Peter Bergen, national security analyst, commented about torture scenes in Zero Dark Thirty, a film about how the CIA and other U. S. intelligence agencies found Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The film opens with interrogation scenes where CIA agents use sleep deprivation and several similar techniques to extract key information from prisoners not long after 9/11.
Bergen considers whether torture and allied interrogation methods actually produced information helpful to investigators tasked with locating bin Laden. It’s an important question, he suggests, because our judgments about the permissibility of torture depend on our judgments about its efficacy.
Bergen clearly sides with those who say these techniques do not produce valuable intelligence. We’re happy to hear a voice speak common sense on the matter. Nevertheless, a discussion about efficacy suggests that torture is okay or at least permissible if it works, but not okay if it doesn’t work. Some moral judgments, however, don’t depend on whether the activity in question works. Torture is not okay, ever. You cannot place torture in the category of a necessary evil. Judgments about torture do not require that you weigh necessary evils against greater goods. Judgments about torture are easy to make. It is never justified; it is always wrong.
Some will say that absolutist reasoning in the real political world invites disaster. These critics would point to people like Robespierre, Mao, or other absolutists to support their contention. To say, though, that torture is always wrong is not the same as executing citizens by the thousands, or starving them by the millions. Absolutist reasoning about virtue, or willingness to exterminate people for the greater good, are both different from a categorical judgment that states a certain kind of activity is always wrong.
A categorical judgment holds under all circumstances: it cannot sanction or prescribe actions beyond its own boundaries. Proscription of torture under all circumstances does not warrant or permit other activities that require an absolutist moral foundation just to get off the ground. Put simply, an absolutist view of torture does not imply a similarly absolutist view of other political activities.