BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: In the ongoing national debate about the morality of torture, the question is whether it is ever the lesser evil. We want to identify the underlying principles in the debate, beginning with part of President Obama’s reply at his news conference last Wednesday (April 29) when he was asked whether he thought the Bush administration had sanctioned torture.

President Obama

President BARACK OBAMA (at White House news conference): What I’ve said, and I will repeat, is that waterboarding violates our ideals and our values. I do believe that it is torture. You start taking short cuts and over time that corrodes what’s best in a people. It corrodes the character of a country.

ABERNETHY: But can torture sometimes be justified?

Jean Bethke Elshtain is a professor of social and political ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School and at Georgetown University. She joins us from Nashville. Shaun Casey is a professor of Christian ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington. Welcome to you both. Shaun — never?

Dr. SHAUN CASEY (Professor of Christian Ethics, Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington, DC): I think the bulk of the Christian moral tradition says that torture is never morally permissible. If you go to Christian Scripture, you go to the wide arc of Christian social teachings, you get a very consistent historical answer that it is never right to torture another human being.

ABERNETHY: What’s the underlying reason for this?

Dr. CASEY: Well, you look at basic Scripture, you look at Jesus in the Gospels about love your neighbor as yourself, do not repay evil for evil, love your enemy—so there’s this sense that each person is created by God in the image of God and has an inherent dignity, and torture would render that dignity undermined.

ABERNETHY: And Jean, what are the underlying principles for you?

Dr. JEAN BETHKE ELSHTAIN (Professor of Social and Political Ethics, University of Chicago Divinity School and Georgetown University): Well, the underlying principle for me is what I would call an “ethic of responsibility.” That’s an ethic that is especially important when we’re talking about statesmen and stateswomen who often have the lives of thousands in their hands, quite literally.

Jean Bethke Elshtain

ABERNETHY: So they have a different rule, a different ethic, a different moral standard than somebody would if he’s just acting as an individual?

Dr. ELSHTAIN: Not entirely different. We don’t want a huge chasm to emerge. But I would say that there are extraordinary circumstances when harrowing judgments must be made by those we tax with the responsibility of keeping us safe, and at those times there may be a “lesser evil” kind of calculation to be made.

Dr. CASEY: We have about a 60-year tradition of international law and domestic law that regulates the behavior of those who, in fact, are called to be our political leaders and there is a consistent prohibition of the use of torture. In fact, the United States has been a leading catalyst in that international movement, so I agree with that. But I think we have some rules that are in place that prohibit torture.

ABERNETHY: But beyond what’s legal is what’s moral. I mean, they’re not always the same, are they?

Dr. CASEY: That's true, and as the president said the other night in part of the clip that you played for us, that he believes that a leader in his position who faces those harrowing decisions ultimately is going to decide on both, of the angels and on responsibility if in fact we as a country refrain from using torture.

ABERNETHY: So, Jean, the president then has this primary moral responsibility, would you say, of protecting the people?

Dr. ELSHTAIN: Yes, that’s why we have states. That’s the reason that people made the deal back in the 17th century to organize the state — to prevent capricious power and the slaughter of human beings willy-nilly. That’s the reason we have states and have leaders to protect us.

ABERNETHY: And do you think people generally, American people, expect that a president will, somebody has written, have, you know, has to have dirty hands?

Dr. ELSHTAIN: Well, the problem of dirty hands is a perennial problem in politics. What it means is that one can’t remain absolutely morally pure, that you take actions. You don’t know what the full ramifications of those actions may be. Now I fully agree, by the way, that torture is something that should be ruled out as a general norm. My concern is with certain very specific and tragic circumstances, if there are severe forms of interrogation that may well fall short of torture as we usually understand it but are certainly severe — whether those are permissible.

ABERNETHY: And Shaun, the classic argument for permitting an exception, an extraordinary circumstance is the ticking bomb scenario, you know, that somebody in your custody has information about when a terrible, terrible thing might happen that would cost the lives of thousands of innocent people. Under such circumstances, perhaps others, don’t the people in authority have the responsibility to do something extraordinary if they think that can give them information quickly?

