A post that got me thinking (torture edition)

… well, not just the post itself, the exchanges in the comments as well.

I have a very well-defined prior: I don’t like the idea of torture as a method of punishment substituting incarceration one bit, I find the very idea horrible – but I have a hard time arguing just why I dislike the idea so much.

The externality-argument that “someone has to do the torturing” has some merit, but there’s more to it. The same problem also applies to incarceration – someone has to keep the door locked, even if the people on the other side scream and beg to be let out. Maybe there’s a difference in scale, but there is no difference in kind. Besides, even if prison guards are an order of magnitude below torturers on this scale, how about the people pushing the button in gas chambers? The externality problem could probably be solved anyway. Torturers could theoretically be compensated monetarily for the inherent risk of “moral degradation” that their jobs possessed, just as security guards could be (the fact that they are not is not, as far as I can see, an argument against the introduction of corporeal punishment). If one is not concerned about the externalities imposed on the torturers, but rather about the offenders (“people who torture others are evil“, ect.), then common standards (reducing the degrees of freedom on part of the torturers) and supervision would be ways to minimize this risk.

The more I think about this, the more the word taboo springs to mind.

Do read the post and the comments, it is an interesting discussion.

August 29, 2007 - Posted by | ethics


  1. “Torturers could theoretically be compensated monetarily for the inherent risk of “moral degradation” that their jobs possessed”

    one could argue that the monetary compensation would only be further moral degradation

    Comment by engtech | August 30, 2007 | Reply

  2. @engtech:

    Thanks for dropping by and thanks for the comment.

    One could argue this way, but that would only be an argument against compensating the torturers monetarily, not an argument against the application of torture itself nor against using non-monetary means of compensation. It is only if you also add the assumptions that i) the torturers would be severely affected by their work (an assumption I do not agree with) and ii) there is simply _no way_ to compensate the torturers at all (an assumption I also very much disagree with), that this would be a weighty argument against the application of torture. One might argue this way, but this argument is, as far as I can see, not much different from the “argument” that “torture is wrong”.

    The reason why I think this way is that I severely doubt that the potential torturer, who would worry that his job has some unfortunate “ethical sideeffects”, would think this way about the extra pay. Indeed if he did, there would be little reason to compensate him at all, unless you’re assuming an asymmetrical information problem exists as well, making the torturer somehow unaware of just how “morally degrading” his job really is.

    The way labour markets (and all other markets) usually deal with risk is through risk premiums. If a job is risky one way or the other, all else equal the pay is higher. Market wages are never “immoral” or “unjust” – they simply _are_. To state the problem a little differently: Why should we care if people think of the compensation as “morally degrading”, why is this a big issue here, when it is not in a lot of other areas?

    I’m not a “pro-torture” guy or anything, truth be told I have not given this much thought before. Which is why I’d like to know just _why_ I think it is such a bad idea. A lot of my reasons seem to be quite irrational.

    (EDIT: The present version of this comment diverges a little from the original version, as I have tried to clarify the points I was trying to make)

    Comment by US | August 30, 2007 | Reply

  3. I remember reading an article about Saudi Arabia’s executions. The headsman (there’s just one) seemed pretty happy with his job. I have also read in random places that being an executioner can be hereditary, and was considered a good job. Jack Ketch did well out of it, apparently.

    There’s an additional advantage to corporal punishment: it requires many fewer punishers compared to incarceration. Whatever damage it does to the torturers must be absolutely colossal to make their suffering equivalent to the degradation of hundreds or thousands of prison guards and staff. (Colossal damage which, I submit, one does not observe.) Needless to say, the huge employment count of incarceration is one reason you can expect it to remain. Charles Stross mentioned in a post today :

    > Finally, there’s the point (unpleasant to contemplate for some) that income inequality can’t increase beyond the level it has already reached today without massive and unpleasant social consequences, some of which may be non-obvious side-effects of the drive towards a security state strong enough to protect the elite. By some estimates, 20-25% of the labour employed in the USA today is guard labour , work devoted to preventing the poor from expropriating the rich. Widespread application of anti-terrorism statutes to criminal enforcement suggests to me that the War on Terror has proven its utility as a useful pretext for expansion of the guard labour state; in light of which, reversal of Griswold v. Connecticut would pave the way for the deployment of ubiquitous surveillance techniques. (Which suggests a possible reason why the moneyed-elite faction of the Republican party are willing to tolerate the demands of the abortion-and-contraception-hating religious wing of the party.)

    Comment by gwern | October 23, 2011 | Reply

  4. Needless to say, the huge employment count of incarceration is one reason you can expect it to remain

    Stuff like this is part of why I no longer much care about politics one way or the other – if you have zero influence over the outcome, why bother spending a lot of time thinking about it? I can see why one would occupy oneself with likelihoods of different political outcomes and how they’d impact oneself. But spending a lot of time thinking about ideal policies and evaluating the morality of the policies that gets passed? That doesn’t seem rational to me.

    As to income inequality in the US and its consequenses, I might as well just say that I don’t have a dog in that fight – I don’t live there and most likely never will. The 20-25% figure seems high to me, but I’ve only skimmed the paper and when I did that I found out I’ll not be reading it more closely.

    Comment by US | October 24, 2011 | Reply

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