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The Case of the Ticking Time Bomb:
How Not to Argue Against Torture

by John Turri
January 14, 2005

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Ted Rall is rightly outraged at the Bush Administration for the culture of abuse torture that has blossomed under their watch.  He's also rightly outraged over their plan to permanently imprison hundreds of enemy combatants people because they “don't have enough evidence” to bring them to trial.  No doubt he's also outraged that the Bush Administration is considering fielding death- and kidnapping squads in Iraq because, well, because “we can't just go on [there] as we are.”  I agree with Rall on all that.

But we shouldn't endorse his argument against the use of torture.  In fact, we should repudiate it.

I never like bad arguments for positions I support.  A bad argument for a good view inevitably reflects poorly on the view.  Fortunately, there's also an extremely good moral argument against the use of torture, as well as a response to the ticking-time-bomb case, which I'll explain after showing where Rall goes wrong.

Rall begins by setting up his target:

The so-called “ticking time bomb” rationale for torture is patently fallacious.  We've heard the scenario repeatedly: wouldn't it be worth torturing someone who knew the location of a nuclear bomb that was about to destroy Manhattan?  The short answer, to a moral person, is obviously no.  Moreover, its logic is ludicrous.

Ticking-time-bomb torture cases run on intuition: they're described in such a way as to elicit an immediate, unambiguous response on the audience's part.  There's no “logic” or argument involved.  It is just plain obvious that it would be morally permissible for the proper authorities to torture the individual in question.  Indeed, I think they'd be morally required to torture that person.  Perhaps we need to add a few more details to Rall's description of the case to make it perfectly obvious, but I'll leave that to the enterprising reader.


Rall continues, in hope of trying to demonstrate that the “logic” of the intuition is “ludicrous”:

Suppose we had captured Osama bin Laden on 9/10 and immediately gone to work on him with our Alberto Gonzales-approved psychotropic drugs and our Alberto Gonzales-approved “waterboard” dunking technique. It wouldn't take long for Osama's pals to notice that he'd failed to show up at the Terrorcave. They'd assume that we had him and were torturing him. They'd assume that he'd tell us everything he knew. So they'd delay 9/11 to 10/11 or 11/12 or 9/11/02. Or go to Plan B. Or develop a Plan C. No one in an underground organization, not even its top leader, is indispensable. Arrests are inconvenient, not debilitating.

The information a person possesses at the moment of his capture ages like a ripe cheese in hot sun. Even if what he told you at the beginning was true, anything you'd get out of him days and weeks and months and years later would be completely worthless.


This is completely irrelevant to the ticking-time-bomb case, wherein it is stipulated that we know that the bomb is set to go off in a couple hours, we have conclusive evidence, which we're willing and able display to the whole world, that the individual in question knows where it is, and have good reason to believe that torture will extract the desired information, etc.  The case Rall considers differs from this in a number of crucially relevant respects, so it cannot be used to argue against the commonsense verdict in the ticking-time-bomb case.  Logicians call this a fallacy of irrelevance.  In ordinary language, it's called a “red herring.”

Rall then adds disdainfully:

Consider the breezy way we Americans -- Americans! -- are debating the pros and cons of torture. Marvel at our moral bankruptcy. The liberal argument against torture used to be that it was wrong. Now it's that it doesn't work.

It's not morally bankrupt to decide against the policy because pursuing it would promote suffering without preventing more suffering on the part of innocent people or have any other offsetting benefit.  That's a mighty good argument not to pursue the policy.  Once we agree that torture is permissible in the ticking-time-bomb case, the admirably ingenuous but ultimately ineffectual and confused “because it's wrong always and everywhere” response is no longer available to us, and we must look elsewhere.  In such a situation, I see no harm in opting for the correct theory, which has it that the rightness or wrongness of an action depends upon its consequences.  We ought not to adopt a policy of torture because it has such awful consequences.


Having taken apart Rall's argument, let me explain my response to the ticking-time-bomb case in the context of policy debates.  It has probative value against certain normative ethical theories, but it's practically irrelevant.  It is a merely possible case.  It's not an actual case.  No actual case I'm aware of comes anywhere near resembling it-and that's precisely what we ought to be pointing out.  I'll go out on a limb here and predict that there will in fact never be an actual case closely resembling it.  Not only is it true that torture would be permissible in some merely possible cases, denying it robs one of all credibility, for it creates the impression that one is given to flights of high-minded moralistic nonsense.  In a word, it makes one look dangerously naive.


So when a torture aficionado or two start in with their ticking-time-bomb ploy, we should just listen patiently and then respond, “Yeah, that's right, it would be permissible to torture someone in that situation.  Now let's focus on the ugly reality that what's been going on here doesn't even come close to meeting that standard.”

Let them set the bar high, where it ought to be.  Then hit 'em with the facts.

John Turri is a Ph.D. student in Philosophy at Brown University.  He can be reached by email at

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* A Progressive Case for Dean? Not Yet, Kucinich Is Still Our Man