Oklahoma City, Oklahoma


The Ethics of Torture

Ethics is the foundation for a civil society. Often taken for granted, society has written into its legal system certain morals that govern a society’s macro and micro behavior. However, during wartime, certain constraints of a society are thrown off for survival. Albert Einstein is credited with stating, “You can speak of ethical foundations of science, but you cannot speak of scientific foundations of ethics.” In order to make up for this dilemma, humanity has set just war constraints for the battlefield. Throughout social evolution and moral awakening, once-accepted acts such as torture have now claimed the status of social taboos. But are there times that ethics allow for or even necessitate coercive tactics to be used for national security? In the coming paragraphs, this paper will attempt to argue that coercive tactics can enhance national intelligence for the purposes of homeland security when used appropriately.

Throughout history, torture has taken on many forms. Primarily used for punishment, it frequently served as a warning to others who might be contemplating similar actions. This was not constrained to a particular culture or society. Found in historical writings, paintings, carvings and statues, gruesome acts of torture have been performed around the world. Though this paper will look at the punishment forms of torture, there were other initiatory rites that involved enormous pain. Puberty, the welcoming into hunting parties, marriage, and countless other initiations would leave both man and woman scared if they lived through the rite’s acts. Some are still preformed in parts of the world to.

From the earliest days of the Egyptian empire, whippings were used on criminals. It could be stated that Romans perfected the art of flogging with the invention of the flagellum, also known as the cat of nine tales. This instrument had both hard beads and sharp rocks and pottery connected to nine cords. The aim was for the beads to create blisters at which the rocks and pottery would then tear. This form of torture was not allowed to be used on Roman citizens, and was reserved for servants and those who were not Romans (Scott, 2003, page 48).

Flogging was not the only torture the Roman Empire seemed to perfect. Perhaps the most famous torture tool was the cross. Its slow death of suffocation could take many days when the victim had no more strength to pull himself up by nails in the wrists for a breath.  The height of the Roman torture came while under Nero who made much of the torture into sport through the use of the Coliseum.

The Dark Ages bought about many forms of torture. Public executions were extremely common. Burning at the stake was often the method of choice for criminals of both the crown and the church. The guillotine became a popular form of torture when it was believed that the mind could still have enough comprehension left to see its body for a few moments after the execution. Lesser forms of torture including flogging, thumb screws, filleting of skin, and the more lesser, public humiliation were wide spread across Europe well into the Middle Ages (Scorr, 2003, page 86ff). These forms of torture continued well into the Reformation era. It was not until the seventeenth century that justice ordered torture to begin to subside across Europe. It took a few hundred years for its general eradication.

It was resurrected during the rise of the Axis Powers during World War II with the wanton torture of ethnic and political prisoners. Cultural ethics had moved to strengthen its anger at such actions in the mid twentieth century. The international outrage for those who ordered and preformed such actions was shown not only with the Nuremberg Tribunals, but also can be seen today with prosecutions of those still accused of torture. This shows a clear evolution of ethics that has happened in the Western Culture over the last few centuries. The perspectives on torture have turned from that of it being a public spectacle to an abhorrence when offered as a suggestion to most people today.

Throughout the world, torture can still be found today. It has taken on different meanings in some instances, but in others, it seems eerily similar to torture of centuries past. In the Middle East and Africa, where it is possibly most widely used, it is thriving. In certain cultures in that region, torture can still be used as an initiatory rite, as in the case of female genital mutilation (World Health Organization, 2013). Punishments under judicial laws can range from beatings, branding or the cutting off of limbs. In wartimes, these cultures will often use torturous methods of execution to combatants and non-combatants. But torture is not only solely that of non-industrialized nations or those that are not a part of the Western Culture. “In fact, it is the democracies that have been the real innovators in 20th-century torture. Britain, France, and the United States were perfecting new forms of torture long before the CIA even existed. It might make Americans uncomfortable, but the modern repertoire of torture is mainly a democratic innovation.”

Since September 11, 2001 America has been at war with Islamic extremist terrorist groups. These enemy combatants have brought a divide across American culture regarding the use of coercive tactics to glean information regarding planned attacks. Beginning with the fire storm that accompanied stories and pictures from Abu Ghraib in 2004, the subject of American enhanced interrogation came to a head in 2009 with the release of documents detailing CIA lead coercive tactics which included waterboarding. This prompted much dialog on the ethics of such actions. Some feared that America was not holding true to its own standards and civil liberties, while others saw that such tactics was needed to maintain security. President Barack Obama’s first State of the Union before a joint session of Congress held the statement that “…I can stand here tonight and say without exception or equivocation that the United States of America does not torture” (Obama, 2009).

