Would you torture a terrorist if that would save thousands of lives?

Here’s the situation. A terrorist has been arrested while planting a bomb in the middle of a large city. The bomb is diffused, but it’s soon very clear six or more other bombs have been planted, each timed to explode within 24 hours. The terrorist is interrogated, but he won’t reveal the location of the bombs. You are the senior political figure. The police and security services tell you there’s only one way to find the bombs: torture the prisoner to make him talk. You are asked to authorise his torture.

Torture is illegal. That is not only the law of the land, but contrary to the UN Torture Convention. It cannot be inflicted under any circumstances. You agree. Torture is heinous, a terrible evil. But the murder of thousands is also evil. In numbers and severity their deaths are a much greater evil. Surely it’s obvious which is worse? The choice is torture one very bad man, or allow bombs to explode and kill thousands including children. Which is right? What do you do?

This scenario – often called the Ticking Bomb Scenario – is wholly imaginary. It’s the invention of philosopher Michael Walzer, written to illustrate hard moral choices. Personally Walzer is utterly opposed to torture, but, to save the lives of hundreds or even thousands in a situation like this, he believes torture has to be allowed.

At the heart of the issue is what’s called ‘dirty hands’. You get dirty hands by doing something morally bad, but which is necessary to achieve a good outcome (or to minimise a bad outcome). So, in Walzer’s scenario, the politician would have dirty hands by authorising a morally evil practice, even though he authorised it so there would be good (least bad) consequences.

Here’s a real-life dirty hands story, one I partially described in a past blog post (https://occasionallywise.com/2021/07/31/rick-has-died/). The whole story is told skilfully and compellingly in the book ‘Touching the Void’.[1]

Joe and Simon had climbed an immensely high snow and ice-covered peak in the Andes. It was a major achievement for a two-person team. But getting up a mountain is one thing; getting down safely another. The descent began well, then came the accident. They were edging down an ice wall, clinging to their ice axes, when Joe’s axe gave way and he fell. He crashed into the base of the cliff, bones in his knee shattered instantly, and he was catapulted over the edge of the mountain’s East Face before his rope jerked him to a stop. The pain in his leg was excruciating. The agony in his mind was no better, for climbers knew that even a broken ankle is a death sentence in these conditions when there are only two mountaineers. Joe’s ripped knee was much worse than a broken ankle. His leg was useless, lying twisted in a hideous zigzag.

Simon now faced a dreadful choice. He could safely descend alone. With Joe? No chance. An attempt to lower Joe on a descent of 3000 feet (914 metres) would be fatal for both of them. But they decided to try. There was just one chance. First a bucket seat would be dug deep into the snow, firm enough to support Simon while he lowered Joe down the slope. When the rope was fully extended, Joe would secure himself on the slope and begin to dig another belay seat, while Simon climbed down. Then with Simon secure in the new snow seat, he’d lower Joe further. It would be immensely dangerous. If Joe fell, Simon would near-certainly be whipped from the snow and both would plunge to their deaths.

Remarkably the plan worked. With Simon holding Joe’s weight, and despite excruciating pain as his broken leg snagged on rocks and snow, Joe slid down, anchored himself, dug a new seat, let Simon descend, and the ritual began all over again. By now light was fading, snow falling, and both men had frostbitten hands.

By the fifth belay point, Joe could hardly think straight but he’d managed to secure an ice screw to free his hands which he waved to get some feeling back into them. Simon joined him, and stared at the ice screw. Both knew that ice meant something steep just below. By now they were in white-out conditions, and they’d no idea what lay ahead. But to stop was to die. They had to keep going. Joe was lowered, Simon descended, Joe was lowered, Simon descended. Over and over again. The two men almost grinned. They were getting good at this. Both began to believe they would make it to the glacier below.

On the next descent, Joe realised the slope was getting much steeper. Ahead there must be a sheer drop. Joe shouted a warning for Simon to stop lowering him, but his words were swept away. Desperately Joe tried to halt his descent, but his ice axe wouldn’t bite. Suddenly his feet hung in space and his whole body slid over an edge. He toppled backwards, dangling in spacing, spinning in circles. Somehow Simon had managed to hold his weight. When his circling eased, Joe used his torch, saw a massive overhang above, and only a sheer drop below. Even if Simon had a completely firm belay seat, he could never haul Joe up. Of course Simon was not on solid ground but sitting in snow, It was impossible.

Joe hung from his rope, and stared down. He could see enough to know he was not far from the glacier. Except, what was right below was not glacier but the gaping void of a crevasse.[2] For half an hour, Joe hung. Simon was now as trapped as he was. He would either die in his seat, or be pulled off the mountain by the strain of holding Joe.