Shaun Casey

Dr. CASEY: Well, the fist thing we should observe is that there are no historical examples of that being lived out in reality. That’s a hypothetical contrary to fact, that it never obtained in the real world. What I worry about is the lack of rules to govern that exception. Many people argue that because they can create a hypothetical case like this there should be no rules against torture, and I think that is a grave moral error. The problem is we never know if that information can be elicited by other means. There’s no way to verify that, indeed, torture is the only option in those cases. So what happens if you torture that person and you turn out to be wrong, the information proves not to be true? But what do you say then to the person who’s tortured at your hands?

ABERNETHY: Jean, you want to comment on that?

Dr. ELSHTAIN: Yes. I would say that the resort to extreme techniques would be used only after all other possibilities had been exhausted. It wouldn’t be the first resort; it would be the last resort, and again we’d have to be clear about what we’re considering torture here, because some of the most severe forms I think must be ruled out. But there are other forms of enhanced interrogation that, I think, under those extreme circumstances and as an exception, may well, under the ticking time bomb scenario, be resorted to.

ABERNETHY: There is a recent poll by the Pew Research Center that found that 71 percent of Americans — American adults — said torture can be justified often or sometimes or rarely. Only 25 percent said never. Is that influential to you at all?

Dr. CASEY: I think that shows the influence of the Rupert Murdoch school of ethics — that we’ve been watching Jack Bauer, where torture is routinely shown to be effective on our television screens. I don’t think we decide what is moral and what is immoral based on the latest Pew poll about American opinion.

Abernethy and Elshtain

ABERNETHY: Jean, and what do you think of investigation and perhaps prosecution of those who authorized what was done?

Dr. ELSHTAIN: Well, it strikes me that, number one, it would immediately be politicized in a way that would be egregious and unacceptable, and number two, there’d be the question of how far back you go. Extraordinary rendition began under President Clinton, for example. So I think that that kind of going back and second-guessing those who in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 were dealing with shock and horror and fear about another imminent attack and were asked by CIA operatives in the field whether certain things were permissible—it strikes me that the best thing for now is to go on and to make clearer what we expect from those who are interrogating even high-value targets and operatives of Al Qaeda, for example.

ABERNETHY: Shaun — investigation, prosecution?

Dr. CASEY: We need a thorough moral accounting of what’s gone on. We’ve had an air of moral permissiveness in the last administration under which tens of thousands of innocent people have been tortured — not simply the special Al Qaeda cases. We need to find out why that happened. We need to find out who was accountable in order to build a very tall wall against this kind of behavior. We need to empower the folks who do the interrogating with very bright lines about what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable. At this point that, in fact, is not clear.

ABERNETHY: But, quickly, would you come out saying that there could be sometimes an exception to the “never” position?

Dr. CASEY: No.


Dr. CASEY: Never.

ABERNETHY: Thanks to Shaun Casey and Jean Bethke Elshtain.

Dr. ELSHTAIN: Thank you.

The Moral Debate About Torture

In the ongoing national debate about the morality of torture, the question is whether it is ever the lesser evil. Under certain circumstances, can torture be justified? Two ethicists, Shaun Casey and Jean Bethke Elshtain, discuss torture and its moral limits.

  • freethrow

    last administration – tens of thousands?

  • Joyce A. Zucker

    Torture does not elicit truth. It is never permissible for any reason except to be used on those who approve of it —it may change their minds.

  • Brittany

    I’d like to state for the record that I do not base my moral or political thinking on Jack Bauer (nor have I ever watched 24)… And the strange thing about this interview is that the “conservative” does not consult Scripture to defend her “ethic of responsibility” nor her belief that “enhanced interrogation” would be supported by God… Safety at what cost? Morality shouldn’t be relative….

