Torture is it moral?

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Torture is it moral?

Postby mtbturtle on August 30th, 2011, 10:10 pm 

Dicky Cheney is making the rounds on TV again disturbing the peace hawking his new book to rewrite his history and justify his crimes against humanity.

Some talking heads were again discussing the issue of torture / enhanced interrogation techniques or whatever Orwellian term they employ. For the sake of this discussion I'm not really concerned on what you want to call it. Most of us should have an idea of the kinds of techniques they use - such as water boarding.

My question regards utilitarianism. Does it justify torture? Is it moral? Can cases be made with a utilitarian approach on both sides and if no how do we decide between them?
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Re: Torture is it moral?

Postby Lomax on August 30th, 2011, 10:30 pm 

I probably can't contribute anything that wasn't already said by the conversants, but I'll try to summarise the main reasons why I think torture is - pardon the pun - flogging a dead horse.

1. It's bloody painful. Obvious, I know, but from the utilitarian standpoint, anything designed to really make people suffer has a burden of proof to drag uphill.

2. It doesn't work. The reason that even medieval Europe began to abandon the practice is that it produces confessions no matter what. It doesn't necessarily produce true confessions, just confessions. So it's kind of useless in the quest for knowledge.

3. The payroll. What kind of people get the job of torturing? Did they choose to do it? If so, I don't trust them to do it responsibly (for want of a better word). Inevitably, such a profession is going to attract sadists and psychopaths. If they didn't choose to do it, well, that's worse still. It means somebody's being forced to torture someone else, which must surely, itself, be a kind of torture.

4. Accountability. Whether Cheney and company like it or not, torture is unequivocally prohibited by UN law, and breaking the international laws is surely pretty awful for international relations (not that that stopped the Bush administration in anything else).

I'd say those are the main pitfalls. The utilitarian argument for torture I'm acquainted with is pretty weak - the positing of the unrealistic scenario that we must torture someone to stop a bomb going off and destroying the world. Beside the fact that Cheney and anyone else have never been in that position, I think point (2) dispenses with even the theoretical aspect of that argument.
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Re: Torture is it moral?

Postby Deftil on August 31st, 2011, 4:38 am 

If everything were simple and ideal, you could torture a terrorist and get information out of them that would save the lives of innocent people. For me, this would be worth it. I might go as far to say that if things worked liked that it would be immoral not to use torture as an interrogation technique in such scenarios.

Everything isn't simple and ideal though. Some problems are, as alluded to by Lomax above, that it doesn't necessarily work very effectively to get good information and that these types of practices are open to corruption. So employing such techniques might just lead to us hurting people with little logical justification.

I think I'd have to do more research on the effectiveness of torture as an interrogation method to confidently decide whether I think it's ethical or not. If I felt there was a good track record of hurting a small number of bad people to prevent their groups from hurting a greater number of innocent people then I'd be down with it, honestly.
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Re: Torture is it moral?

Postby wolfhnd on August 31st, 2011, 5:26 am 

Effectiveness is the easy part to handle.

Here are the links that support it's effectiveness.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/4412065.stm

http://onviolence.com/?e=69

My quick scan of available documents indicate that torture is effective when the information gained can be quickly verified. It's also important to convince or deceive the victim into thinking that the information is either not important or can be obtained by other source making their suffering irrelevant. The most effective kind of torture seems to be the threat of harm not the physical pain itself. Once you start inflicting pain the results diminish. There seem to be a lot of ineffective torturers, and a few very effective ones. Key to success is the torturer must know if the victim actually has the information desired and enough information to guess when they are lying. Clearly water boarding is not the kind of torture that gets results. It is a highly skilled occupation and requires more psychology than skill at inducing pain. An example of effective torture would be twisting your little sisters arm with the threat of more severe pain to follow if she doesn't tell you where she put your things. This example contains the key ingredients to successful torture. The threat and certainty of harm before it becomes severe enough to unhinge the victim, the knowledge that the victim has the information and easy confirmation of the information and the victims belief that their suffering will not prevent you from reaching your goal. I chose this example because I think we all know torture can be effective.

