Ask a silly Big Question

If you could save the solar system from being extinguished by setting fire to your only child, would you do it?

Bloody stupid question. At best, it’s a thought experiment and even then it’s basically setting up an impossible scenario.

The BBC’s Sunday morning programme The Big Questions, which discusses moral issues, was talking about torture today.

One man made an intellectually dishonest pro-torture argument, which is basically as realistic a scenario as the “save the solar system” question I posed above. Paraphrased – because I am not going to watch the show and take notes – this argument is “What if you had to save the lives of thousands of people by torturing one man?”
This was discussed as if it was a real case to answer.

I am still in shock at finding myself in total agreement on this issue with Anne Atkins so I may not be too coherent.

This imaginary “save thousands by torturing one person” is meant to imply that those who oppose torture will happily sacrifice thousands to salve their own conscience. However, it is a complete crock.

As the token academic pointed out (sorry I didn’t catch his name), this scenario is from Hollywood, not real life. (24 is fiction, ffs.)

There are no conceivable circumstances in which you could know that the person in front of you was (a) the right person to torture to get the answers to your questions; (b) wouldn’t tell you lies which could endanger many more people and (c) would break under torture in such a way as to tell you the exact truth, rather than go mad.

So, there’s not even a need to bring in the standard arguments against torture to challenge this nonsense. The moral issue – although it is the basis of every decent human value – is actually irrelevant, here. The issue, of the practical consequences – the fact that using torture creates implacable enemies – is also irrelevant.

This argument leads us into the worst kind of moral morass. It softens us up for thinking that torture is bad but, just maybe, in really extreme circumstances… etc (As if the definition of which circumstances were extreme enough to justify it wouldn’t immediately be subject to an ongoing downhill standards creep.)

In fact, if a government’s knowledge is precise enough to confirm that they can save the lives of thousands on the basis of the evidence of one definitely-guilty person that they have captured, then they would already know enough to avert the imaginary catastrophe.

If they don’t have the exact right person, they are just torturing for nothing, which even the pro-torture-in-an-extreme-scenario voices on the show agreed was horrendous.

And just as a little topical torture aside, the Guardian website reported today that the supposedly threatening letter from the USA – that prevented the case of Binyan Mohamed being discussed in a UK court – was actually written at the request of the Foreign Office.

A former senior State Department official said that it was the Foreign Office that initiated the “cover-up” by asking the State Department to send the letter so that it could be introduced into the court proceedings.
The revelation sparked fresh claims that the government is trying to suppress torture evidence relating to Mohamed, who is expected to be released this week after four years and flown to RAF Brize Norton, Oxfordshire. (From the Guardian)