  • Paul

    I think I’m against torture, but I don’t like this debate. I used to be the debate coach at a large state university. One problem with this “National debate about the morality of torture” is that it never defines the terms. What is the definition of “torture?” Was every item on the CIA list of approved “enhanced interrogation techniques–torture?” I hear people in this “national debate” cite examples of torture: bamboo under the fingernails, burning the skin with lit cigarettes, electricity to the genitals, waterboarding, bugs, tickeling. Some college students might complain that listening to my lecture on “Toulmin logic” was torture. But what is tortue? Can’t we begin by defining what we are talking about? Please .. President Obama is quoted in the beginning of this “debate” saying” waterboarding violates our ideals and our values.” But again, what ideals and values is he referencing? He doesn’t say and nobody ever asks.

  • John

    Use it only in a ticking time bomb scenario…and only after you’ve already tried everything else? Excuse me, but how long is the fuse on this hypothetical ticking time bomb?

    And then…

    Suppose we have one of the 24 situations. We know there is a nuclear bomb set to detonate in an American city. (How did we find that out? Nevermind.) So we of course send all our resources into the likely places. NY, DC, LA, maybe Chicaog. But we also have this guy who we know knows where it is. (How do we know he knows? Stop asking silly questions.) So we torture him. And he tells us the bomb is actually in Boston. So we pull our guys out of NY and send them to Boston. And then the bomb blows up in New York.

    This line of reasoning is just ridiculous on its face.

  • L. Moskowitz

    Dr. Casey’s statement of Christian law differs dramatically from Jewish law.

    For detais, see Rabbi David Bleich’s article in Tradition (Winter 2006) and Rabbi Chaim Jachter’s article in Kol Torah (Vol. 18, No. 26, Torturing a Ticking Bomb to Save Lives – Part 1 of 1″).

    Maimonides code of Jewish law states (laws regarding murderers 1:13):

    “…one who is in the process of trying to kill someone… must be immobilized either by killing or (if it is a viable alternative) by wounding him.”

    In Rabbi Jachter’s article, he also cites a ruling of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit (Leon v. Wainwright, 734 F. 2d at 772-773) which approved the actions of police who tortured an individual until he revealed the location of a kidnapping victim.

  • nick

    Dr. Elshtain answers the “ticking time bomb scenario” question with two conflicting answers. a) that we might well have to make the harrowing and tragic decision to inflict pain on someone. b) we’d use all other available means before resorting to (a). But isn’t the point of the “ticking time bomb scenario” that we don’t have that kind of time?


  • Abbey

    I would like the two ethicists to address the concept of hell where many believe the Christian god tortures people eternally. I think this leads to sadism since they are condoning the torture of a sadistic god.

  • Coolin

    Your host quoted the Pew poll that 71% supported some use of torture-THIS IS FALSE here is link-
    In another poll some 80% of white evangelicals believe torture is nec. and effective. WWJT -Who woul Jesus torture? Bush needed to torture in order to have (false) testamony on record to justify the invasion of Iraq- That is a fact Jack!!

  • Marge Graybeal

    Thanks to Shaun Casey, a new hero of mine! An octogenarian Humanist, I am dedicated unreservedly to the principle of respect toward all beings at all times.

  • Joe Saggese

    Torture is terrible, no question. We had a nephew in Towwer Two on 9/11 and they never found his body. Please ask Dr. Casey if he had two garndchildren in that building with their parents and toture could have prevented their death what would his position then. If Dr Casey would have been in Japan before the Atomic bomb and by toture could have found out what was going to happen and convinced the Japannese to surrender would he have approved it.

  • Paul E

    The other Paul hit the major problem right on. Until people are prepared to define what they mean by torture, this is at best a meaningless exercise if not an intellectually dishonest one. Dr. Elshtain showed she understood the problem, but did not go into too much detail. Dr. Casey just supplied some meaningless platitudes just like Obama et al. The WWJT is cute but again meaningless see:

    cheers, Paul

  • Painless

    Torture: the intentional infliction of suffering on another human being. Clear enough, or do you want to parse “suffering” too?
    Waterboarding, sleep deprivation, stress positions, basically everything covered in the memos. Placing someone who’s afraid of insects in a coffin-sized box, with an insect, that could be straight out of Orwell.
    If this argument is too difficult to comprehend, stick with “do unto others…” and you’ll be ok.
    And Joe, the problem is you can’t prevent a damn thing with torture, no matter what you see on the TV. You just generate more evil, and we’ve got enough of that already.

