Everyone and his cousin seems to think that Sam is wrong about torture, and I don’t have the will to read every thread on the subject, but after reading four or five, I’m surprised (especially considering the high quality of discussion on the subject) that no one seems to have landed on this idea:
Sam’s own argument about The Perfect Weapon is a great response to his argument about torture.
When we drop bombs on cities, our object (hopefully) is not to maim children or otherwise harm any innocent. We understand that is going to happen, but we would be all the happier if it didn’t. If there was some way for us to move every innocent person out of the way before destroying the enemy’s infrastructure, we would. If we had a Perfect Weapon, children wouldn’t get maimed.
That’s not what we’re doing with torture. When people torture, they take a helpless person and intentionally inflict huge suffering directly on that person. It’s not an unintended and undesired side-effect.
In the ethical dilemma about the train, if you’re inside, you have to switch tracks and kill one person to save five; if you’re outside, you can’t accomplish the same end by pushing a person in front of the train. In the second case, the way you’re using another human being (as a stopping block) is unacceptable, and you couldn’t do that even if it were a million people you were saving instead of five.
The torture situation is similar. It doesn’t matter what your end is; you’re not allowed to use another person that way. That’s why that argument leaves a bad taste in people’s mouths. It’s not an illusion; the moral equivalence of the two is the illusion.
Now, if a person thinks he can torture someone (or throw an innocent person under a train) to save a million lives and still live with himself, that’s one thing, but saying it’s morally white is something else. A person who does that has put himself in a situation where he is obligated to admit wrong-doing, perhaps for a greater good, but an argument like this from such a person is a weak attempt to escape a responsibility that he has taken himself.
I hope one day in the future science will solve this one for us. The TV show “Lie to Me” is all about an alternative to “24”. Some combination of interrogation techniques (not torture), drugs, and medical monitoring systems may be able to reliably get information out of unwilling subjects. It’s certainly worth putting some R&D money into, don’t you think?