I think there is enough evidence that torture can be effective that effectiveness should be removed from the debate over it's morality. It actually helps the case of those who support torture because it implies that if it was effective the utilitarian argument would have some validity. It also makes it easier to ignore the possibility that other method may be more or equally effective at which point the debate is overly complicated by the irrelevant utility of torture. The better utilitarian cases in any case run against torture. They tend to ignore it's effectiveness in getting truthful information and tend to highlight it's lack of utility in achieving the broader goals of the society that allows it.
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Re: Torture is it moral?

Postby mtbturtle on August 31st, 2011, 8:05 am 

Lomax wrote:I probably can't contribute anything that wasn't already said by the conversants, but I'll try to summarise the main reasons why I think torture is - pardon the pun - flogging a dead horse.


Lomax,

Good points and places to start. I'll get to them in a bit but first I am wondering what you have in mind for a "burden of proof" that must be met. How will I know if I'm getting close? :)
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Re: Torture is it moral?

Postby Lomax on August 31st, 2011, 10:23 am 

mtbturtle wrote:Good points and places to start. I'll get to them in a bit but first I am wondering what you have in mind for a "burden of proof" that must be met. How will I know if I'm getting close? :)


Haha, I dunno. In leiu of precise quantities the utilitarian calculus is always gonna be tricky and fallible. We might end up setting the bar at different places.
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Re: Torture is it moral?

Postby owleye on August 31st, 2011, 12:42 pm 

Lomax wrote:
mtbturtle wrote:Good points and places to start. I'll get to them in a bit but first I am wondering what you have in mind for a "burden of proof" that must be met. How will I know if I'm getting close? :)


Haha, I dunno. In leiu of precise quantities the utilitarian calculus is always gonna be tricky and fallible. We might end up setting the bar at different places.


There's another argument for torture that, though I haven't seen it used to defend torture, seems to me made in its practice. This is the deterrent argument. The reason it isn't used as a defense, is that the deterrent deters being or becoming a witness to crimes committed by the torturer. In a system in which a tribal morality rules, however, as Cheney himself seems to draw on, he probably wouldn't mind defending it in this way. If Obama weren't complicit in preventing the prosecution of torturers, Cheney wouldn't be able to get away with bragging about it.

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Re: Torture is it moral?

Postby mtbturtle on September 1st, 2011, 5:06 pm 

Lomax wrote:
mtbturtle wrote:Good points and places to start. I'll get to them in a bit but first I am wondering what you have in mind for a "burden of proof" that must be met. How will I know if I'm getting close? :)


Haha, I dunno. In leiu of precise quantities the utilitarian calculus is always gonna be tricky and fallible. We might end up setting the bar at different places.


Aye and there is the rub. Utilitarianism gives me the feel of performing some kind of calculus, dealing with "weights", coming up with quantitative aspects and comparing them to other quantities...but is that what is really going on?

A utilitarian approach that comes without any other accompanying principles, values, rules is ungrounded, directionless, unhinged without guidance. We can end up with anything goes - including extremes such as the greatest good for the greatest number is mass suicide. If there are no humans around, there will be no more suffering - that kind of thing.

Further in our day to day dealings, it is an unwieldy, impractical method to figure out how to behave.

Finally, a morality, ethics that lacks in its ability to be generalized, universalized and to speak in terms of principles rather than a case by case basis doesn't seem to be very methodical and isn't about ethics. It also is not just about what I am going to do but everybody, all of us should do.

Some of your points contain values that in other threads have been dismissed as having any value - or any real value, the kind that can be weighed, that's going to count. For example you talked about international relations. That's reputation, character, will they trust us and be willing to work with us?

As far as I can see when our dirty secret came to light we took a black mark for it, but beyond that no economic impact. Ok, maybe a little but it's the kind of thing that is going to be hard to get at and is rather unpredictable.

