BIBI, Torture For the Cure Edition



One man. Two boys. Twelve kids.

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116 Responses

  1. Avatar Rod Engelsman says:

    Feed him a steady diet of carcinogens until he gives it up.

    Seriously? Nah. Torture is wrong full stop. But public shaming seems appropriate.Report

    • Avatar Patton says:

      While I suppose I’m ambivalent on whether water-boarding is truly torture, the distinction isn’t even necessary in this case.

      I don’t believe this is a case in which anyone is required to share knowledge, even in such an interesting yet contrived storyline as the above.

      If the scientist had somehow GIVEN everyone cancer, and then withheld information on a cure, torture away. And if the scientist destroyed work product he’d been paid by someone else to create (mucho-grande larceny, given the damages), lock him up and throw away the key until he came through.

      Otherwise, I’m not certain that public shaming is even appropriate. He’s certainly got a right to be lacking in empathy. Shaming him into giving up information that he possesses but which isn’t otherwise “due” to the society in which he lives strikes me as utterly illiberal. Ignoring him? Disliking him? Being mad at him? Sure. Shaming that went beyond that? I don’t think so.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        I understand the principled argument you’re making, but personally speaking here, I have a hard time believing you’d abide by this principle if the hypothetical were real. Supposing that the person most precsious to you in this world were in early stages of terminal cancer, I find it very difficult to believe that you wouldn’t go to extreme measures to try to save him or her.

        That’s not exactly the point Kazzy is trying to highlight here (I don’t think) but it’s in the ballpark.Report

        • Avatar Patton says:

          And I, in turn, understand the objection that you raise.

          I might abase myself to beg, wheedle, or bribe him for the information. However, speaking as a guy who’s clearly not in a position to realistically say for certain what I’d do, if he didn’t cause the malady and had no legal requirement (criminal or contract, utilitarians need not apply) to provide it, I would hope I couldn’t make myself harm him for the information.Report

          • Avatar Kazzy says:

            I think the scientist being wholly uninvolved in people acquiring cancer is an important point. It is one thing that makes the situation not perfectly analogous to torturing terrorist suspects. Assuming they were involved in the creation of the threat, that puts them in a different situation than the scientist. It doesn’t necessarily change how we should respond, but it is a point that matters. Of course, if we start talking about terrorist suspects and want to say they are different than the scientist for just this reason, we then have to make a convincing case that they were indeed involved in the creation of the threat.Report

      • Avatar Dan Miller says:

        Why would shaming be off-limits? Just because you have the right to do something, doesn’t mean it’s the morally correct way to behave; if everyone only helped others when they were obligated to or it benefited them, society would fall apart rather quickly. People who are selfish in this way free-ride on the actions of those who are more decent, and calling them out for it is totally appropriate. Which isn’t to say that everyone has to tithe 90% of their income, but when patenting the cure would cost him so little and benefit the world so much, there’s a case that he should feel ashamed to not do so.Report

        • Avatar Patton says:

          Perhaps incorrectly, I separate shaming (as I envision it) from “shunning” as the Amish (Mennonites? Someone, anyway) do/did.

          If someone’s doing something that, while within their rights, offends me, I think my response should be commensurate. They don’t have a right to any form of relationship with me, but (again, assuming their actions are within the bounds of legality) they don’t lose their right to be left in peace.Report

          • Avatar Dan Miller says:

            What makes you think anyone has a “right to be left in peace”? There are limits and edge cases obviously–you can’t bring a bullhorn to my quiet residential neighborhood at 6AM Sunday, you can’t come onto my property without permission, you have to follow applicable laws about harassment and such. But I’m well within my rights to comment publicly on the conduct of any other citizen, and if I choose to say “The guy who invented this treatment but won’t release it is an asshole”, well that’s a) substantively correct and b) morally OK. It’s even OK if the venue I choose for my speech is a Super Bowl ad.Report

            • Avatar Patton says:


              I found this excerpt (via in my morning email:
              I’ve been guilty of paying far too much attention to what other people are doing.

              Specifically, I’ve channeled too much energy into getting frustrated at other people’s behavior, or their points of view, or their approaches to problems that I would solve differently. I’ve gotten frustrated at the lack of originality or inspiration around me, or lamented the loss of standards of business excellence, or felt like “we” could be doing so much better.

              And you know what? I’m being a jackass.

              I was brought up Catholic (no longer practicing, because I got all the practice I needed back when I was a child), and we were taught to make our own shame.

              I tend to deal with people in the same way that I’d want to be dealt with, so (again, with the proviso that my counterparty on any issue was within his or her rights to do what she or he is doing) I wouldn’t attempt to shame them, because if they did the same to me, I’d as politely as possible tell them to screw off. Repetition of a pleading, after I’ve given my answer, is a waste of the pleader’s time.

              As, I think, it should be.

              And shaming is just a way of talking to someone by talking past them. Which I detest.

              YMMV, of course.Report

              • Avatar Dan Miller says:

                It seems to me that there are two reasons to condemn the hypothetical doc publicly, and your justification for not doing so only addresses one. First of all, there’s the chance that condemnation might make him change his mind and release the formula. In the event that someone is as determined and misanthropic as the doctor seems to be, you’re right that this is likely to be a waste of time.

                But the second reason to condemn him is to send a signal to broader society. When he faces universal condemnation, you raise the cost of misanthropy and selfishness to everyone else. It’s a message intended for others, who might have the same impulse but are less determined, that society doesn’t think this is OK (even if it’s not illegal), and you’ll face consequences for it.

                Frankly, I think that this sort of thing should be used more often. There are plenty of people out there who all right-thinking individuals would agree are immoral hacks (e.g. Lanny Davis). And yet as long as they’re not actively under indictment, they’re invited to speak on panels and greeted cordially in the chambers of power. The idea that we should politely wait for them to rediscover a sense of shame on their own is a fantasy, and a harmful one.Report

              • Avatar Kazzy says:

                “When he faces universal condemnation, you raise the cost of misanthropy and selfishness to everyone else.”


