Blogging from the Highlands of Scotland
'From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step' - Diderot

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

"The Moral Maze" and "Torture"

I've just been listening to this week's episode of The Moral Maze on BBC Radio 4 - for the next week you can listen again to this evening's episode by visiting The Moral Maze homepage here and clicking on the 'Listen Again' link on the right. I must say I am somewhat dazed by the attitudes of most of those who took part and the arguments they used to justify those attitudes.

Only two of the panel, Clifford Longley and Claire Fox, and the second guest, seemed to me to have a leg to stand on morally. The first guest (an American professor) used some pretty tortuous logic, which I can just about follow (but not agree with), to seek to justify his 'pragmatic' conclusions.

All western governments and many other advanced countries say they oppose torture and indeed most have signed a very high-minded convention outlawing it under any circumstances. Article 2 says:

1. Each State Party shall take effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent acts of torture in any territory under its jurisdiction.

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

3. An order from a superior officer or a public authority may not be invoked as a justification of torture.

Article 1 of the same convention says:

1. For the purposes of this Convention, the term "torture" means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.

2. This article is without prejudice to any international instrument or national legislation which does or may contain provisions of wider application.

Many of the participants seemed to say, in essence, yes they are opposed to torture and it should never be legalised, but add that there may be circumstance in which it would be morally wrong not to torture if the information extracted by such means would save many lives - the classic 'ticking bomb' scenario. What they are saying is that sometimes the law must be breached 'for the greater good'.

Why is torture wrong? There are a number of reasons, but here are three:
- it degrades the person who does the torture;
- it leaves the person doing the torture, or others on the 'same side' liable to reciprocal action by the opposing party should one of their number be captured by that opponent and deprives them of the argument that torture is always wrong;
- some opponents of torture say it is wrong because it does not work as any information extracted must be suspect, which as Clifford Longley pointed out seems to say that if it was effective in providing accurate information then that would therefore justify torture, that's to say the 'utilitarian' argument.

If torture is always wrong, and I believe it is, then there are no circumstances in which it should be authorised, justified or accepted even as a very necessary evil. That includes, just to be clear, making use of information resulting from use of torture by someone else and passed on to us. Nobody ever said life is easy and that having certain principles to live by is always comfortable or convenient.

If we are not prepared to accept such strictures on our own policy and actions then we have no business ratifying treaties such as this and seeking to take some kind of 'moral high ground' when convenient, but then quietly ignoring our own laws when it proves inconvenient.

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