Your point 4 also is a version of OBEY THE LAW, and that was readily dismissed before. So why not now also? The US is a sovereign nation and we bow to nobody and don't you forget it. You've been warned, be prepared ;)

As for 2, there is stuff that says it is, stuff that says it isn't. In terms of 3 there are probably negative impacts on some but how much and for how long I don't know, but I would be willing to accept that there are more victims that one, but so what? Now I have a few more "harms" on the scale, I'm gambling for a greater good and even if it produces nothing actionable, saves no lives, we tried. That gives us a sense of efficacy, control, a feeling of security, and all other kinds of feel good pleasures - well it does for many anyway. How am I going to weigh that up?
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Re: Torture is it moral?

Postby moranity on September 1st, 2011, 6:36 pm 

i think the same "greater good" argument would apply where you have five suspects, one of whom is the terrorist, the rest are innocent.
edit to add:
that would mean we have to accept the risk of being tortured if we accept such an argument
Last edited by moranity on September 1st, 2011, 6:39 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Torture is it moral?

Postby Natural ChemE on September 1st, 2011, 6:39 pm 

mtbturtle wrote:Torture is it moral?

It should be plainly obvious that there can be cases in which torture could be justified with ease and cases in which torture would be grossly inappropriate. I would find suspect the integrity of an individual who would claim that such instances never occur.

Open questions with regard to torture include:
-Where's the line between appropriate and inappropriate use?
-How consistently has the US's use of torture been appropriate?
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Re: Torture is it moral?

Postby mtbturtle on September 1st, 2011, 7:02 pm 

Natural,

Can you give us some examples of easy cases?

What distinguishes them from the grossly inappropriate?

I can think of examples where perhaps I find it understandable, even forgivable, but that it would need to be forgiven I think means there was some wrong done in the first place. It doesn't mean it was moral.

Even coming up with these kind of exceptional, extreme cases does it undermine the general prohibition against torture?
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Re: Torture is it moral?

Postby CanadysPeak on September 1st, 2011, 7:16 pm 

There is a great difference between passive and active utilitarianism.

I might well vaccinate all the children in the US against polio, knowing that perhaps twenty would die annually and that ten thousand would not die. Because I could not identify which children would fall in which group, and because I could provide informed consent information to the parents, I would call this passive.

If, on the other hand, I deliberately infected uninformed prisoners with HIV to see how long they would live, with the goal of being able to develop effective drugs, I would call this active.

There is a difference. Bugger the justifications. No matter my moral lapses, and they are many, I am a civilized man. There may well be a circumstance in which I would torture, but I'll not contemplate it in advance. I think that easy acceptance would go beyond immoral, into what some call evil.
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Re: Torture is it moral?

Postby Sisyphus on September 1st, 2011, 7:19 pm 

What if we put ourselves in the place of the person being tortured? Is torture morally justified then? Is it morally justified when our military personnel are tortured in other countries?

Even if torture worked 100% of the time, I don't see how it is morally justified. Perhaps justified in the sense of producing results for some purpose, but never in a moral sense. It seems as though some people try to morally justify torture (among other things) just so they can feel better about themselves, or so other people don't think less of them. Most people seem to want to be the "good guy", but that's probably just an delusion. I think torture is morally wrong, and even if I was in a situation where I was forced to use it, I wouldn't try to convince myself I was being moral for doing so.
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Re: Torture is it moral?

Postby Lomax on September 1st, 2011, 7:45 pm 

Hello Mtbturtle,

You confirmed my suspicion.

mtbturtle wrote:Aye and there is the rub. Utilitarianism gives me the feel of performing some kind of calculus, dealing with "weights", coming up with quantitative aspects and comparing them to other quantities...but is that what is really going on?

A utilitarian approach that comes without any other accompanying principles, values, rules is ungrounded, directionless, unhinged without guidance. We can end up with anything goes - including extremes such as the greatest good for the greatest number is mass suicide. If there are no humans around, there will be no more suffering - that kind of thing.

Further in our day to day dealings, it is an unwieldy, impractical method to figure out how to behave.

