Good Argumentative Essay On Historical Perspective

Type of paper: Argumentative Essay

Topic: Torture, Crime, Punishment, Terrorism, Criminal Justice, People, Ethics, Psychology

Pages: 6

Words: 1650

Published: 2021/01/04

Is Torture Ever Morally Permissible?

This paper aims to investigate the ethicality of torture. Most people regard torture as morally unacceptable regardless of the circumstances. However, recent threats in terrorism has led some observers to conclude that torture, if used as a tool for preventing terrorism and other crimes that may victimize innocent people, can be ethically permissible. For the same reason, the paper would like to examine the nature of torture and under what circumstances can it be considered as ethical.


Torture has always been regarded as unethical; and though it is commonly practiced by the military and law enforcement operatives to extract information, such practice is performed clandestinely in fear of eliciting public outcry and retribution. Such intolerance to torture must be closely related to society’s high regards to human rights. As observed by Ambos, human rights, as opposed to torture, is “valid even in a state of emergency; they are impervious to such exceptions”. In the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, for example, torture has been considered as unethical with no exemption in stating that “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”. However, there are certain scenarios that the concept of torture seems to be valid. According to Levin, “There are situations in which torture is not merely permissible but morally mandatory”. In his essay, Levin pointed out that torture could be the only solution in cases wherein there is “clear guilt” as in the case of terrorists who are caught red handed as a form of deterrence and not as punishment. In such cases where the good of the majority is at stake, Levin argues that torture may be ethical under certain circumstances. Torture, thereby, raises an ethical dilemma that is quite difficult to resolve. When faced with difficult alternatives, some people might opt to resort to unpopular choice such as torture.

The act of subjecting people to physical and mental torture is not a new thing. In fact, such activity can be traced back to very ancient times that its genesis is somehow lost in antiquity. Among the earliest account of torture have been documented in the early civilization in Mesopotamia where torture is a significant element of their justice system. The Code of Hammurabi, for instance, justifies such brutal acts as a form of punishment as well as a way to determine whether a person is guilty or not. Biblical accounts of torture has also been documented in the culture of the ancient Hebrews wherein some people are stoned to death, sent in the dungeons to be eaten by wild beasts and many other forms of extreme physical and mental punishments. In ancient Greece, the torture of slaves, gladiators and citizens have also been documented. One of the most gruesome accounts of torture in history has been perpetrated by the Roman Catholic Church in their inquisition activities. The inquisition is a tribunal or court established by the fathers of the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages in order to seek, try and persecute what the church considers as heretics. Heresy was then considered as one of the most heinous offense conceivable and anyone who is guilty of such offense merits the most terrible punishment. In order to prove the guilt of people who are accused of heresy, church authorities’ permits the use of torture and after a confession is made, the person is subjected to cruel punishment usually through burning at the stake. Later on, the inquisition did not only seek to persecute heretics but also those who are found to be against the doctrines of the church. Such was the nature of the Spanish Inquisition that started in the middle Ages up to the 19th century. In the modern context, torture is still clandestinely practiced especially in the military and paramilitary organizations. In an intelligence report submitted to the United States senate, the practice of torture among CIA personnel was revealed and criticized. Accordingly, the use of brutal interrogation techniques is quite rampant in the agency and is somehow justified as an act associated with national security measures.


In order to argue about the morality of torture, it is imperative that torture should be clearly defined. However, the meaning of torture is quite elusive and most scholars agree that torture is hard to define. A broader definition of torture was provided by Scott in stating that “Where any procedure involving cruelty, suffering and pain is inflicted upon an individual, in any circumstances, and for any purpose, whether the punishment ends with such persecution or is followed by the extinction of life, it does most assuredly constitute torture”. As observed by Scott, “there is no rigid line of demarcation between torture and punishment”. There is a consensus though that torture has two distinct elements; first is the intention to inflict severe pain or the concept of pain as in the case of mental torture and secondly, there has to be a particular purpose for inflicting such extreme pain or suffering. In the 1984 UN Convention against Torture (CAT), torture has been legally defined as “any act that consists of the intentional infliction of severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, involving a public official and carried out for a specific purpose”. While this definition of torture specifically identifies the involvement of a public official, contemporary definitions consider any individual as its perpetrator. Some individuals, for example, may initiate torture for varied reasons such as vengeance, sadism or sexual pleasure. Sometimes, torture is seen as punishment or retribution for a heinous offense that was committed while others use torture as a technique in extracting information as in the case of an interrogation. There is less to argue about torture when it comes to its punishment definition. Evidently, one could not justify cruelty under any circumstances as punishment for a wrong doing but in defining torture as a tool for interrogation, then perhaps torture can be morally justified.