                I find your use of the terms “misanthropy” and “selfishness” interesting, particularly the latter. Suppose the scientist, instead of actually developing the cure, was nearly certain that he COULD develop the cure but instead decided to devote his time to something else. Would he still be selfish? What obligation do people have to society for things they COULD offer but choose not to?Report

              • Avatar Dan Miller says:

                I’m no philosopher, so this may be poorly thought out or already covered, but I tend to stick to a kind of “reasonable person” standard. It’s not reasonable to expect anyone to give up 90% of their income to non-self-regarding (as Jason would put it) charities. But in a situation like this–where it would cost the scientist nothing to publicize the cure, and in fact would net him a substantial monetary gain while at the same time alleviating untold suffering–any reasonable person could be expected to give up the cure, and to fail to do so means that the scientist is behaving selfishly, more so than the average person in a way that deserves condemnation.Report

  2. Avatar North says:

    Certainly not. Even if the man was the Einstein of medical science his work will be replicated sooner or later. Hell, the fact that we know a cure exists and we have some general direction of where it came from (the mans fields of study, expertise and such would be public knowledge) would result in an absolute avalanche of resources directed at replicating his cure. It’d be ferreted out sooner or later (my bets on sooner).

    Or, let me refine the question for the sake of the spirit of your inquiry. Let us posit that the cure lies not only in the brain of the man but his body as well. The scientist has an utterly unique, say mutated, bone marrow which requires an agonizing extraction process to use. In theory we could synthesize the cure but only by means of torture both to extract the large quantity of marrow over a long period of time as well as the knowledge of how to synthesize it. Would this mans’ suffering be worth the cure to millions for cancer? I still would say no. I’d say that I’d be in favor of enormous incentives, both monetary and moral to try and persuade the man to volunteer/sell himself to the process but simply strapping him down and violating him? I don’t think we should volunteer that power willingly to society.Report

    • Avatar Kazzy says:

      An interesting wrinkle with the bone marrow… I like it. And your comment on “incentives” will be reflected in an immediate update…Report

    • Avatar Kolohe says:

      Which is not too far off the current balance of competing interests (though it doesn’t include harvesting from a human).

      One of the cancer drugs a family member required some time ago (taxol), was once upon a time, not able to be completely synthesized and thus only available from the bark of a certain somewhat uncommon yew tree. (Based on the wiki, there are other sources now, but it’s still a heck of an expensive drug, something like 800-1000 dollars for a single taxol-infused saline bag, which is just half of a single round of chemo)(the particular course of treatment the family member was on required 6 rounds)

      So how many trees should society actually cut down if the demand far exceeds supply? And how does society decide who gets the drugs? These are the questions that lie in the background of the ‘Hey we can find the cure for cancer in the Rainforest!’ conservation proposition.Report

      • Avatar North says:

        And the logical answer is the maximum number of trees should be cut down while also sustaining the ecosystem to produce more trees. Thus producing the largest quantity of the drug in the long run.Report

  3. Avatar Stillwater says:

    This is just Alyosha’s Dilemma writ again. There are so any ways to present the conflict between basic (natural?) rights and utilitarianism. Maybe I don’t know exactly what issue you’re trying to illuminate here. Is the question: how far would we, the public, “let government loose” to attain a public good? Or it’s corollary: are there any principled limitations on government activity that hold necessarily?

    Is that what you’re asking here?Report

    • Avatar Chris says:

      Right, it’s basically a ticking time bomb scenario, and such dilemmas never do much to illuminate the actual moral problems associated with things like torture. If it turns out that yes, if millions of people are in immanent and certain mortal danger, and one person unquestionably holds the key to saving those millions of people, and that one person is knowingly and maliciously withholding that key, then most of us would say do whatever we need to to get what we need, what would that say about the actual situations in which the use of torture is at issue? How does that scale down to those situations? Are we supposed to ask ourselves at what degree of certainty, and for how many lives, would torture ceases to be OK? Then why aren’t we asking that question in the first place?Report

  4. Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

    You’ve eliminated the ticking time bomb.

    Now… what would you do if your wife was ~4 weeks to live terminal-stage cancer?Report

  5. Avatar Tod Kelly says:

    I’m pretty sure I would not be in favor of torture or imprisonment. But I wouldn’t be as sure as everyone here that letting millions suffer and die because of one crackpot’s faulty wiring was the moral choice. In fact, I think if I were a citizen I would vote against illegal actions taken. But if I were the president, I might just carry out an Any Means Necessary and then, after the cure was found, turn myself over to the Hague.

    Of course, if I were a citizen and no illegal actions were taken against him, I’d certainly be first in line to join the class action and sue him into oblivion for negligence.Report

    • Avatar Kazzy says:

      Would the scientist actually be guilty of negligence?Report

      • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

        I believe that he would be, yes – for damages, anyway.Report

        • Avatar Kazzy says:

          Hmmmm… while I realize that he might be found guilty of such, I struggle to see how he’d ACTUALLY be guilty.

          Also, what is your response to the Trolly Problem?

          • Avatar Kazzy says:

            Errr… the one with the “Fat Man”, I should specify.Report

          • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

            My response to the trolly problem is that it’s what we all do, all the time, every singe day, with most every decision we make. We just don’t like admitting to ourselves that we do.Report

          • Avatar Rod Engelsman says:

            My answer to the Trolley problem is to turn it around just a bit and specify that the switch is currently set to run over the lone person and spare the five. In that case are you morally justified in doing nothing, and allowing the one person to be run over rather than sacrificing five others?

            I think the answer then is obvious. It would be evil to switch the trolley to the other track. But that outcome is completely an artifact of the way the dilemma is set up.

            What I dislike about the Trolley problem is that it sets up this false dichotomy between action and inaction, and tacitly assumes that there is greater moral responsibility for the results of an action. So by throwing the switch to the other track you’re now directly responsible for the death of the one man, whereas if you don’t throw the switch five people die, but you aren’t responsible for that outcome. It’s a very selfish analysis if you think about it a bit, since it seems to assume that the morally relevant consideration is your degree of culpability in the outcome rather than the actual outcome itself.

            WRT to the action/inaction dichotomy it seems to me that the actual act of moral relevance is the decision to act or not act. That itself is a positive act regardless of whether the result of your decision-making process is act or not act. IOW, given your position in the dilemma (having sole power to throw the switch or not), you can’t escape moral culpability for the results, and so your only relevant consideration has to be the outcome itself.

