Morality, Evidence and Policy: Torture

February 21, 2010 at 5:15 pm (Miscellaneous, Politics) (, , , , , , , , , , , , )

Should we use torture to gain information?

The Moral Question

There are certain things that each of us will deem to be unacceptable and will feel no need to analyse any practical risks and benefits. I hold the position that torture is ethically unacceptable.

The UN Convention Against Torture refers to “the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family” and make explicit their desire “to make more effective the struggle against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment throughout the world.” There are no exceptions:

No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.

The European Convention on Human Rights also prohibits torture. Again, there are no exceptions or limitations on this right.

In order to countenance the use of torture, I would need to put aside not only my respect for what the UN Convention refers to as “the inherent dignity of the human person”, but also my personal revulsion for the deliberate infliction on a person of severe pain or suffering. This is not something that I can imagine ever happening.

My policy on torture, therefore, would be prohibition on moral grounds.

The Evidence

I need not look at the evidence relating to the effectiveness of torture in order to judge whether my position is justified, as my stance is that torture is morally wrong. However – for those who disagree with my position on torture, the next step would presumably be to investigate its efficacy. Ignoring completely the moral objection to torture, what evidence is there?

I suspect that a proposal for randomised controlled trials of torture (i.e. the deliberate infliction on a person of severe pain or suffering) would not get through the ethics board. There is other evidence though, which relates to how stress and pain affect, for example, memory.

The blog …and your electron microscope looked at “the “research” which led to the techniques of modern torture contained within KUBARK being created and used.”

Psychic driving was the precursor to Donald Ewan Camerons depatterning techniques on which much of the basic principles of KUBARK are founded. […] A random, and highly damaging, synergy of behaviorist ideas and Freudian flights of fancy which has now, unsurprisingly, been discredited. [Link.]

The blog also reports that: “Scientists have also contended that the use of torture as understood by “folk psychology” (if I hit you and keep hitting you, you are more likely to tell me what I want to know to make me stop) is also unlikely to work.” A paper by Neurobiologist Shane O’Mara is quoted:

“the use of such techniques appears motivated by a folk psychology that is demonstrably incorrect. Solid scientific evidence on how repeated and extreme stress and pain affect memory and executive functions (such as planning or forming intentions) suggests these techniques are unlikely to do anything other than the opposite of that intended by coercive or ‘enhanced’ interrogation.”

With regard to physical torture, it is also reported that: “Belief change and compliance was more likely when physical abuse was minimal or absent (Biderman 1960).” This fits with reports I have read of the experiences of prisoners of war in camps run by North Koreans and Chinese Communists during the Korean War.

Robert Cialdini, in Influence: Science and Practice, writes that while the North Koreans “favored harsh punishment to gain compliance”, the Chinese treated captives quite differently.

After the war, “American psychologists questioned the returning prisoners intensively to determine what had occurred, in part because of the unsettling success of some aspects of the Chinese program.”

Benefits And Risks

Again, I shall ignore the moral objection. Even if there were evidence that torture was an effective means of extracting information, we would still need to balance the benefit of using torture (i.e. gaining accurate and useful information) against the risks.

The French used torture in Algeria and it is claimed here that, despite torture apparently producing useful intelligence: “Within Algeria itself, torture backfired, turning converts to the FLN and transforming it from small cells to a mass party. In 1962, after 130 years of colonization, France conceded defeat and left.” There is an alternative view of the reported success of torture in Algeria here.

A backlash is always going to be one possible dangerous side-effect of the use of torture. It is also claimed that in France “society went through a serious moral crisis.” Any country that claims to be civilised would face a similar moral crisis if torture were committed in its name.


I am of the belief that torture is one of those things that is simply wrong – I feel the same way about rape and murder. As such, I could never condone torture. I quite simply have a moral objection.

The evidence is contradictory and generally of poor quality. Regardless of any moral objection, I do not believe that there is good quality evidence which supports the efficacy of torture.

