mouth.

Most people replied that if it’s a matter of life or death of a lot of people then they believe torture is justified however unsavory the method is. But torture is not ethical, it’s just justified. Now let’s get to the specific situation.

Imagine a mentally ill person threatening that he hid a bomb underneath the city and if that explodes, hundreds of thousands of people will die. Now we won’t be able to find the bomb or even make sure there’s a bomb except with torture. The only way to find out if there’s a real bomb is to torture that person. Now keep in mind that that person is mentally ill and it could all be part of his challenges but it also could be real. What would you do? Will you torture (or let others torture) him?

There’s no proof that he actually planted the bomb. He just claims he did. But he’s mentally ill. It may be hallucination. We can’t possibly know if it’s real or not. Only way is torture.

Then I got an interesting answer! “In the conceivable reality of nor being able to check whether this mentally ill person even had the chance to make or obtain and plant a bomb then as I said I’d vote to torture.”

Interesting. Can we vote on a matter like that? Who gets to decide? The rational behind that answer is that can we risk millions of lives because we don’t want to be unethical? Isn’t risking millions of people lives unethical itself? Which one is more important? Being absolute about our ethics, like torture is bad so torture nobody, or we can torture someone because millions of lives is more important than our ethics.

And where we draw the line? if a million lives is enough to justify torture, can we torture someone for thousands of lives? How about 12 people? Can we torture someone because 12 people are at risk? If no, then how come those 12 people are less valuable than those who we voted to torture for? What if there’s a thousand thieves and 10 reputable scientists? Who do we save with torture?

We should also understand that once we allow unethical practices in any form it’s a slippery slope. Once we allow unethical practices, we no longer can justify other actions whether ethical or not.

Also, there will be a question about whether something being unethical can be justified. Sometimes we do unethical stuff not to harm people but tot actually help them. Such as when we lie to someone to don’t harm his feelings. Like a fib.

There’s also other considerations. For example, if you’re OK with torturing him but then it was you who were tasked with the torturing or even choosing the method, could you do it? I know I can’t. Or something worse, what if the one who is going to get tortured is one who you care about? Or what if you were tasked with torturing someone you care about?

I believe in real life there’s only one practical way and answer to this question. We can’t and should not torture even if the situation is real. If it was up to me, I’d vote for torture. Like what if the only way to stop a dictator from killing his people is to torture him? I’d say yes. But then when and where we should and can stop? I believe the practical way, not the ethical way, is to say and vote no to torture.

But it also raises other issues. Who gets to decide? Do we put it up for vote? Does everyone gets to decide for themselves? Should it be by a committee? Is that committee elected or appointed? Should the parliament decide for people or that is the job for military which in a way is elected by people? Do we give the president a special power to decide on matters like that? If yes, then what situations is for president and what is for parliament and which is for referendum?

I believe answers vary for people and there’s no right or wrong answer to these questions but I’m looking forward to discuss this with people.

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Ali Reza Hayati

Entrepreneur, hacker, cypherpunk.