Welcome to another installment of our NDPR Forums, in which we invite both the author of a book reviewed in NDPR, as well as the reviewer, to talk about the review, the book, and anything else related to the topic. We also welcome anyone else to jump in to comment on any of those topics as well. Today we are opening a thread on Fritz Allhoff’s book Terrorism, Ticking Time-Bombs, and Torture: A Philosophical Analysis (University of Chicago Press), which was reviewed last week in NDPR by Chris Morris. Blurbs below the fold.
Book Blurb: The general consensus among philosophers is that the use of torture is never justified. In Terrorism, Ticking Time-Bombs, and Torture, Fritz Allhoff demonstrates the weakness of the case against torture; while allowing that torture constitutes a moral wrong, he nevertheless argues that, in exceptional cases, it represents the lesser of two evils. Allhoff does not take this position lightly. He begins by examining the way terrorism challenges traditional norms, discussing the morality of various practices of torture, and critically exploring the infamous ticking time-bomb scenario. After carefully considering these issues from a purely philosophical perspective, he turns to the empirical ramifications of his arguments, addressing criticisms of torture and analyzing the impact its adoption could have on democracy, institutional structures, and foreign policy. The crucial questions of how to justly authorize torture and how to set limits on its use make up the final section of this timely, provocative, and carefully argued book.
Review Blurb (Morris): Fritz Allhoff’s book presents a careful and thoughtful defense of the limited use of torture in certain situations. His defense is in part motivated by the challenges of contemporary, post-9/11 terrorism. It is narrowly focused on the ethics of torture, conceived of apart from policy and law. And he addresses common criticisms of torture. In all, it is a forceful defense of torture, one that should be taken seriously by all interested in the debates about the topic.
Allhoff is a moral utilitarian, and much of his argument is consequentialist. He bends over backward to make a more general case for “exceptional” torture, considering broader considerations in favor of limited torture. He does a decent job developing the broader case, but I think it still fails. More interestingly, I think it shows the ways in which act-consequentialism in ethics (and rational choice theory) distorts our reasoning. Allhoff situates his argument in contemporary concerns about terrorism, reasonably in my opinion. He focuses on the ethics of limited torture in these special ticking bomb cases. “In all cases (and all else being equal), if we can choose a lesser harm to a greater one, we should. In ticking time-bomb cases, torture is the lesser harm. Therefore, we should torture in those cases.” (116, see also 195) The general principle may seem plausible to some initially, but of course most who appreciate the role that norms, rules, and principles play in our reasoning and our lives will reject it as a general principle. Many opponents of torture have of course raised considerations of principle and policy. Now, Allhoff is not in the first instance interested in policy: “ticking-time-bomb cases are not about torture policy; they are about one-off applications of torture.” (117) But it is not clear that the topic that interests us today is separable from policy. Torture carried out by agents and offices of a democratic state governed by law seems necessarily to concern policy.2