The risks of using torture would only need to be considered if there were a need to balance them against the benefits. We do not really know if there are benefits from the use of torture, but if there were (and if we did not agree with regards the moral objection to torture) then these benefits would not stand alone – they would have to be contrasted with the potential risks.


More from …and your electron microscope: “research suggests that far from uncover guilt torture actually leads to convincing torturer and observers of torture of the victims guilt.” And the same blog discussing Littlejohn on torture.

Nick Cohen on torture: “Torture is wrong because… The holding of prisoners of conscience is wrong because… The oppression of women is wrong because… If you finish these sentences with anything other than …because it violates universal human rights, you leave yourself wide open to attack by your opponents.”


  1. Teek said,

    Cracking post – whatever one’s moral stance on an issue (I happen to agree with you that torture is morally repugnant), when there is solid evidence that refutes its efficacy there is a stronger argument to reject the practice.

    If only people out there applied such rigorous logic to other beliefs…!

  2. Evidence: Government Policy and Homeopathy « Stuff And Nonsense said,

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  3. silphion said,

    while I feel the same as you with regards to the practice of torturing (I would in fact argue that similar ethical and historical argument could be advanced for war, but that’s another story), I’m not sure your “evidence-based” or “science-based” approach is as solid as you suggest. While it might be that “intelligence-gathering” is the proposed reason for torturing people (and there is evidence that in fact in many occasions it was not), it might turn out that it is not the only, or the real reason. Silencing the opposition, creating terror and confusion, explicitation of power relations are some other good reasons for torturing people, inflicting pain, humiliating. In fact, in an interesting if dated book on this subject (Elaine Scarry The body in pain) the author insists (using Amnesty International documents) that intelligence is rarely the real issue at stake. And if we evaluate the success of the desaparecido policy in South America, which could be described as a system of torture, done on individuals and on groups, and on successive generations if we take in consideration the kidnapped kids, we could describe as quite successful.
    Another thing makes me a bit unconfortable. I understand the rationale of your post, however the idea of evaluating in a logical, “clean”, neutral way the pros and cons of torturing people, as if we were not talking of people but of theoretical objects of study reminds me too much of the way, in other times and places, other people have argued of pros and cons of technical means of transporting, concentrating, slowly starving, gassing etc.

  4. jdc325 said,

    @Silphion I think you are probably in the same camp as Nick Cohen:

    “Torture is wrong because… The holding of prisoners of conscience is wrong because… The oppression of women is wrong because… If you finish these sentences with anything other than …because it violates universal human rights, you leave yourself wide open to attack by your opponents.”

    “I’m not sure your “evidence-based” or “science-based” approach is as solid as you suggest.”
    I don’t think I’ve suggested that the evidence-based approach to torture is solid. I think the evidence is contradictory and generally of poor quality – and I personally would not rely on the evidence relating to efficacy of torture to state my case against it. The sections on evidence and risks vs benefits are “what ifs” (i.e., “what if I didn’t believe that torture was fundamentally wrong”). Perhaps it would have been better to write nothing of the evidence relating to torture, as my personal view is that the moral objection alone is sufficient to rule out torture. My reason for writing about the evidence relating to torture is simply that I was interested in what this evidence would show. I did try to be quite clear that I had an overriding moral objection to torture, but this piece is perhaps a little naive.

    Thank you for commenting.

  5. silphion said,

    Perhaps I wasn’t very clear, I did not mean to say that you meant that there was solid evidence, but that maybe the initial question: is torture an effective means of extracting information? wasn’t quite the right one, that many times torture is inflicted for other reasons. But I understood very clearly your moral position, I wasn’t trying to suggest anything to the contrary :-). And I was airing my uneasiness and uncertainty about the way we talk about issues that are highly morally charged.

  6. jdc325 said,

    Ah, no – that was a reading comprehension fail on my part. Re-reading your initial comment, I see that it was the approach that you didn’t feel was “solid”. Sorry – you were actually quite clear and I misinterpreted slightly.

  7. The Trouble With Government Policy « Stuff And Nonsense said,

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