Finally, a morality, ethics that lacks in its ability to be generalized, universalized and to speak in terms of principles rather than a case by case basis doesn't seem to be very methodical and isn't about ethics. It also is not just about what I am going to do but everybody, all of us should do.


In the OP you asked specifically for a utilitarian argument. If you want to debate the merits of utilitarianism why didn't you set up a thread for that? Instead of asking for a specific method and then asserting it's a bad method?

Anyway: the problems you describe are not problems with valuing happiness and devaluing misery; they're problems more generally with science. For instance: we don't yet have the practical means of finding out how life got started. Does this mean we should abandon the scientific method and guess the answer, monotheism-style? Or does it just mean that these issues are difficult and take a lot of work, and we have to accept that in leiu of an answers-on-a-plate epistemology?

mtbturtle wrote:Some of your points contain values that in other threads have been dismissed as having any value - or any real value, the kind that can be weighed, that's going to count. For example you talked about international relations. That's reputation, character, will they trust us and be willing to work with us?


Can you point to a thread in which I've dismissed that? I can only remember discussing it once - with Kidjan about the Iraq war - and it was a point I unreluctantly conceded.

mtbturtle wrote:Your point 4 also is a version of OBEY THE LAW, and that was readily dismissed before. So why not now also? The US is a sovereign nation and we bow to nobody and don't you forget it. You've been warned, be prepared ;)


Haha :P well you guys make no bodes about that one.

I'm concerned with the consequences of breaking international law. For one, there's no reason to suppose that the US will be the dominant power forever: if only by sheer force of numbers, China can plausibly take the hot seat. And emnity between nations leads to some real dangerous stuff. For another, it sacrifices morality at home: Wolfhnd mentioned the conflict between France and Algeria. France lost alot of ground in that war simply because its methods of torture were inciting animosity from the good citizens of France. I am sure this would still be the case had torture been legal, but probably less so.

Regarding the piracy thread: I did concede that the law mattered, only with the qualifier that it doesn't matter that much. And here's why: in the same thread I granted the pirates should be accountable for their actions. If pirates get fined for pirating, fine by me. It's a matter of getting the magnitude of the deterrent just right, such that people won't overdo it but overall people end up with entertainment they wouldn't otherwise have bought.

Anyway, regarding these points about legality, my first one is the one that really swings it for me. If the US state sacrifices its soft-power (I borrow the term from the Iraq thread; I don't know whether it's a quotidian idiom) then not just the US state, but the US people, may be made to suffer. And there's a common trend in both cases: The US state is not being representational of the wishes of its people (or not necessarily, anyway: I think Canady provided a good explanation of the complexities of property law and its bearing on IP).

mtbturtle wrote:As for 2, there is stuff that says it is, stuff that says it isn't.


Yeah. I wasn't aware of the stuff that says it is. I gave it a quick read when Wolfhnd posted it but I'll give it a bit more attention when I get time.

mtbturtle wrote:How am I going to weigh that up?


By your own rough estimation? Can you catch a ball?

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Re: Torture is it moral?

Postby afterword on September 1st, 2011, 8:11 pm 

Torture is not moral, but it is hardly unique in that aspect. People are brutalized and murdered in prison because no one wants to spend the money it would take to properly protect them from themselves. People who cannot afford health insurance are dying because no one wants to spend the money to save them from their poverty. I could go on and on.

None of these things are moral. So what makes people take up arms against torture so quickly and easily? Its directness? Its hands-on quality? Or its undeniability?
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Re: Torture is it moral?

Postby Lomax on September 1st, 2011, 8:12 pm 

afterword wrote:None of these things are moral. So what makes people take up arms against torture so quickly and easily? Its directness? Its hands-on quality? Or its undeniability?


Probably its intensity, I think. It's a lot of suffering all packed into a little scene which we can easily visualise.
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Re: Torture is it moral?

