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Ticking Time Bombs


Charles Krauthammer is the latest in a long line of commentators (a line that also includes Andrew McCarthy) that torture is not only morally permissible, but obligatory, in cases where it is necessary to, say, save a city from imminent destruction. (“Let’s take the textbook case. Ethics 101: A terrorist has planted a nuclear bomb in New York City. It will go off in one hour. A million people will die. You capture the terrorist. He knows where it is. He’s not talking.”)

(I have always wondered how much construction has gone into this hypothetical example. In the normal run of things, wouldn’t we be more likely to have no idea that a bomb was ticking somewhere, and be torturing someone to find out if it was? But Krauthammer says that Israeli interrogators have run into similar real-world examples, so let’s leave that aside.)

I still resist Krauthammer’s conclusion, because the example seems to go a lot further than he suggests. Doesn’t his bomb end up blowing up any categorical moral prohibition? If we’re talking about saving a city, for example, would it be permissible to torture the terrorist’s innocent elderly mother or infant child to get him to talk?

It can’t be the case, can it, that this example serves as a succinct proof of consequentialism in ethics? If it isn’t, then we’re left with the idea that what we can do to someone we’re interrogating depends on his guilt and the gravity of the situation. And we don’t know that we’re allowed, morally, to do whatever is required, no matter how seemingly bad, to get the information. (I tend to think that we’re not.) So we’re left where we started, with the time bomb not doing much to advance our thinking.

(Incidentally, don’t let me leave the impression that the time bomb is all there is to Krauthammer’s article, which is worth a read.)


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