            Throw the switch.Report

            • Avatar Rod Engelsman says:

              Another way to look at it is to imagine that the handle of the switch starts out in an initial middle position that is neither A nor B and a decision must be made one way or the other. Perhaps if you don’t throw the switch one way or the other, then something much worse than five people die, for instance.

              If you have to choose between one and five people dying isn’t the choice sort of obvious?Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                If you have to choose between one and five people dying isn’t the choice sort of obvious?

                I think you’ve broken the code on the Trolley Problem. Along the lines of what you’ve written here, another way people artificially construct a tension in the problem is to personalize the lone individual (he gets a name and maybe some identifying markers) while the other five remain faceless and anonymous. But that just confuses the moral intuitions being pulled on and begs the question. It’s just as easy to suppose that named individual is amongst the group of five while the lone individual remains an abstraction in our thoughts.Report

    • Avatar Jesse Ewiak says:


      Torture the SOB, then tell ’em to slap the handcuffs on.Report

  6. Avatar Tod Kelly says:

    CABIN IN THE WOOD SPOILER ALERT AHEAD : Now that I’ve given my answer, I feel compelled to touch upon a similar but more extreme version of this dilemma given in the movie Cabin In The Woods. In that scenario, the choice given was sacrificing a person who had done nothing to deserve death, or the extinction of all of mankind (including the sacrificee).

    Everyone I saw that wrote about the movie (including people I love, like Alyssa) and the makers of the movie (Whedon!) clearly came down on the side that letting mankind go extinct was the Good and Moral decision, and killing a single person to prevent that was Evil.

    And I have to say, I thought that moral reasoning was all kinds of fucked up.Report

    • Avatar Kazzy says:

      NO SPOILER ALERT?!?!Report

      • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

        For a B cult movie that anyone who’s going to see has already seen? Nah.

        Also: Dorothy gets back to Kansas and Rosebud was his sled.Report

          • Avatar Glyph says:

            The CABIN was in the WOODS?!

            Yeah that ending was unsatisfying on several levels; that it was intentionally so, doesn’t mitigate much.

            Still worth seeing though.Report

            • Avatar North says:

              Agreed. I loved seeing it. Though I would like to think that had I been in the Fool’s position and the situation was laid out for me honestly I’d have the courage to sacrifice myself to keep the old gods asleep.Report

              • Avatar Glyph says:

                That is exactly the ending that I think would have been satisfying, even more so if he could have figured out some way to stick it to The Company (or whatever they were called) while so doing.

                If the whole idea here is that Uhznavgl arrqf gb znxr crevbqvp fnpevsvprf gb xrrc gur Byq Barf (ernyyl, whfg cevzbeqvny hetrf bs punbf naq ivbyrapr va gur uhzna navzny) cynpngrq, naq gur zbivr vf znxvat gur vagrerfgvat & cebibpngvir cbvag gung jr hfrq gb fnpevsvpr uhznaf ba nygnef naq abj jr qb vg ba fperraf, jung vg qbrfa’g qb vf nfx JUL – V zrna, vg qbrf, va gur ernyvgl bs gur zbivr (Byq Barf), ohg jul qb jr qb guvf VEY? Cerfhznoyl jr trg fbzr orarsvg.

                Fb V jbhyq unir yvxrq gb frr Gur Sbby orpbzr, va rffrapr, Gur Qverpgbe – juvpu, lbh pna nethr gung ur qvq, ohg va gurve (naq uvf) ernpu sbe na hapbairagvbany raqvat gung jbhyq pbasbhaq nhqvrapr rkcrpgngvbaf, ur / gurl znqr fbzrguvat hygvzngryl rzcgl naq avuvyvfgvp. (Ubj zhpu rira penmvre jbhyq gur zbivr or vs Gur Sbby unq orpbzr n Puevfg?) V guvax gur zbivr vf bgurejvfr n ernyyl vagrerfgvat cvrpr bs jbex, qbvat vgf fgbelgryyvat ba nobhg guerr yriryf fvzhygnarbhfyl; ohg gung raqvat vf, VZB, n frevbhf synj (naq abg whfg qhr gb gur onq PTV unaq).Report

              • Avatar North says:

                Lrnu, fbzrguvat jurer gurl orng gur qverpgbe naq gura nf gurl’er fvggvat gurer naq Puvpxl ncbybtvmrf sbe gelvat gb xvyy uvz ur fnlf ur sbetvirf ure orpnhfr “gung vfa’g lbhe pnyy, vg’f zvar”. naq gura syvatf uvzfrys vagb gur cvg be vzcnyrf uvzfrys be fbzrguvat. Gung’q unir orra n zhpu orggre raqvat gura gurve wnqrqyl fzbxvat n oyhag juvyr fabegvat nobhg ubj nyy uhznavgl cebonoyl qrfreirf gb or qrfgeblrq engure guna bssvat n fgbare chax. Fb V’z evtug gurer jvgu ln.

                Ohg nterrq, V ybirq vg hc gvyy gura (jryy hc hagvy gurl eryrnfrq rirel ubeebe gur pbzcnal unq jvgu gur cerff bs n fvatyr ohggba).Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

                Unira’g frra vg, jvyy cebonoyl frr vg abj, naq svaq gur raqvat ernyyl naablvat naq ynzr. Tvira uneq pubvprf, jr yrg Pguhyuh ybbfr?

                Gung’f yvxr gur byq “V Unir Ab Zbhgu, Naq V Zhfg Fpernz” fgbelyvar ghearq ba vgf urnq.

                Fher, uhznavgl zvtug unir vgf qbjafvqrf naq nyy, naq gurer’f n ohapu bs tbbq crbcyr naq gurer’f n ohapu bs onq crbcyr naq gurer’f n ohapu bs crbcyr va gur zvqqyr… ohg abobql qrfreirf na rkvfgrapr rafynirq gb gur Ryqre Tbqf. Gur Ryqre Tbqf qba’g qrfgebl uhznavgl.

                Gurl xrrc vg nyvir, sberire, gb gbezrag. Gung’f jung gurl srrq bss bs, nsgre nyy.

