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Defusing the ‘ticking bomb’: why the argument for torture fails

By Catherine McDonald - posted Thursday, 12 April 2007

“Suppose a bomb has been planted somewhere where it will kill many people if it goes off. Suppose we have the bomber in custody, the bomber refuses to say where the bomb is. We have no other way of either locating the bomb or safely removing people from the vicinity of the bomb.”

Should we torture the bomber to locate the bomb? This is in fact one variation of a number of problem scenarios, know collectively in moral philosophy as “emergency case” scenarios.

The “ticking bomb” scenario has only acquired serious torture supporters since an article published by Alan Dershowitz shortly after the attack on the World Trade Centre, and since the invasion in Iraq. It is not coincidental, that it is American, Australian and British theorists who have promoted this argument. All pro-torture arguments are logically flawed and morally implausible.


Pro-torture arguments are invariably consequentialist and usually utilitarian. That is, they nominally justify torture under the principle that we are morally justified in doing whatever produces the best consequences. “Best” in this context is understood as whatever produces the greatest amount of utility or satisfies the greatest number of interests.

The argument suggests that in circumstances where lives are at stake, and we have no other means at our disposal, we may torture a person if doing so produces information that would save lives. Torture is an effective means of gaining information. The loss of benefit to the individual tortured is less than the loss of benefit to those who will die if we do not torture. Therefore, we are morally justified in using torture.

Such arguments also rely upon a sub-argument that is subsumed within the contrived details of the scenario itself. The implications of the sub-argument are that we know that the person we have in custody is responsible for the bomb and that they know where the bomb is located. In reality this is a conceit.

In 2005, Jean Charles de Menezes, was shot dead by British security forces who believed they knew that he was a suicide bomber about to blow up a train in the London underground. He turned out to be a young Brazilian man on his way to work as an electrician. In the real world rather than the fantasy world of counterfactuals, and even with the best intentions, we cannot avoid error. Sometimes innocent people would be tortured.

However, my interest is in the substantive argument so I shall leave the problem of torturing the innocent to one side.

Pro-torture arguments only get off the ground at all if, in fact, torture is an effective means of gaining information and if, in fact, gaining information under torture does produce a net benefit.


Many opponents of torture have rightly focused on rejecting the premise of this argument. There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that torture is not an effective means of gaining useful information. Some wits have observed: if torture produced reliable information then we would be obliged to acknowledge the existence of witches and the devil since thousands of people once confessed, under torture, to being witches and consorting with the devil.

Equally, the use of torture by the French against the insurgency in Algeria changed a situation which was arguably militarily winnable, into a complete loss. Less commonly cited but perhaps more pertinent, is the example of Vietnam. Viet Cong prisoners were routinely tortured by members of the South Vietnamese army and their American allies. Again, the historical evidence is that the use of torture was actually strategically disastrous for much the same reason as in Algeria.

We also have examples such as the Guildford four, who confessed under police torture to being IRA bombers. Actually, their only crime was to be poor, Irish and in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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This article is an edited version of a lecture given to the Rationalist Society of Australia on March 21, 2007.

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About the Author

Catherine McDonald is a Melbourne philosopher currently tutoring at Monash University. Her home page is here.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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