Don Watkins has opened up an interesting discussion of torture on his blog. I’m not sure what to make of Arthur Silber’s recollections of Ayn Rand’s comments on torture, particularly in light of the conflict with the John Galt’s action in the torture scene in Atlas Shrugged. In general, I’m doubtful that compliance with torture would eliminate it’s use as a method of interrogation. More importantly, it necessitates placing the avoidance of pain at the top of a person’s hierarchy of values, such that a person would have to be willing to risk the lives of everyone he loves in order to prevent a beating. Frankly, the key to eliminating torture seems to be to eliminate the torturers.
More broadly, the discussion seems to be in need of a definition of torture, at least so that people aren’t talking past each other. Short-term sleep deprivation might be uncomfortable, but it doesn’t compare to weeks of the same, let alone the deliberate infliction of horrible pain through beatings and the like. (Sometimes, I think that leftists regard any activity on the part of interrogators that tends to lead to confession as torture. That’s obviously absurd. Merely inducing physical or psychological stress is not torture.) The essential feature of torture seems to be the deliberate infliction of substantial physical pain upon a victim. The purpose of torture may vary; it could be the twisted pleasure of the torturer or some compliance from the victim or the favor of the gods or whatnot. Although I’m not settled on the matter, I doubt that significant emotional suffering ought to count as torture. So if a man is forced to watch his wife being brutally raped, she is being tortured, while he is not — even if he suffers more than she does as a result. I could be convinced otherwise, although I’d want to make sure that the concept would not lapse into subjectivism.