                Vs lbhe zbeny frafr svaqf guvf na npprcgnoyr bhgpbzr gb gnxvat n zbeny qvat ba lbhe yrqtre, lbh’er qbvat vg jebat. Rira vs vg’f n ovt qvat.Report

            • Avatar Kazzy says:

              I’ll be seeing it soon. Zazzy hates those types of movies so I’m usually late to the party on them.Report

              • Avatar North says:

                Zazzy may love this one. It turns the tropes on their ears and isn’t particularily scary.Report

              • Avatar Kazzy says:

                Even if it is not scary, she struggles with suspense. Her anxiety just doesn’t allow her to handle it, even more so if a suspenseful element is a gun. She can’t watch “The Wire” or “Breaking Bad” because she spends the whole time worrying that someone is going to get shot or killed.

                She is frustratingly good-hearted and caring.Report

              • Avatar North says:

                Aw well then she’d hate it. But she sounds super nice.Report

              • Avatar Kazzy says:

                I like to think so!

                She really is a doll, though these characteristics have their downside. For instance, she can empathize with any living thing. Probably none living things, too. On Saturday night, I was watching the NBA Slam Dunk contest and the moment one of these exceptionally talented, supremely paid young men missed a dunk, she had to avert her eyes because she couldn’t bare to watch them struggle. It was adorable… but distracting.

                Like I said, frustratingly good-hearted and caring.Report

        • Avatar MikeSchilling says:

          Ad Ned Stark is reincarnated as the love child of Cersei and Tyrion.Report

    • Avatar Stillwater says:

      Tod, you obviously have no problem negotiating with terrorists.Report

  7. Avatar Burt Likko says:
    Watch Kiefer on Fox,
    But the real world rule is this:
    No torture. Ever.


    • Avatar Michael Drew says:

      Why have we come to believe that torture is so uniquely clearly wrong in all instances? It’s certainly clearly wrong, but aren’t a number of things? It seems like only on this subject are we inclined to make such strong, immediate, unequivocal statements to that effect, seemingly meant to render any further discussion presumptively misguided. And by “we” I mean you, Burt. I may be mistaken that that’s your tendency, but I infer that is your view because I never see you making these declarations that nearly peacock-preen in their pristine absoluteness about other things that people could and do do to each other that seem pretty ugly, too. Maybe that’s just because torture comes up & we discuss it, so maybe that not your view at all. But are you as clear that any other actions are equally clearly and absolutely wrong as you are that torture is that, if they came up, you’d unhesitatingly make these same kind of oracular statements about them? Or am I right that torture is unique for you in this regard?

      And if so, why? In my view, however much we want to deny it, in fact it’s actually a fairly vague term in terms of what practical actions it actually implicates. I have no problem saying that it’s never okay or right or legal to torture, and I agree with you that that’s true, but at the same time, I’m not always sure exactly what it is I’m saying when I say that. As such, I find it a little more difficult to make a point of being quite as outspokenly unequivocal and determined to make this particular statement whenever the topic comes up. I agree it’s wrong. But when the topic comes up, my inclination is usually to think and reflect more than it is to pronounce my certainty on the topic. I’m just curious where your inclination comes from.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko says:

        Ipse dixit — if you agree that torture is wrong, then what is there to discuss? And when I accuse you of agreeing with me that torture is wrong, Drew, I refer to statements like “I agree it’s wrong” and “I have no problem saying that it’s never okay or right or legal to torture, and I agree with you that that’s true.” Seems to me that forecloses the need for further discussion. You and I have both put thought into the issue already, and the verdict we reached is the same: torture is wrong. I suspect you agree with me further, that it is categorically wrong.

        Now, to fully address your point, let’s pretend that you hadn’t written those things, or that you intended something else by it other than its literal meaning. How do we know that torture is wrong? Because the concept of morally justified torture is inconsistent with the concept of morality existing at all.

        In theoretical terms, torture is the intentional and calculated imposition of maximally intolerable conditions upon its subject. “Intolerable,” in turn, refers to something so awful that one would prefer death to living with that condition. Typically but perhaps not always, this would be physical pain.

        Armchair hypotheticals like the OP and dramatic entertainment like 24 are consciously designed to pit utilitarianism against deontology. Do the ends justify the means? What if the ends are a massive utility? Preventing a nuclear bomb from destroying an entire city. Literally curing cancer. Finding my missing car keys when I’m running late for an appointment. What if the means are evil, but only a little bit evil. All you have to do is torture one (pointlessly selfish) person to realize this incredibly beneficial objective.

        So now we understand the game on a theoretical level: the deontologist is tempted by the utilitarian to indulge in just a little bit of utilitarianism, by tipping the utilitarian scales wildly in the direction of the ends justifying the means.

        And having thus deconstructed the hypothetical trappings of the scenario, we may simultaneously refine our thought such that we need not concern ourselves with whether this or that kind of “enhanced interrogation” constitutes “torture.” Kazzy fairly overtly hints at this in his footnote. This deconstructs away the objection that in practical terms “torture” is not susceptible of precise definition: whatever “torture” is, we have to do it in order to achieve the desired utility.

        Well, if we don’t need to know what “torture” is on a practical level, then do we need to know what “utility” is? After all, utility is malleable and subjectively evaluated differently by different individuals under different circumstances. An extreme example: in contemporary society we abhor sex acts performed by an adult on a child. We are quick to condemn such a thing; it is an easy question susceptible of no appreciable exceptions even to the committed utilitarian. But in the classical world, sex between a grown man and a prepubescent boy was thought to be a morally good thing, part of the expression of a sincere and true form of love between people and the proper and ordinary initiation of a boy into the ranks of adulthood. Were the ancients misguided, or did they simply have different preferences than us?

        That’s not to apologize for child molestation. It’s to say that utility is, ultimately, a subjective, malleable, and unreliable metric against which an action’s morality can be measured. Within appropriate boundaries, sure. But the point of these kinds of armchair hypotheticals it to break down those boundaries. So let’s break them down.

        Are we morally justified in evil behavior, so as to achieve maximal good? By defining the behavior as “evil,” the question answers itself. If an act is morally justifiable, then by definition it is not evil. And the objective of the act stops being important — the act itself is now the logical subject of analysis. Utility becomes irrelevant. Utilitarianism is now dissolved into nihilism.

        (Note that I do not suggest that all forms of utilitarianism thus self-destruct. Utilitarianism can be structured in a principled way such that it does not dissolve into nihilism. Concurrently, such principled forms utilitarianism also do not reach conclusions that justify torture. I’m addressing the clumsy and oversimplified ends-always-justifies-the-means parody of utilitarianism which the armchair hypothetical throws at the subject and which ultimately does self-destruct.)