  • Michael

    Everyone’s against ‘torture’. Unless you limit ‘interrogation’ to ‘name, rank and serial number’ people can claim that you are using torture. Is slapping someone on the face torture? Is giving them 2 meals a day instead of 3 torture? Can we do anything other than, “Please, kind sir, tell us what you know?” without being accused of torture?

    Bob Abernathy, by repeatedly using the word ‘torture’ without defining it, you make meaningful debate impossible.

  • painless

    Michael, have someone read post 13 to you, slowly.

  • Sean Esterline

    I’m thinking that if there’s someone who’s already shown that he (or she!) puts NO value on human life (by attempting to, say, blow it up) then any “interrogation” that does NOT cause bleeding or damage is acceptable.
    Don’t shove things under fingernails or cut off toes, don’t break bones or blind people… but making folks who don’t value life VERY uncomfortable (sleep deprivation, waterboarding, etc.) doesn’t seem all that bad to me. They’ll live–unlike their victims.

  • Paul Reiser

    There are people who would behead our sons and daughters and drag their bodies through the streets and hang them up for public display.People who would fly airplanes full of innocent passengers into buildings to kill other innocents.People who would convince innocent women and(or)children to don explosive vests and blow themselves up in places packed with innocent–I don”t know what means can be best used to gather intelligence,but I do know that intelligence needs to be gathered.Maybe we cannot afford to stand on the moral high ground and say we won”t do this or that to gain information.Some say that “torture”does’nt work.Maybe so maybe no I can’t really say.However I am in ffavor of doing what works.

  • Paul E


    A vacuous definition read slowly does not cease to be vacuous. Yes, your use of the vague term “suffering” makes your proposed definition meaningless, and is another example of the disingenuousness characteristic of many of the so called ‘discussions’ on this subject. According to your definition, anyone who fights the police when being arrested is,’tortured’ because they ‘suffer’ physical pain in the course of being controlled. Your citing the specific examples of things you don’t like gives no rational other than you don’t like it. A meaningful contribution of a policy debate requires more than just a self righteous claim to the high ground. I would also ask you, are you prepared to do the work necessary under the constraints you would impose? If not imposing standards you are not willing to live up to is hypocracy.

    cheers, Paul

  • James Horn

    One curious study result showed that, ironically Americans who claimed a deep religious belief were more fearful of death than those with little or no interest in religion. This is puzzling since a similar belief in a heaven leads Muslim extremists to seek death.
    This fear of death also seems to be the only explanation why American Christians seem to be swallowing the Cheney line. If you can picture Jesus torturing someone, you need to get your nose out of Revelation and look at the Gospels.
    As for torture, it is great at extracting false confessions, but it is essentially useless for extracting intelligence. Consider this: when do you stop torturing someone? The usual answer is when you get the information you need. The truth is that you are looking for information that fits you preconceptions. If your suspicions are incorrect, you will reject a truthful answer and keep torturing until the victim tells you something that matches your false picture of the situation. There is an even bigger trap, believers in torture tend also to believe that torture extracts true information. Since the false statement matches the torturer’s beliefs, it will not be examined carefully. One example is trying to uncover networks and plots. If the victim is innocent, he knows no one involved, but will eventually name people to get the pain to stop. The torturers then have these people, also innocent, arrested and tortured. One Roman Emperor eventually “uncovered” a conspiracy involving many thousands of “plotters”.
    I consider torture absolutely immoral and illegal, but for those who ignore those issues in favor of the practical argument, torture is not that practical.

  • James Horn

    In real life and in the hypothetical nuclear justification, one unexamined assumption is that the torturer KNOWS that the victim is an evil terrorist, ought to have the information and because he is so evil, does not deserve concern if he does not, in fact, have the answers. In real life, the first two assumptions are often wrong, and if the first assumption is wrong the third is also. The thrid assumption also violates the Eighth Amendment against cruel and unusual punishment. We seem to have fallen into a vigilante mentality. The “Kill them all and let God sort them out” philosophy leads to pervasive war crimes. Dr. Elshstain, you cannot, in the real world, okay torture in special casess without the definition of special being continually stretched, until it effectively becomes standard practice.
    You are dangerously wrong.

