The ticking bomb problem

In response to the exposure of widespread torture of Coalition prisoners in Iraq and elsewhere, it’s inevitable that the “ticking bomb” problem should be raised. As Harry Clarke asks in the comments to this thread

‘You hold a terrorist who knows the location of a defusable bomb which, if exploded, will kill x million people. Do you have the right to torture him/her to find the bomb?’

Instead of offering an answer to this question, I’m going to look at a question that follows immediately, but doesn’t seem to have been asked. Suppose that you have used torture to extract information from a prisoner in the belief (correct or not) that doing so was justified by a “ticking bomb” situation. What should you do next?

My answer is that you should turn yourself in, and plead guilty to the relevant criminal charges. I think this answer can be defended from a wide variety of perspectives, but I’ll take an intuitive one first. If the situation is grave enough to warrant resort to torture, it’s certainly grave enough to justify losing your job and going to jail.

In consequentialist terms, it’s desirable in general that laws against torture should be obeyed. Since few people will want to follow your example (particularly if they can’t plead a ticking bomb in mitigation) your action in such a case will undermine the law less than if you committed torture and got away with it. Other theories will, I think, give the same answer.

Turning from individual ethics to law and public policy what this means is that laws against torture should be enforced in all cases. A plea in mitigation might be considered in cases like the one described above – an urgent and immediate danger, followed by a voluntary confession. In any case where a confession is not made, no claims about mitigating circumstances should be admitted.

Since, to my knowledge, no torturer has ever made an immediate and voluntary confession, the practical impact is that the ticking bomb scenario should be disregarded in any consideration of the legal and political response to torture.

26 thoughts on “The ticking bomb problem

  1. A real life ticking bomb problem
    A while ago, I looked at the ticking bomb problem and concluded that, whatever the morality of using torture to extract life-saving information in emergencies, anyone who did this was morally obliged to turn themselves in and accept the resulting…

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