Principles of Torture

Torture can be done in different ways but most of these varied approaches may fall under physical or mental torture. Among the earliest forms of physical torture that are also employed today are ordeals using cold or boiling water, flagging, crucifixion, burning at the stakes, flaying, burying alive, etc. On the other hand, mental tortures are more sophisticated as it uses psychological techniques and may or may not constitute some form of physical abuse. Examples of such torture are the Russian roulette where live bullets are placed in a revolver spins it and threatens to push or actually pushes the trigger toward the subject. At times, mental torture may involve the abduction of a relative or a loved one, eventually using them as bait. There are also several motivations for torture; the most common of which is using torture for exacting vengeance. Vengeance, as compared to punishment, has a more personal motive. In such case, torture as an expression of hate is the prevalent emotion of someone exacting vengeance. As a result, torturing because of vengeance may prove to more brutal than using torture as a form of punishment. On the other hand, torture as a form of punishment can be more impersonal. In relation to this concept, the nature of imprisonment as a form of mental torture might be a good example. According to Scott, imprisonment, although passive in nature as compared to physical forms of torture, can have devastating effects to the mental state of a person. Another motivation of torture that differs from exacting vengeance or punishment has been the focused of much debate. This type of motivation uses torture as an interrogating tool thereby making torture not as a vindication act but rather a more institutional and professional approach. McCready further clarifies that this type of motivation for torture will focus on terrorists as potential subjects and not just common criminals or captured enemies. In such case, torture is used to extract quality information faster.

Morality of Torture

Most people believe that torture, under any circumstances, is unethical and immoral. This point of view is held by absolutists who only see things as either black or white. As observed by Evans, “Such a perspective condemns torture as an unacceptable practice, arguing that torture and related abuses should be absolutely banned because they are unethical to the concept of human rights”. Moral absolutists imply that when faced with a moral dilemma, the choice should always be upholding the rights or a person. However, in a case of terrorism where there is a real threat involved, some people believe that perpetrators have already lost their right in relation to the right of the majority. Levin argued that by committing acts of terrorism, terrorists does not have a claim to these rights in which he says, “By threatening to kill for profit or idealism, he renounces civilized standards, and he can have no complaint if civilization tries to thwart him by whatever means necessary”. When analyzed under the ethical theory of utilitarianism where the greatest benefit to the most people is considered, torturing terrorists could be an ethical choice. Evidently, the choice is whether to uphold the rights of the terrorists or the innocent victims. Under such circumstances, utilitarianism suggests that the rights of the majority should be upheld. People who have firsthand experience with torture and how it is used in extracting critical information, do agree that torture is somehow necessary. According to McCready, there is no way to ask an enemy nicely and expect to give a true answer. As one military man in Afghanistan observed, “Our experience in Afghanistan showed that the harsher the methods we used — though they never contravened the [Geneva] Conventions, let alone crossed over into torture — the better the information we got and the sooner we got it”. However, if torture is allowed under the circumstances of preventing or averting terrorism, there is always that risk of mistaken identity. For the same reason, some innocent people might be subjected to torture unjustly. Once again, the utilitarian point of view in this particular scenario is to choose the best option that would serve the interest of the majority. For a single person to suffer such injustice, the safety of many should not be compromised. Taking the risk of having to extract information by any means from a person heavily suspected of terrorism is thereby justified when the common good is at stake.


Torture has been prevalent since ancient times and is still being practiced until today. While most people condemn torture as cruel, inhumane and morally unacceptable, certain circumstances has arisen that raises an ethical dilemma about using torture for just reasons. One particular instance where torture can be justified is if it is used as a tool for interrogating terrorists. As people who have firsthand experience in such cases have revealed that torture is indeed effective in extracting valuable information from enemies especially on known terrorists. Torture might be an unpopular decision to make but becomes a necessity under such circumstances. When the ethical dilemma of torture is analyzed under utilitarianism where the good of the majority is upheld, then torturing a criminal or a terrorist for critical information that would avert or prevent deadly terror attacks is not far from being the morally and ethically sound decision to make. Absolutism, thereby, does not practically apply to torture especially when certain situations call for its applicability.


Ambos, K. (2011, May 13). Terrorists Have Rights Too: What International Law Says about the Killing of Bin Laden. Retrieved December 2013, from
Evans, R. (2007). The Ethics of Torture . Retrieved March 2015, from
Levin, M. (1982, June 7). The Case for Torture. Retrieved from Newsweek.
McCready, D. (2007). When Is Torture Right? Retrieved March 2015, from
The Code of Hammurabi. (n.d.). Retrieved October 2014, from
Reyes, H. (2007, September). The worst scars are in the mind: psychological torture. Retrieved March 2015, from
Scott, G. (n.d.). THE HISTORY OF TORTURE THROUGHOUT THE AGES . Retrieved March 2015, from
Securing Liberty. (n.d.). TORTURE IS A JUST MEANS OF PREVENTING TERRORISM. Retrieved December 2013, from
Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. (2014). Committee Study of the CIA's Detention and Interrogation Program: Findings and Conclusions. Retrieved March 2015, from

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