  • Sean Esterline

    James Horn – Thank you for your insightful and thoughtful comments.

    I, being an American Christian, can’t see Jesus torturing anyone for anything… but then again, I’m not Jesus. (And Jesus *did* fashion a whip to strike and drive out the moneychangers; not to mention all the times that God commanded the deaths of thousands of people in the Old Testament… not torture, but not exactly a cushy bed of roses for his enemies there either.)

    Still, I can see your point about “torture” being potentially useless for gathering intelligence, though I don’t know of any hard data that would back up either side of the claim (for, or against the effectiveness of torture).

    As with much of what it being “discussed” in this forum, we are simply stating opinions without much in the way of hard facts. (There were, apparently, some documents detailing the effectivness of waterboarding and whatnot, but I’ve not been privy to their contents.)

    And again, I have to ask for us to come to a common definition of “torture” itself. Obviously things that cause physical wounds (breaking, piercing, burning) etc. would qualify and should be disallowed, but what about sleep deprivation or waterboarding–things that cause MAJOR discomfort, granted, but do not (to my knowledge) cause lasting physical damage?

  • Sean Esterline

    Coolin – I believe what the host was refering to was what you got if you added up the “Often, Sometimes, & Rarely” columns… not just the first two. (Basically everything but the “Never & Don’t Know” columns.) As with most statistics, there’s always a way to state them to make one opinion look right.

    When talking statistics I’m always reminded of the theoretical tale of the two newspapers reporting on an automobile race.

    The Russian newspaper accurately reported: “In the race, the Russian car came in second, while the American car came in next-to-last.”

    The American newspaper accurately reported: “The American car won, while the Russian car came in last.”

    How were they *both* accurate and truthful??

    There were only two cars in the race.

  • painless

    Paul E,

    Talk about being disingenuous. Are you really unable to distinguish between a suspect who is in custody, and therefore not an immediate threat, from one who is not in custody, and therefore might be? So your argument is a strawman. But let’s just suppose your policeman subdues and cuffs the putative perp. Is he then free to sodomize him with a nightstick for information? According to the morals of Sean Esterline, if it doesn’t cause any physical wounds or lasting physical damage, what’s the problem? This level of moral reasoning is depressing.

    And why wouldn’t I operate under the constraints I propose? I am not a moral cretin. Speaking of hypocrisy, the simplest test of moral integrity is embedded in the line which you ignored: “do unto others…” The categorical imperative, if you prefer. Are you prepared to undergo any of the techniques you quite blithely propose, or have your loved ones or Americans in general undergo them? If not, then I’m afraid the hypocrisy lies with you. And if the techniques described were not intended to produce suffering, then pray tell what they were for. And if they are intended to produce suffering, then that’s torture.

    Thanks to James Horn for elevating the discourse.

  • Paul E


    Oh, I didn’t see in your original definition of torture was context dependent. So are you saying that imposing suffering is immoral in some contexts, but moral in other contexts? Please clarify in which contexts imposing suffering is ok, and in which ones it is not.

    Seems to me that a durable definition of torture would be context independent.

    cheers, Paul

  • Sam Crees

    Let’s play devil’s advocate; OK, torture is bad, and it is not ethical, but it is not killing. So I suggest if we are all tied up in, if torture is wrong then we need to stop all wars, get rid of the military (they do kill others), hey get ris of the police since they too do these things, and most of all we would save untold billions of tax dollars, to use for peace and helping those that need it. Because if we do this then people will like us and not want to kill anyone, for we are spreading the life style of love and peace.
    For those comments I read above where everyone speculates on who is the most guilty and who is the most to blame for torture; I tell you to your face you don’t know squat! As for me I know all about the torture thing; I volunteered for amock up prisoner of war camp that the military (marine group in my case) puts on for those brave enough to try it. They tell you up front no one can be physically harmed, but they garuntee you that no one makes it the full length of the camp. On top of that if you imbeicls think that these so called torture techniques are new then I suggest you start reading the proper books; for I know all about sleep depravation, minmal diet to achive lower body temps, water submersion to the neck for hours at a time, tiger cages, continuous loud sounds, news, music, and continuos degrading, and polkig, and yes; guess what folks, read your history the Chinese prefected the water torture hundreds of years ago. Get a clue folks, you don’t know a any thing.