        How do we know that torture is evil? If we say that some measure of utility can theoretically justify torture, we now lack a means by which to answer that question. We are left with only preferences, such as the ancients’ preference for pederasty. We must look elsewhere for an objective answer. So what else is out there? At the end of the day, deontology gives us the only other alternative yet posited: the categorical imperative. This isn’t new: it goes back to Plato and Aristotle’s debates and recapitulates throughout our intellectual history most starkly expressed in the tension between Bentham and Kant. And the categorical imperative has the merit of something objective we can logically hold on to: treating people as intrinsic ends, and never as means to an end. At a theoretical if not a practical level, torture is the intentional and calculated imposition of maximally intolerable conditions upon a human being. This is logically and categorically inconsistent with treating that person as an end unto herself, which is how we know that the act of torturing her violates the categorical imperative and is thus fundamentally evil.

        If torture is not evil, then nothing is evil; we’re back to nihilism and we have only the metric of malleable utility to guide us as to whether we should to action X or not. Curing cancer ceases to be a good as much as torture ceases to be an evil. They are reduced to mere preferences, on par with and morally equivalent to the ancients’ admiration of pederasty.

        Having made the bargain of torture for curing cancer, the hypothetical Faust must now chase with the escaped and fleeing demon. Today, the utility-maximizing hypothetical justifying a torture is curing cancer at the expense of torturing one man one time. Tomorrow, it will be ending poverty at the expense of torturing ten people for an hour each week. The day after, it will be preventing the common cold at the expense of torturing a hundred people daily. And so on until millions must suffer in order that I might find my missing car keys. Why not? There are no categorical absolutes here, only a sliding scale in which at least one if not both metrics are subjective. Morality is aught but a rhetorical cloak applied to mere subjective preference. “No torture, ever” becomes the moral equivalent of “Torture when it pleases you” and all analysis of morality is rendered nonsense.

        Of course all of this is extreme stuff. If we’re going to use the process of addressing hypotheticals to reason backwards to morality, then of course we’re dealing with extremes like these. If you want moderation, great. But the path of intellectual moderation in thinking about morality will not lead you to torture, either — when we leave the world of theories and scales tipped all the way to the extremes, and come back into the real world, we also move away from the kinds of factual and theoretical imbalances where we can even explore the possibility that torture becomes justifiable.

        Condemnation of torture is the inevitable result of positing that morality is even possible. This truth is harmonized with the fact that in order to even contemplate justifying torture on a moral level, we must concoct wild and highly improbable scenarios to even attempt the logical maneuver. That is how I can feel comfortable arriving at a rule like “No torture. Ever.”Report

        • Avatar Kazzy says:

          Shit just got real. Amazing comment, Burt. Almost half of which I understood!Report

        • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

          “Ipse dixit — if you agree that torture is wrong, then what is there to discuss?”

          A lot, I should think.

          We all agree that it is “wrong” to take a human life, but we still somehow find a surprisingly large variety of ways to approve of it being done all the time. And in fact, no matter how we redefine the exceptions to that rule (I mean unarmed humans who aren’t hurting anyone!) we still find find ways to be OK with it (We’re at war!/They shouldn’t build hospitals next to terrorist bases!/I don’t want to deal with the inconvenience of a breathalyzer in my car!).

          I have to say, I feel a tad uncomfortable when we get to areas where things are divided up into absolute Good and Evil, any and all situations be damned. It seems to me to be the same kind of moral certainty that allows parents to refuse medical treatment for their kids due to “God’s will,” or (ironically) torturing Jews until they repent to Christ and then killing them before they have a chance to stray again so that they might be saved from eternal damnation.

          I’m not saying “Yay torture!,” but the lack willingness to consider the suffering we might allow/cause in the name of righteousness I’m seeing here makes whatever you call the principled pragmatic version of a spidey-sense tingle.Report

          • Avatar Kazzy says:


            Are you comfortable saying where you’d draw the line?

            What if it was AIDS instead of cancer, a disease that is A) less prevalent and B) more easily avoided?

            What if it was a disease or disorder that was non-fatal and rare, but still caused the sufferer great and prolonged pain?Report

            • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

              I think I’m comfortable with the idea of saying where I’d draw the line, I’m just not sure that I know where I’d draw it – and I know myself well enough to know that what I decide on paper might not match what I’d decide in real life. But I am uncomfortable with this certainty that we never consider the possibility of a line to be drawn.

              To take your trolly example… We might all agree that switching the tracks to kill one person rather than another is wrong. We might even say that switching the tracks to save five t the expense of one is wrong. But if it’s five hundred? Five thousand? Five million? If the five are all small children, and the one is someone in their 80s? Or to take the CITW example, it’s everybody or one person? Is declaring that there never, ever be a line drawn really a good thing?

              I’m a big believer that the greatest acts of evil in history that are done are usually done with the intention of being uncompromisingly, capital-G Good.Report

              • Avatar Kazzy says:


                What you explore here is, by and large, what I attempt to explore with these BIBI posts. By and large, we need to draw lines and rarely are that at the utmost extremes. The questions become, how and when do we draw these lines. What principles do we rely upon to draw them? Far too often I see people comfortable drawing a line but lacking any sort of real principle to justify it being where they set it.Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

                Is declaring that there never, ever be a line drawn really a good thing?

                I think it’s perfectly acceptable to draw a line and admit you would cross it.

                I think it’s immoral to condemn someone to death. I think that there may be circumstances where condemning someone to death is an inevitable outcome. Let’s look at the Trolly Problem in that light.

                Killing the fat guy is wrong. Killing the five other people is wrong, too. Deciding that there’s a universal way of measuring which one is worse is unhelpful, because there are always counters to the measure (“Oh, yeah? Well, the fat guy is on the way to the patent office to file a cure for cancer, and the five are on their way to murder an old lady and take her social security check!”)

                Admitting that “you’d suffer a moral dilemma from making the choice, but that you’d make a choice and live with the outcome and if that means you’ve done something immoral, so be it”… that’s the human condition.