Seven years earlier, under the George W. Bush administration, CIA officials had become discouraged with the failure of interrogations with al-Qaeda detainees. They turned to the White House for ways to enhance interrogations effectiveness. In August of 2002, a highly criticized memorandum written by Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo and signed by Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee was sent to the White House. Armed with this memorandum, the White House felt confident that it had good legal and ethical standing to commence enhanced interrogations on al-Qaeda detainees (Clark, 2005, page 455-458).

The CIA has declassified its line of progressive interrogation tactics. The six techniques in total are only performed after written authorization on a case-by-case, technique-by-technique basis. It should be noted that with all these techniques, physicians and psychiatrists are in observation to maintain the mental and physical health of the detainee (Arrigo, 2004, page 547-548).

The techniques are as follows:

  • The Attention Grab. The interrogator grabs and shakes the shirt of the detainee.
  • Attention Slap. An open-handed slap to cause sharp pain with no bodily harm.
  • The Belly Slap. After doctors advised that a punch could cause internal harm, an open handed slap to the abdomen is used.
  • Long Time Standing. Handcuffed and left standing for longer than 40 hours, this technique is known to be the most effective.
  • The Cold Cell. With the temperature brought down near 50 degrees, the detainee is left standing, naked in a cell while being doused in cold water at regular intervals.
  • Finally, waterboarding is used as a last resort. It is the triggering of the Mammalian Diving Reflex by having water poured over the face. The sensation of drowning causes instant panic. (Ross, 2005)

A caution should be pointed out which has been voiced by CIA officers. Enhanced interrogation should be a last resort. Whenever possible and time permitting, it is far better and lasting to build a relationship of trust with the detainees rather than start out with coercive tactics (Ross, 2005).  Respect can go a long way if the detainee is willing to cooperate. If these measures are ineffective, however, stronger and more severe tactics are then used. It is in this way, that coercive tactics are most effective, when used appropriately.

It is evident that, unlike much of the torture of centuries passed, the tactics used are for the purpose of extracting information and not for punishment or wanton violence. This continues to cause concern that these tactics violate both international law and ethics. Further, the argument is raised of the validity of the information gleaned. “According to CIA sources, Ibn al Shaykh al Libbi, after two weeks of enhanced interrogation, made statements that were designed to tell the interrogators what they wanted to hear” (Ross, 2005). Many stated that this information was incorrect, thus coerced information is as good as no information at all, and can at times be more deadly. The distinction must be made, however, that the information is not thought to have been knowingly incorrect. In the course of a day’s work, the CIA must triage thousands of tips and other types of information, always checking for reliably. Being given disinformation (knowingly or unknowingly) by a detainee is not a new or unprecedented occurrence of any law enforcement organization, coerced or not.

Setting aside the legal ramifications of coercive techniques, this paper will focus on the ethical stand point. What philosophical viewpoints are required to understand the full ramifications of torture upon ethical guidelines? A look into the deontological and teleological theories will now be explored.

At its core, the deontological theory subscribes to the value that a moral code should be held up at all times regardless of outcomes. Those that hold to this “assert that there are other considerations that may make an action or rule right or obligatory besides the goodness or badness of its consequences…” (Frankena, 1973) As a general worldview, this theory is a strong, self-perpetuating theory. Once a moral boundary is set forth, the deontologicalist uses that as the measuring line for all decisions. Thus, the fact that torture in one situation is morally wrong, it becomes morally wrong in every circumstance. It is easy to see that the deontological view would swiftly attack any type of enhanced interrogation as unethical. In fact, it is from this general view that many civil liberty groups filed suit against the federal government in the wake of enhanced interrogations coming to light. Much of the suits rested on the constraints Constitutional amendments have on citizens of the United States. Again, the deontological theory can be seen: if it is wrong to obtain information via coercive tactics from the civil law enforcement, it should also be wrong in any instance.

With the onslaught of suits, congressional investigations, and Justice Department prosecutions all relating to the use of torture, the Inspector General made an official inquiry in 2004. This was kept classified until President Obama came to office. A portion of the report praised the information that was obtained by the tactics used by the CIA. “[T]heir interrogation has provided intelligence that has enabled the identification and apprehension of other terrorists, warned of terrorist plots planned for the United States and around the world,” concluding, “[T]here is no doubt that the Program has been effective.” (Brookes, 2009)

This ushers in the question: “If, in fact, such interrogation has been successful, are there other viewpoints that could offer additional options other than the deontological theory?” Those in favor of the end result of such interrogations are quick to bring up the teleological theory. Could such a view point maintain the overall ethical boundaries of inflicting pain on another human being while still maintaining strong intelligence gleaned from detainees?

