around what in philosophical circles is called the ticking time-bomb scenario: a terrorist has planted, say, a nuclear device in a city centre; bomb disposal experts have failed to disarm the bomb; it can’t be moved; it’s too late to evacuate the city; thousands will die unless the terrorist provides the code to switch the bomb off. It’s typically assumed in this thought experiment that it’s established that the terrorist is the man with knowledge of the bomb, that no alternative intelligence sources are available and that his information is quickly verifiable. Is it right to torture the terrorist in order to get the information that will save countless lives?
For utilitarians—the school of philosophy that favours those outcomes that bring maximum pleasure to the maximum number of people (or, alternatively, the minimum pain to the minimum number of people)—it’s a simple sum: one person suffers with the intention that many will not. Given that the one person in question is, in this scenario, known to be guilty, it’s a very human intuition to find the sum easier still.
Public feelings about torture naturally reflect events—a BBC survey of 27,000 people across 25 countries, conducted five years after 9/11, found that more than one out of three people in nine of those countries considered a degree of torture acceptable if it saved lives. They also reflect often skewed perceptions. “Hollywood doesn’t help,” says Allhoff. “If you watch the likes of 24 in about every episode the hero defeats an imminent threat through torture—often using implausible methods not grounded in science, such that the military even wrote to the producers asking them to please stop showing torture that way because it radically miscalibrated the public’s expectations. Movies are not the best way for us to think critically about the subject.”
But is this arguably cliché thought experiment the best way either? “It’s a thought experiment that’s useful to show the way in which our intuitions lie, but you have to be careful,” concedes Allhoff. “It’s the cleanest way to look at the issues, and you can then start to pull the levers on the experiment to see how it might work in the real world. What if there was only a five percent chance of saving the people, for example? Intuitions get weakened as you change the parameters, and that’s as it should be.”
Yet not as weakened as one might expect. Alhoff’s research, a series of thought experiments conducted with a panel of 833 students, appears to mitigate worries about the idealisations posed by the ticking time-bomb scenario. It revealed that it matters whether the subject of the torture is a guilty terrorist or, say, his innocent daughter, but that concerns with the certainty of the situation are far less pronounced than might be imagined. A situation of uncertainty was put to students: whether a suspect should be tortured if there was a mere one percent chance of saving lives. But there was no statistically significant difference in responses regardless of whether the outcomes were certain or even this uncertain. Idealisations, in other words, don’t mess up our intuitions.
But the ticking time-bomb scenario has certainly divided opinion; the liberal US senator Charles Schumer has publicly stated that most US senators would support torture in its circumstances. “There are likely some very few extreme situations in which torture of culpable persons might be morally justified in order to save innocent lives. [And] it is a legitimate thought experiment enabling distinctions to be drawn and possible courses of actions to be explored,” argues Seumas Miller, professor of philosophy at Charles Stuart University, Australia, who stresses that, either way, torture should never be legalised and a torturer always punished if found guilty, albeit leniently given the moral justification of his actions.
“However, thought experiments are frequently unrealistic and, therefore, from the fact that a conclusion might be rationally inferred from a thought experiment, nothing necessarily follows about what should be done in the real world and, especially what policies should be pursued or laws introduced,” he adds. “One-off unrealistic scenarios in thought experiments do not translate well into acceptable real world practice.”
“To torture is very human—a product of fear, panic, power, a sense of vengeance. I understand that. But where we fail is in not having an accounting for it. It’s a measure of human decency to make it right and until then justifications [like the ticking time-bomb scenario] are a red herring,” adds Siems. “That’s the only ethical example put for torture and that’s a philosophical hypothetical. Nobody has yet put forward a real world case.”
Only, they have. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy cites one: in New South Wales,