  • Sean Esterline


    I’m sorry to have depressed you with my (apparently abhorent) moral reasoning, but that’s what happens when you take my comments to extremes without discussing them with me further.

    Obviously a policeman sodomizing a suspect who (let’s say) just ran a red light would be *totally* inappropriate–for that matter I would suggest that ALL forms of forced sodomy would be unjustifiable. (Yes, I understand that it would technically fit the criteria that I previously suggested; but I was giving a general rule-of-thumb concept for the sake of brevity.)

    My general comment still stands though–the so-called victims that the US has detained are still alive and unwounded, unlike the true victims that have been killed by the brutish actions of these unrepentant psycopaths.

    And if *you* can convice the folks in China and Iran (and COUNTLESS other countries throughout the world) to stop TRULY harming the people in their custody (folks receiveing *permanent physical wounds*) then I’ll worry more about a psychotic killer here in America who gets a little uncomfortable during a bath.

  • meleton

    Hang on here – we are talking about folks who want to destroy our standards of life and hate the One True God and his Holy Son Jesus. These are people who must be rooted out and eliminated forever! There is no way you make an omlet without breaking eggs.
    The unfortunate and brutal reality is that so-called torture is not applied sadistically but is used pragmatically to further the ends of our Christian Society.
    There are numerous examples of aggressive persuasion, forcefully applied, producing great results and there must be no squeamishness on behalf of the moral guardians of our great civilization in applying whatever means are necessary to achieve global standards of civilized behavior.

  • Benjamin

    If there was even the slightest chance that torturing a criminal could end up saving hundreds of lifes would you ridiculous nay-sayers put down your bibles for a moment and think logically? It is true, sometimes torture can lead to mis-information which could cause the effort for stoping it to be in another area, but if the criminal isn’t tortured there will be no information given at all, and thus the event trying to be stopped will uccor anyway.

    sigh, Benjamin

  • Ange

    I am of the NEVER, NEVER, EVER for NO REASON WHATSOEVER camp. There are those who say if it can save lives go ahead do it (but that has never been the case anyway, mis and disinformation has been the result). More important than that for me is the future of humanity. If we cave in morally and ethically for fear and the mythic belief of stopping ticking time bombs what we create is more violence, more torture, more barbarity – in effect social mores that accept rather then reject violence and suffering as a means to an end. Historically we have seen these twisted, immoral, fearful yet entirely acceptable social mores as ways of life or written into law – whereby it’s legal to indulge in violence ostensibly for protection. Once the dignity of man, any man has been violated with the blessing, support, and acceptance of a population it’s a hard if not impossible road back to any moral ground.

    The United Nations was set up to address, codify and set it in stone some rules for moral and ethical behavior after the extreme barbarity of WWII – but now it seems we have forgotten why – and again we are getting nearer to the point of no return when similar violence will be (even is) acceptable once again.

    Also just to mention the FBI has apparently gotten very valuable information using non-torture methods – reward systems – you give us something we give you something, protect your family etc.

    On a practical level torture has never been proven to work as an information extractor – so why do it – what is that darkness about that first creates the tools that will inflict the most suffering and pain on man – and then goes ahead and does it – it’s almost akin to bloody sacrifices of days gone by, magic talismans and superstitions – we know they don’t work but they give us a sense of safety (however false that is) so we go along with it!

  • Nightmare

    I don’t read the bible and I still say no to torture. I am thinking logically. Are you? I think its time you start knowing the difference between monsterous and non-monsterous.

  • Nightmare

    You are amazing.