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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,

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