                I think torture is unconditionally wrong, just like pulling the lever in the Trolly Problem is unconditionally wrong… in the general sense. I think that torture probably can’t be made conditionally right “enough” to justify its use from a moral perspective.

                But if I’m in Patriot Games and I’m Jack Ryan and I know the crazy IRA people are on the way to my house to kill everybody I’m shooting that guy in the leg, too, to get him to tell me how many of them there are. If I’m in The Walking Dead and I’m Rick and that prisoner shoves me into the line of an oncoming walker, and I survive the battle, do I summarily execute that guy? You bet.

                Am I going to sleep well over it? Most assuredly not. Will I accept getting arrested and going to jail for it, if tried and convicted, or whatever the other consequences of it are? You bet. Will I consider it a moral choice? Most assuredly not.

                I think the dilemma in all of these exercises is that people generally want it to be the case that every action that they choose can be more moral than the alternative, and all the discussion is an attempt for them to wrangle a moral code that will always provide them guidance in times of choice. If I always act like “this”, I am righteous.

                That’s a pipe dream. People do evil. You live long enough, you’re going to do some evil, too. Rather than try and wash your hands of it, accept your guilt and move on.

                It’s all entries in the ledger.Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

                Put another way:

                Here’s a line. The other side of that line is definitely “bad”.

                Here’s another line. The other side of that line is definitely “good”.

                Most of life is lived in-between those lines, not on either side.Report

              • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

                This comment and Burt’s above are really, really excellent.Report

            • Avatar Burt Likko says:

              We can safely know the line rests somewhere in between “saving all of humanity” from the Cabin in the Woods hypo Tod describes above, and “finding Burt’s car keys.”

              Speaking of which, I’m going to go look for them and I’ll get back to this discussion later.Report

              • Avatar Kazzy says:

                Those seem like fair end points. I a reason to object to doing so even in the most extreme of circumstances is trusting whomever is making the decision to make the decision.

                Sort of like threading the needle on the death penalty with arguments that, yes, some people might deserve to die but, no, I don’t trust the government to properly determine who those people are.

                This isn’t to say that I would wholly object… but I would look askew and say, “You want to do what now?”Report

              • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

                As God is my witness, Burt, there are times when I can’t find my car keys where given the choice…Report

          • Avatar Kim says:

            “We all agree that it is “wrong” to take a human life”
            my bible says Thou Shalt Not Murder.
            Taking a life is fine. Murder is not.Report

        • Avatar Michael Drew says:

          That really wasn’t the question, Burt. The question wasn’t, “Why not torture… ever? Ever ever? Ever!?” The question was, “Anything else not ever, or just not torture ever?”Report

          • Avatar Burt Likko says:

            Wow, did I misunderstand that! Sorry. All that good work to answer a question I wasn’t asked.

            In that case, my answer is “I don’t know” because I’ve not had occasion to think through all of the awful kinds of human behaviors out there the way I have with torture, what with torture being a subject of public debate for the last decade or so.

            Killing would not be on that list. It’s not really all that difficult to think of ways in which killing is morally justified, self-defense being the most obvious.

            Rape seems like it would be on the list, at least in circumstances in which the rapist subjectively does not believe he has consent.Report

            • Avatar Kazzy says:

              So raping to save the species, as posited in “28 Days Later” is out?Report

            • Avatar Michael Drew says:

              It was in any case an absolutely awesome response as they’ve said, Burt, no matter what the question was…;)Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew says:

                …Also the second paragraph read alone certainly seems to ask the former question, so I understand why you took it to do so. When I say I tend to want to reflect on the topic when it comes up, it’s because I tend to want to consider what I think of torture as compared to other wrongs, and to think about what it is exactly I think torture is. It is also the case that utilitarian concerns do weigh on me a bit more than they do you, and I ultimately probably come down with you more because I believe that practically, we’d never really know that we knew that the posited situation actually obtained than because of a 100% clear deontological belief that the tradeoff would be wrong if that perfect knowledge were possible (though I don’t reject that claim either – and your case for it among the more compelling I’ve ever read). But in any case it wasn’t the question I meant to ask, because I do understand where that view comes from and why one would hold it.Report

          • Avatar Michael Drew says:

            …Or I guess, ““Anything else as certainly and affirmatively not ever as torture, or is torture unique in being the one most certain thing not ever, whose neverness you are uniquely motivated to proclaim?” I think any answer to that question is okay, by the way, I was just curious about the tendency you have to do that proclaiming on that particular question.Report

  8. Avatar Shazbot5 says:

    This is an odd case. If the man could easily give up information that saved millions of lives and didn’t, that could be morally tantamount to murder. Compare this hypothetical science-guy’s not telling with the case of a man not saving a drowning child in a bath because the kids haircut or because he doesn’t want to get his hands wet.

    And if the science guy is murdering thousands by the day, or doing something tanatamount to mass murder, there may be a case for imprisoning or even torturing him to get him to stop. It is almost as if his withholding the information is an action, not a passive failing to act to help.

    A more relevant case is whether we should test cancer drugs on humans (the homeless, or have a lottery) to cure cancer. That would almost certainly speed the cure(s) and treatments for cancer, and we could do it, but we don’t do it because of individual rights.Report

    • Avatar Patton says:

      You bring up an interesting point. But consider this twist, which seems still to fit the original hypothetical:

      What if said scientist arrived at the cure, all by himself in a cave somewhere, and never told anyone about it. Better still, let’s add that he’s a mean bastard & hates humanity, and intentionally didn’t tell anyone, but wasn’t the cause of cancer’s existence and otherwise crossed no legal lines? (hating humanity not being illegal, that is)

      In that case, it would seem that the only difference between the “requirement” that he share this information with all of humanity and the lack of such requirement, is whether or not we know he’s arrived at the cure.

      Or is that a too-simple segregation of the facts on my part?Report

  9. Avatar Maribou says:

    I find it incredibly difficult to believe that if the scientist cared enough to find the cure for cancer in the first place, he would withhold it without a DAMN good reason. I’m sure that says more about me than about the problem.Report

    • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

      It’s tempting to dismiss the question by explaining why it’s not a realistic scenario. Which is true, and not entirely irrelevant. But the point is to explore the limits of moral intuition, and explaining it away kind of sidesteps that.Report

      • Avatar Maribou says:

        I wasn’t explaining away the scenario (which would be fairly easy to do on strictly factual grounds), I was fleshing it out. My moral intuition ALWAYS includes trying to understand why someone is doing something, and the insights I might receive thereby. WHY?? is my kneejerk moral reaction.