Postby Deftil on September 2nd, 2011, 1:43 am 

mtbturtle wrote:A utilitarian approach that comes without any other accompanying principles, values, rules is ungrounded, directionless, unhinged without guidance. We can end up with anything goes - including extremes such as the greatest good for the greatest number is mass suicide. If there are no humans around, there will be no more suffering - that kind of thing.

Further in our day to day dealings, it is an unwieldy, impractical method to figure out how to behave.

I essentially see these as problems of any specific type of generalized prescriptive ethics. I suspect that any type can be used to justify just about any act if interpreted and explained the right way. Any type is an impractical method to figure out how to behave. Morality is about feelings, not equations or rules. We can't examine a spreadsheet or rulebook to determine if we think that an act is moral or immoral. We either feel that is right or we feel that it is wrong. Any justification later given is just some sort of ex post facto rationalization, in my opinion. A brand of ethics that outlines what's right or wrong in every conceivable situation isn't feasible, and any type that is generalized allows so much wiggle room that interpretation can bring you to just about any conclusion.

To be clear, this isn't a defense of utilitarianism as a type of prescriptive ethics, but rather my (possibly misguided) feelings that any specific type of normative ethics is BS.
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Re: Torture is it moral?

Postby mtbturtle on September 4th, 2011, 6:44 pm 

Lomax wrote:In the OP you asked specifically for a utilitarian argument. If you want to debate the merits of utilitarianism why didn't you set up a thread for that? Instead of asking for a specific method and then asserting it's a bad method?


Lomax,

I asked if cases could be made on both sides of this issue using this approach and if so how we could pick between them. If I'm not allowed to question the approach and overall merits, I'm not going to be able to get the hang of it I'm afraid. I know how to catch a ball. I'm looking to play baseball here, but if this approach isn't all that different from any other I might use to catch a ball, then there is nothing to recommend all the elaborations going on.

Holiday weekend here so not much time at the moment perhaps more later.
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Re: Torture is it moral?

Postby Lomax on September 4th, 2011, 7:05 pm 

mtbturtle wrote:I asked if cases could be made on both sides of this issue using this approach and if so how we could pick between them. If I'm not allowed to question the approach and overall merits, I'm not going to be able to get the hang of it I'm afraid.


Okay, but the thread was set up under the guise of assuming the approach and questioning the validity of torture. If the real question is not about the utilitarian arguments for torture but about the arguments for utilitarianism, I would have been explicit about that. Not that I didn't see it coming...

mtbturtle wrote:I know how to catch a ball. I'm looking to play baseball here, but if this approach isn't all that different from any other I might use to catch a ball, then there is nothing to recommend all the elaborations going on.


Well, I'm not so sure. I mean, a baseball coach presumably has to articulate his advice to the players right? So the elaborations serve some function. I think the different factors to be considered are something we can verbalise and share and so on, it's just the exact quantities that are hard or impossible to measure. Just like how most baseball fielders probably don't know the SUVAT projectile equations (for all I know, anyway. At least: they don't need to).

Enjoy your holiday (y)
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Re: Torture is it moral?

Postby mtbturtle on September 4th, 2011, 7:12 pm 

Lomax wrote:
mtbturtle wrote:I asked if cases could be made on both sides of this issue using this approach and if so how we could pick between them. If I'm not allowed to question the approach and overall merits, I'm not going to be able to get the hang of it I'm afraid.


Okay, but the thread was set up under the guise of assuming the approach and questioning the validity of torture. If the real question is not about the utilitarian arguments for torture but about the arguments for utilitarianism, I would have been explicit about that. Not that I didn't see it coming...


*throws up hands and takes a hike*
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Re: Torture is it moral?

Postby Lomax on March 7th, 2016, 11:04 pm 

Hi Wolfhnd,

So it's taken me a while to respond...but I recently came across a blog post by British journalist Douglas Murray which reminded me of your post here on the effectiveness of torture. I read your supporting links but I must say I am unconvinced. The first link draws all its evidence anecdotally from former torturers, and then points out that the same torturers were and are indoctrinated to have faith in its efficacy. The second link merely talks about a movie. Since both articles refer to the role of French torturers during the Algerian War of Independence, one might ask why, in the spirit of the BBC article's closing sentence, the war was not won.
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Re: Torture is it moral?

