The Ethics of Torture

Subject: Warfare
Pages: 5
Words: 1129
Reading time:
5 min
Study level: College


Torture has been a lasting practice among people due to its ability to extract important information from people. However, the practice is inhumane and harmful to all participants, and discussions about its morality have been ongoing for a long time.

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As with many other similar issues, the many different schools of ethics offer significantly different interpretations of the concept. The reason for torture has been the most contentious matter, as most people will condemn unjustified uses of the practice, thus resolving the issue automatically. This consideration is particularly relevant in the context of terrorism, where the suffering of one individual may save the lives of many others. As such, this essay will discuss how utilitarianism and the just war theory apply to the torture of terrorists, especially in the context of the United States.

Torture in Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism is a school of consequentialist thought that posits that the results of an action, measured in terms of the good that they produce, determine its morality. An action that maximizes the overall happiness of the population would be moral regardless of its specific contents. As such, upon initial inspection, it would appear that the paradigm supports torture in cases such as those of terrorism, where it would save numerous lives.

However, as Ellis notes, there are two schools of utilitarianism, known as act and rule utilitarianism, which differ in their judgments on such matters (170). Act utilitarianism would consider each instance of torture on a case-by-case basis, considering the number of people potentially affected and weighing it against torture’s implications. However, a rule utilitarian would likely take a different perspective and come to another conclusion as a result.

As the name implies, rule utilitarians focus on setting general guidelines and following them rather than viewing cases individually. As such, they would consider the overall utility of the practice in obtaining valuable information out of prisoners suspected or convicted of terrorism. Wolfendale notes that there is a substantial amount of evidence that shows torture to be ineffective at producing reliable information in this scenario (173).

While a more detailed investigation would be required to explore the issue fully and reach a definitive conclusion, a rule utilitarian would likely choose to forbid torture in all cases. They would claim that through the observation of this principle, the public good would be maximized. For much the same reasons, the two sub-schools would likely take similar stances regarding the usage of information obtained through torture and the implied support for others’ use of the practice.

Torture and Just War Theory

In the United States, the fight against terrorism is often framed as a war, giving rise to the popular “War on Terror” designation. In that context, it is logical to invoke the just war school of military ethics. Crawford describes the theory’s components as the need for the war to be just by promoting peace and being fought in self-defense, the use of war as a last resort, and the avoidance of unnecessary violence (7).

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In this context, the theory would appear to be against torture, as it would generally qualify as unnecessary violence, and it is challenging to determine whether there are no alternatives in many cases. However, as “Terrorism and Civil Liberty: Is Torture Ever Justified?” notes, governments tend to bypass this issue by redefining torture. Moreover, the traditional definition of war may not apply to terrorism-related efforts, creating another complication.

Terrorist groups are highly distinct in their organization, which makes them different from most traditional militaries. They deliberately target non-combatants and hide among them, working in a highly decentralized structure.

As such, the effective prevention of terrorism requires the spending of a vast amount of money and time to avoid harming non-combatants in the process. However, terrorists can perform their attacks with relatively small investments by using their targets’ infrastructure. Moreover, as Crawford states, terrorists do not necessarily follow the just war doctrine or any variation of it, putting its applicability into question (19). As such, torture becomes a possible matter of consideration because it may minimize the number of non-combatants that suffer from the war, albeit in an unconventional way. The behavior of the U.S. during the War on Terror demonstrates the current issues of the paradigm through the nation’s deviation from them.

The Use of Torture by U.S. Employees

The usage of torture in the United States, despite the formal prohibition of it by international law as well as the country’s legislation, is a widely-known matter. However, as described in “Terrorism and Civil Liberty: Is Torture Ever Justified?”, the nation’s government and various agencies used a variety of methods to get around the restrictions. With that said, as mentioned above, the practice has been largely ineffective at producing effective results. As such, considering the popular negative reactions to torture as well as its implications, torture of terrorists by U.S. agents would be inadvisable because of the lack of moral justification that it provides. It would set a precedent for more widespread use of the practice without necessarily improving the results of counterterrorism activities.

The use of torture in general warfare is one such field, which currently invites more complaints than the practice described above. By learning critical information about enemy forces, military commanders can significantly reduce the casualties on at least one side. However, as Wolfendale notes, these appeals to necessity and exceptionalism may be hiding the nature of torture as a practice intended to break the target rather than obtain information (7-8).

The theories discussed above are generally inconclusive on the topic, but the author of this essay asserts that they would ultimately forbid torture. Rules utilitarianism should oppose it, act utilitarianism is complicated by the probabilistic nature of events, and the abandonment of the just war doctrine would lead to numerous issues. Overall, the potential benefits of torture do not justify the numerous disadvantages that it would inevitably create.


The question of the ethics of terrorist torture is complicated in part because schools of morality struggle to reach an internal consensus on the matter. The two directions of utilitarianism come to different conclusions on the matter, and each is further challenged by the school’s weaknesses and the lack of available data. The just war doctrine is currently struggling in general because of the redefinition of war and the deliberate targeting of non-combatants by all major powers as well as terrorists.

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As a result, utilitarianism leans toward prohibition based on recent data, while just war adherents may be leaning towards permitting it in some cases. The author of this essay believes that torture should not be allowed due to its low effectiveness and dangerous implications. As such, they consider U.S. institutions such as Guantanamo and foreign black sites as well as the events that happened there unethical.


Terrorism and Civil Liberty: Is Torture Ever Justified?The Economist. 2007. Web.

Crawford, Neta C. “Just War Theory and the U.S. Counterterror War.” Perspectives on Politics, vol. 1, no. 1, 2003, pp. 5-25.

Ellis, Anthony. “Utilitarianism and International Ethics.” Traditions of International Ethics, edited by Terry Nardin and David R. Mapel, Cambridge University Press, 1992, pp. 158-179.

Wolfendale, Jessica. “The Torture Debate and the Toleration of Torture.” Criminal Justice Ethics, vol. 38, no. 2, 2019, pp. 138-152.