        Faced with a scientist who would not tell humanity the cure for cancer even though I KNEW HE KNEW IT and had devoted the necessary time and willpower to figuring it out, I would assume that either he was bargaining for money, or, that he had a damn good reason. Bargaining for money has been covered above in North’s fine comment. Besides, I would be more likely to assume that the latter was true, and while some amount of reasoning with him would seem like a moral obligation (he’s not infallible! just TELL us your reasoning, dude!!), I would be even MORE against torture than I normally am. It’s bad enough (my gut says ALWAYS too bad, and my intellect agrees, but some other tiny part of my gut doesn’t always agree) to torture someone, even someone evil. Torturing someone who seems most likely to be acting under a strong moral code that I respect is just… brain-breakingly wrong.

        Plus, if the person is THAT convicted, they’re not going to tell the truth under torture anyway. Talk, yes. Talk ACCURATELY, no. And if they did talk, I don’t think the cost would be worth it.

        This is the point in every such discussion where I bring up LeGuin’s excellent short story,
        The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.

        Then I get depressed thinking about how many glories built on human suffering I don’t walk away from.Report

    • Avatar Chris says:

      Perhaps the cure causes people to turn into zombies, who then kill Will Smith’s dog.Report

  10. Avatar Rod Engelsman says:

    Change the scenario a bit (well, maybe more than a bit…) and posit that the scientist is working for a pharmaceutical company that also manufactures chemotherapy treatments. FYI, these drugs are expensive as hell, although I’ll stipulate that I honestly don’t know whether the price derives from production cost or just supply and demand (i.e., we charge that much because we CAN charge that much). The scientist works under a standard sort of contract where all discoveries are owned by the company and he’s working under a NDA. Further posit that the cure discovered by this scientist is really cheap and easy to implement.

    If the company (i.e., suits in the boardroom) decides to withhold the cure in favor of selling more ghastly chemotherapy drugs instead, are they committing any kind of crime? If knowledge of this cure leaks to the public should the government be able to exercise something similar to eminent domain to force disclosure? (Let’s take torture off the table.)Report

    • Avatar Rod Engelsman says:

      Let me clarify a bit: It seems to me we have two questions on the table.

      1) Is the scientist actually doing anything wrong by withholding the cure? Does withholding information he could share amount to a evil act? Is inaction itself a kind of action? (Perhaps the act in question isn’t the sharing per se so much as the decision to share or not share.)

      2. If we decide that the answer to #1 is “yes”, then given the enormity of the stakes, what measures are justified to obtain said information for the benefit of many millions of people?Report

    • Avatar North says:

      I would submit that the company withholding the cure is both morally wrong and also committing a bad business decision and poorly serving their share holders.

      In order to cover up the cancer cure this would naturally preclude any ability for them to put copyright protection on their discovery. By doing so they’re setting themselves up for catastrophic losses. If the company copyrights and markets their cancer cure then they’re showered in acclaim for their discovery and will make a fortune. With their patents protecting their cure they’ll turn a handsome profit even on a cheap to manufacture cure (the cheapness of manufacturing would, in fact, be a bonus to the corporation. They could turn a handsome margin by pricing the drug moderately and then gain even more acclaim at very little cost by giving the drug away at cost to poor cancer patients. The potential for profit is huge even if it eventually wipes out their chemotherapy lines or work.

      More importantly though, the company knows that this cure which could destroy their chemotherapy lines exist. By hiding the cure they are taking a massive risk. If another company develops the cure the first company, by hiding it, has no rights or patents on said cure. Thus if another company develops the cure the original company’s chemotherapy cures would become obsolete AND they’d get no income from the cancer cure. That could be a company destroying mistake.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        Would it be morally wrong for the company to refuse to research cancer “cures”, instead only focusing on “treatments”?Report

        • Avatar North says:

          I do not think so. Pallative treatments exist everywhere and it’s not immoral to develop them. Is it immoral of a company to research a better wheelchair instead of developing a cure to being a parapalegic? Is it immoral for a company to develop heart stints instead of researching a cure to cholesterol buildup?

          And of course in putting their research into treatments instead of cures they’re risking someone else producing a cure and rendering all their treatments redundant.Report

        • Avatar Rod Engelsman says:

          I would say no, it’s not necessarily morally wrong. It would depend a lot on circumstances. It would get murkier, for instance, if a line of research that looked promising toward a cure were to be intentionally abandoned in favor of R&D into less efficacious treatments.

          This, to me, provides a fine justification for publicly funded and directed research in certain areas.Report

      • Avatar Rod Engelsman says:

        Okay. All of your 2nd and 3rd paragraphs may well be true. But what I’m trying to get at is whether the scientist in Kazzy’s OP is actually doing anything morally wrong. You would seem to agree that he is, which is a strong point of contention in (less dramatic) posited “save the drowning kid” scenarios.

        If we can agree that the actions of a third party intervening to prevent the release are immoral then how different is it really for the scientist himself to prevent the release? What are society’s legitimate claims in this scenario?Report

        • Avatar North says:

          Assuming that the scientist and the scientist alone has ownership of this cure; that is to say he developed it himself without being paid to do so by a third party or working with anyone to develop it then I’m unsure about the morality of him refusing to release it.
          I think we’d probably need some kind of idea why he refused to release it.

          Even still I suspect that he still remains immoral. Unless he has personally founded and developed the entire field of science that he used to produce this cure then the individual scientist has personally used the open sharing of knowledge of all the scientists before him who he learned from and is now refusing to, as they did, add his discoveries to the river of human knowledge he harnessed to achieve his discovery. That is, at the very least, hypocritical so I’m guessing it’s at least mildly immoral. I think it’d hinge on why he wouldn’t share the cure.Report

  11. Avatar DRS says:

    Of course, torture is wrong and should never be used. Full stop. No exceptions. Duh.

    That said, I’m balking at the scenario. Research is done at an institution (hospital or university) or drug company which would have the scientist so wrapped up in legal tape that he has little autonomy at all. Researchers do not work alone in their basements, they work with teams, are constantly monitored and would only know they were onto a cure after extensive clinical trials involving real people and their doctors. Also: what kind of cancer?