Postby wolfhnd on March 8th, 2016, 3:03 pm 

I'm not an expert on torture so I was only trying to make the point that we can assume it was effective in cases where the people using it were experts. The reason I say assume is because there are so many variables it would be impossible to cover them all. I know that for me torture would be effective because I'm no hero but for people trained to resist it it may be totally ineffective. The other reason I would assume it was effective is because the ethical issues themselves are intricate and removing one complication helps move the discussion forward. If torture was never effective there would be no reason to discuss it and you could simply ban it on the practical grounds that it is a waste of law enforcement resources.

I have done a bit of looking around on studies on the effectiveness of torture and most of the research has been directed at the consequences for both the victim and perpetrator of torture not it's effectiveness. Other studies done by neuroscientist are full of scientific double speak. There also seem to be considerable political bias in most of the studies which I would suggest is a result of most social scientists following in to one or another of the groups that could be characterized as empathetic altruists.

I would suggest that very little serious research has been conducted. What I think cannot be disputed is historical evidence that carries no bias. Torture was famously effective and ineffective as practiced by the Nazis in World War II. I will not review the thousands of stories here but we know that both sides used torture effectively. I'm unaware of any systematic attempt to quantify the effectiveness of torture in war environments.

Set aside the moral issues for just a minute and think of it from a cost benefit perspective. When done in secrecy torture cares virtually no cost and if it is successful only one in a hundred times the pay off is immense. When torture is performed publicly it becomes terrorism which we know is ineffective. Cheney's argument that until some one blew the whistle it was working is in fact true because the entire cost was born by people you were trying to kill anyway. The cost primarily arise after torture has been disclosed after discounting the cost to the psyche and morale of the torturers. Those cost of course are related to scale of the torture and is one of the reasons the Nazis turned to gas chambers instead of executions.

The philosophical arguments against torture I would characterize as trival. To have a moral society it is self evident that the individuals that make up that society must be moral. We don't make exceptions for wife beating, child abuse, or jay walking. What makes torture such a difficult subject is that by extension the people arguing against it are anarchists. Any kind of confinement of dangerous individuals is in fact torture. The same people that argue against torture are not opposed to psychological torture against people they find immoral. The recent attacks on Sam Harris would be an example of sorts. While it may be comforting to come up with philosophical excuses for behavior we do not live in a black and white world and like it or not practical morality is always a question of proportionality. The only two groups that I know of that do not believe in situational ethics are the religious and the politically dogmatic.

We can treat torture as always being wrong as long as some people are willing to accept punishment and still engage in it for the general welfare. The punishment must simply be proportional to the circumstances. What we have to reject is institutionalized torture where the cost out weigh the benefits. In the same vein it is fine to be a social justice warrior as long as you are willing to accept the cost of civil disobedience. If you slander people to make a point you should be punished. In general we reject that the ends justify the means.

It is through the punishment of protestors that society comes to realize the cost of maintaining the statu quo. The civil rights movement was much more effective than the anti war movement of the 60s precisely because the people within the movement were not presenting themselves as radicals and there was clear evidence that the police use of force was out of proportion.

Cheney is a neo con fascist so what do you expect from him :-)

I would love to explore the evolutionary psycology that might be pertinent to torture but I have gone on long enough.
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Re: Torture is it moral?

Postby BadgerJelly on March 8th, 2016, 11:52 pm 

I think the reasons for torture define it as moral or not. The same can be said for killing someone. If someone is running around in a frenzy killing people and cannot be subdued then killing them is the moral thing to do in my eyes.

Is it right to kill one person to save a hundred? I think in some cases it is. The problem is it is never so easy to figure out the best solution to a problem in the heat of the moment. Justifying an action doesn't make it a moral action. That I am certain of because there is such a thing as false justification.

People go to prison everyday for bad judgement calls.
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