Teleological theory draws its ethical meaning from the end result of an action. Such a view must maintain a high level of integrity if it is to pass the muster of ethics. In explaining this integrity, Frankena states that not just any end justifies the means. “…an act is right if and only if it or the rule under which it falls produces, will probably produce, or is intended to produce at least as great a balance of good over evil as any available alternative” (Frankena, 1973). To those who are permissive to coercive tactics, their modus operandi seems to follow that the end justifies the means.

“Indeed, the heavily redacted 2004-2005 [CIA] memos call the interrogations a ‘crucial pillar of U.S. counterterrorism efforts,’ helping foil 9/11-style attacks planned for Los Angeles’ Library Tower and London’s Heathrow Airport” (Brooks, 2009). From all accounts, it can be argued that enhanced interrogation has had a positive effect on American intelligence and national security. It would then seem, from a teleological standpoint, these tactics were maintained within ethical parameters.

When set side-by-side, modern torture tactics seem as child’s play to torture throughout history. Mind numbing pain dealt in an effort to cause great bodily harm has been replaced with shocking pain that is designed to avoid great bodily harm. Doctors, medical professionals and legal representation are all witness to the tactics used by American government agents. Yet, it seems more than ever, American culture has little stomach for these tough decisions that are made with their safety in mind, and will attack those who deem it necessary. An even larger disconnect seems to be in place from the realities of maintaining national security to entertainment of which America cannot seem to get enough. Viewers will root for the hero who not only inflicts pain, but also kills the protagonist.  Often, this is not enough for this author’s generation: video games put the person at the controls, often battling other gamers for the greatest number of kills. This same society will turn around and attempt to destroy those who maintain national security by doing only a fraction of the actions by which society is entertained. Though real life and entertainment are two different dimensions, it would stand to reason that a culture who abhors torture on those who want to inflict harm should also abhor the thought of being entertained by something far more gruesome.

In sum, the last twelve years have proven the effectiveness of coercive tactics. This nation has not seen a 9/11-style attack for the last twelve years and this is not because attempts have not been made. Intelligence from the interrogations have given warnings of planned attacks and they have been averted. The teleological theory, working from the viewpoint that the end justifies the means, has proven many times over that the enhanced interrogation of a few has potentially saved the lives of thousands. This proof of the teleological theory seems to justify the ethical conclusion that coercive tactics can enhance intelligence for the purposes of homeland security when used appropriately.




Arrigo, J. (2004). A utilitarian argument against torture interrogation of terrorists. Science and engineering ethics10(3). Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.proxy-library.ashford.edu/docview/750489969?accountid=32521

Brookes, P. (2009, November 4). CIA clash: The left assaults langley — Again. Retrieved from http://www.heritage.org/research/commentary/2009/11/cia-clash-the-left-assaults-langley-again

Clark, K. (2005). Ethical issues raised by the OLC torture memorandum. Journal of national security law1, 455-472. Retrieved from http://ssrn.com/abstract=901675

Frankena, W. K. (1973). Egoistic and deontological theories. In Ethics (2nd ed.). Retrieved from http://www.ditext.com/frankena/e2.html

Obama, B. (2009, February 24). Remarks of President Barack Obama — address to joint session of Congress. Retrieved from http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Remarks-of-President-Barack-Obama-Address-to-Joint-Session-of-Congress

Rejali, D. (2007, December 16). Torture, American style – The surprising force behind torture: democracies. Boston Globe [Boston, Mass]. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.proxy-library.ashford.edu/docview/405105923?accountid=32521

Ross, B. (2005, November 18). CIA’s harsh interrogation techniques described. Retrieved from http://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/Investigation/story?id=1322866#.UWL-05OG18H

Scott, G. R. (2003). The history of torture throughout the ages. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=Tj7vbMmuvhYC&oi=fnd&pg=PR5&dq=history+of+torture&ots=Sn7KpsrT8s&sig=Stdn76OWnE6eopvDpUJLRKzWhIQ#v=onepage&q&f=false

World Health Organization (2013, February). Female genital mutilation. Retrieved from http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs241/en/

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