Simon had been nearly wrenched from an already crumbling snow seat when Joe had fallen. He’d thrown himself backwards, bracing his legs against the sudden strain. He didn’t know what had happened, but guessed that Joe had fallen and couldn’t get his weight off the rope. Time passed. Simon’s legs went numb, his arms could hardly bear the weight, and his snow seat was half its original size. Desperately Simon hoped Joe could anchor himself, take his own weight, and Simon could move. It didn’t happen. After an hour, his seat was collapsing, an avalanche of snow pressed him from behind, and he began to slide.

Simon dug his feet into the slope. It stopped him momentarily. Then – only then – the thought came to Simon: his knife. With difficulty he got it from his rucksack. There was now only one option. He made his decision, put the knife to the rope and the super-tight strands parted instantly. As he pulled up the frayed end of rope, he asked himself, ‘Have I killed Joe?’

There is much, much more to that story than this. But my extract gives enough information for the tough question: Was Simon right or wrong to cut the rope?

In any ordinary circumstance, Simon had committed a serious moral crime, and possibly a legal crime. Cutting your climbing companion’s only lifeline could result in a murder charge. But Simon’s situation was no ordinary circumstance. There was no hope of saving Joe, and within seconds both Joe and Simon would plunge to their deaths. Unless, that is, Simon cut Joe’s rope. Joe would die, but losing one is better than losing two.

So, if we consider only the act of cutting Joe’s sole lifeline, the action was wrong. But, if we take a broader view, recognise that Joe was already doomed but Simon could still live, the action was right.[3] Cutting the rope gave the better consequence.

But we seem to have reached an odd conclusion, that by doing what is bad you get what is good. By doing wrong you do what’s right. That seems impossible. But some philosophers believe that’s exactly possible according to their moral theory. Other philosophers, though, think such an idea is false, and even incoherent.

And that is what the dirty hands debate is all about. Can we make sense of this? Is there any moral theory that answers the very tough questions these ideas provoke?

Those who know me personally, or have read the ‘About’ page of this blog, will know that I’m studying for a Masters degree in philosophy. My final challenge is a dissertation, and my wise or foolish choice of subject is the dirty hands dilemma.

Here are examples of questions I’m currently trying to answer:

  1. Are there moral rules which must always be obeyed? If so, then dirty hands actions can never be done. A rule would forbid them. But that means the terrorist’s bombs will explode with mass casualties, and Simon and Joe will both fall off the mountain.
  2. Could the gravity of a situation be so great rules must be broken? An example I’ll explain more fully next time is of a householder giving shelter to someone trying to escape a murderer – then the murderer bangs on the door and demands to know where his intended victim went – do you say ‘Come on in, he’s inside …’ or do you point into the distance and say ‘he went that way’? A man’s life depends on you lying.
  3. Might a dirty hands action be so awful that it could never be justified no matter how terrible the consequences? Philosophers ask, ‘If the terrorist won’t tell where the bombs lie, could you torture his (wholly innocent) wife to force the terrorist’s confession?’ Could that ever be right?
  4. Might dirty hands actions be justified only if the consequences of doing nothing reached a certain level of awfulness? Some suggest torturing the terrorist wouldn’t be justified if only a few would be killed by his bombs, but it would be entirely different if the terrorist had planted a nuclear bomb which would destroy millions.
  5. If someone is a moral rule-keeper and refuses to do ‘what needs to be done’ (a dirty hands action), and there are dreadful consequences, should the rule-keeper be blamed, and perhaps held legally liable? For example, a beach life-guard has promised to be home in time for his daughter’s birthday party, but just before he leaves his post he’s told someone is drowning in the waves. But, he’s a rule-keeper and can’t break his promise to be present at the party. Besides, his shift-time is over, so home he goes. The person in the waves drowns. The lifeguard kept his promise, but will he not be blamed because someone died whose life he could have saved?

Thankfully the philosophical world is not on tip toes waiting for my answers to these questions. All debate will not screech to a halt because of what I write. But I’m glad to be studying something which impacts all of us. Not you? Are you sure? Next time someone you care about – a spouse, a son or daughter, your best friend, has an appalling hair cut or wears outrageous clothes, and asks ‘Do I look good in this?’ what will you say? The truth, or a lie…?

If it’s any comfort, in the next blog I’ll explain why rules matter, and why sometimes they just can’t be followed.

[1] The book details can be found here: https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/357672/touching-the-void-by-simpson-joe/9780099511748

[2] A crevasse can be 150ft/45m deep.

[3] My elite mountaineer friend Rick told me what Simon did was exactly right. Climbers understand and accept that two shouldn’t die when one could live. In fact Joe did not die, but everything that followed his plunge into a crevasse is one of the most remarkable survival stories ever recorded. Read the book!