    North is right: if one guy can find it, others can too and without too much delay. There would be a huge rush of resources and scientists into the research area where it was known that this guy working and the same results would be found, probably relatively quickly. Big Pharma has tremendous resources to throw at things like this and will do it without hesitation.

    The real moral question, for me, is: what mid-level situations would incite people to advocate torture? Coming up with apocolyptic scenarios is putting a thumb rather heavily on the morality scales.Report

    • Avatar Rod Engelsman says:

      The real moral question, for me, is: what mid-level situations would incite people to advocate torture?

      Incite? Probably lots of things depending on who you ask. But then a lot of people are just sadistic SOB’s.

      One aspect of the whole torture or not debate is the assumption that torture would actually produce the desired results. This is far from a reasonable assumption.Report

    • Avatar Kazzy says:

      How we define torture is a fascinating question. I’m sure there is a legal definition, at least based on American law.

      Morally speaking, is it “torture” if a police officer subdues a man firing into a crowd with force? He is using physical pain to illicit a desired reaction, after all.Report

  12. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    Let’s put a little twist on this scenario, a real world variant. A scientist produced a cure for a disease but his firm wouldn’t manufacture it. No profits in it. We call this phenomenon Orphan Drugs. They aren’t going to be made for free.

    Who do we torture here? The pharmaceutical firm for not manufacturing this cure — and — since the drug is under patent — not allowing another firm to manufacture it? Or should we rob the taxpayer, so we can give the money to the pharmaceutical firm?Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko says:

      If there’s no profit in the drug, then the patent likely has a low market value. So we have a ready solution at hand.

      Condemn (as in “exercise the power of eminent domain and seize”) the patent, and put the formula into the public domain. This isn’t “robbing” the taxpayer, although it does use public money.Report

    • Avatar zic says:

      Not to mention that this very scenario is a common exit strategy; written right in to the business plan developed in response to promising research; develop a drug, find investors to support the R&D, and then sell the results to a much bigger firm that may actually produce the drug or might squelch it because it would compete with another offering they’ve invested heavily in. Rare is the start-up that actually plans to develop and distribute on its own, that’s a lot of heavy support infrastructure to build; small companies are more likely to merge abilities with other small companies, turning into a bigger company; two single-celled organisms merging to become a multi-celled organism.

      Ethics of cures — we have one so we must do this good deed for mankind — don’t have much to do with the decisions about bringing products to market.Report

  13. Avatar zic says:

    Say what the scientist discovered is a compound in a plant that only grows in a few places; not considered extinct, because nobody knew about it before, but so rare that it’s not made it into the cannons of botany, only the whispers of myth. One of those places is about to be converted into a brand-new shiny strip mall with pizza-video, chinese, a mediocre bakery, a work-out spot, and a pharmacy.

    So are we going to torture the scientist to reveal the location of a plant? Defend the location from the encroaching strip mall, creating a property-rights conflict — for there’ s no law protecting unknown plants?

    And what if the scientist doesn’t know of a specific compound, but of potential compounds; the pharmacological wealth of the future, trapped in a rain forest being cut down to make room for growing more Wendy’s hamburgers?

    Happens every single day. Every day, we destroy habitat that might harbor the cure for cancer or the antidote AIDS or the method of cleaning plaques from the brain. And lots of scientists and non-scientist know this.

    But there’s this other thing called private property rights. . .Report

  14. Avatar James Hanley says:


    To what does BIBI refer?Report

  15. Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto says:

    So under this hypothetical my solution would be:
    Reprogram the simulation so that the scientist would be in awe of me and give it to me voluntarily.Report

  16. Avatar Damon says:

    For the scientist, no action. Folks, like me, would be able to publicly denouce him, protest him, etc. but other than “peer pressure”, no other actions would be acceptable.

    Reminds me of the torture arguement I had with a woman I was dating (a jew). I got her to distill her point to “anything we do is acceptable as long as we are protecting our (the US’s) people. I asked her why that position wasn’t acceptable for Germany in 1942. That ended the convo! 🙂Report

    • Avatar Russell M says:

      wonder why she did not point out that gassing the jews, gypsies, and gays was not in the interest of protecting the german people. but i guess having her ask that question would have killed the conversation anyway.Report

      • Avatar Damon says:

        Kinda depends on how you define “anything” doesn’t it?

        We had moved from torturing a single terrorist to stop a school bus bombing to invading Egypt to prevent the Muslim Brotherhood from taking power, (I argued that you’d have to invade multiple times, since we’d never kill the ideas they were espousing, coupled with the associated collateral damage, was all too expensive and wouldn’t it be better to just nuke the country and exterminate the entire populace. Curiously, she didn’t’ agree, but she did favor multiple invasions every decade if necessary.) to exactly where on the good to evil line she was prepared to go no further down. That’s when she made the above comment and got my response.Report

  17. Avatar Russell M says:

    just for me this fits the one situation I find torture to be an acceptable form of negotiation. the ticking time bomb. by the scientist’s inaction he is condemning millions of people to an unnecessary death. Good of the many outweighs the good of the few(or the one). so yeah i could freedomboard him myself . Or give me a car battery and some jumper cables. Yeah I would feel bad afterwards for torturing a fellow being, but then the high from helping to cure cancer would smooth that right over.

    pragmatism can be iffy morals wise, but it sure get results.Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP says:

      Torture never works. See, torture never gives you the answer you really need. It only pumps shit into the drinking water lines. Information obtained by interrogation is always suspect but information obtained by torture is always commingled with the torturers’ false premises. Even if you know you’ve got the guy who placed the bomb, especially that guy, he’s not going to tell you the truth. He’ll hang on for a while, then trap the torturer and his masters by telling them a lie convincing enough for them to act on it. In that situation, the tortured is in control and the torturer is not.

      With a ticking time bomb, you don’t torture the bomber. You hold up a picture of his kid and his wife, taken from his wallet and tell him plainly “Your bomb will go off. You will still be here. And we will bring you your boy’s head in an ice chest as a present.”Report

      • Avatar Russell M says:

        oddly enough that seems like emotional torture. and if that works fine. I dont really draw a line between physical torture and mental/emotional torture.Report