Bomb" Argument For Torture
The argument goes like this: A nuclear bomb has been
planted in the heart of a major American city, and
authorities have in custody a person who knows where it is
located. To save possibly millions of lives, would it not be
justified to torture this individual to get the information?
Is not this lesser evil justified?
Of course it is. And this argument is a wonderful means
to comfort those who have moral problems with torture. The
beauty of this argument is that once you concede there are
circumstances were torture might be justified, morally and
legally (through what criminal law calls the defense of
necessity: that an act is justified to save lives), you are
on the other side of the line. You've joined the torture
Those who've invoked the argument range from Alan
Dershowitz, to the Israeli Supreme Court, to the Schlesinger
Report on Abu Ghraib, to the Robb/Silberman Pre-Iraq War
Most recently, and eloquently, the argument was set forth
in the pages of
The Weekly Standard, by Charles Krauthammer. His
powerful essay, "The
Truth about Torture: It's time to be honest about doing
terrible things," received wide circulation on the
With all these great minds, and moral authorities,
relying on this argument, it is with some trepidation that I
point out that it is phony. I do so for a number of very
Fallacies In The "Ticking Bomb" Argument -- The Clock
Does Not Work
It is a rhetorical device. It is seductively simplistic,
and compellingly logical. It is also pure fantasy. The
conditions of ticking bomb scenarios are seldom real.
No one has more effectively probed the fallacies of this
argument than Georgetown University School of Law professor
David Luban. Writing in the Washington Post, in a
piece entitled "Torture,
American-Style," Luban explains why, while it makes good
television melodrama, this scenario does not produce
Professor Luban surgically dissects this argument at
greater length in the October 2005 Virginia Law Review.
His essay "Liberalism,
Torture, and the Ticking Bomb" is very much worth the
read. Citing moral philosopher
Bernard Williams, Luban writes that "There are certain
situations so monstrous that the idea that the processes of
moral rationality could yield an answer in them is insane,"
and "to spend time thinking what one would decide if one
were in such a situation is also insane, if not merely
Indeed, shouldn't the President, the Vice President, and
those members of the Senate and House embracing the power to
torture without justification, without court oversight, and
without limits, look, instead, at what they are doing to us
as a society? As professor Luban notes, "McCain has said
that ultimately the debate is over who we are. We will never
figure that out until we stop talking about ticking bombs,
and stop playing games with words."
Which brings us to the present situation.