Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Ethics of Torture

The Harvard University Gazette in their November 2, 2006 issue describes a talk by University of Texas Law Professor Sanford Levinson made at the John F. Kennedy School of Government on October 26, 2006. In the article "Can Torture Ever Be Ethical?", Alvin Powell describes Levinson's example of such rationalization of torture:

In 2004, German police captured a man they believed had kidnapped a young boy. They questioned him for two days, and then, fearing for the child's safety, a senior officer authorized an interrogator to use pain, if necessary, to get information.After being told what was being planned but before any force was used, the suspect confessed and told police he had killed the boy and where they could find the body.

Though they had gotten the desperately needed information without resorting to violence, both the superior and the interrogator were charged with a crime under the German constitution's absolute ban on torture. Rather than going to jail, however, the two were let off with a fine after the court found "massive mitigating circumstances."

In the war on terror, Levinson said, prevention is how to stop terrorist acts, which means it's key to get information on imminent strikes.

German courts, even faced with a constitutional prohibition, found that in this case, torture was "quasi-acceptable," otherwise the two would have gone to jail. It appears that society though not accepting torture is more accepting of war since according to the article Levinson said wars, though violent, are distinguished from torture by having willing participants on both sides. That distinction blurs, however, as war increasingly involves civilians.

Hat Tip to Dr. Maurice Bernstein.

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