Shue on Torture

Class notes for 1 March

Main points

We discussed Henry Shue’s attempt to explain why the following set of propositions make sense.

  1. Killing is permissible in a justified war.
  2. Torture is less harmful to the victim than being killed is.
  3. Torture may not be used in a justified war.

The first two premises are true. The third is part of of the UN Convention Against Torture and, as of 1994, part of US law. It says that,

no exceptional circumstances, whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.

Couldn’t be clearer, right? And yet …

Threats and defenses

Having thought about it a bit, I think I have a way of explaining some of what seemed odd to us.

Shue proposes a necessary condition for being justified in killing someone in a just war. The condition is that the victim isn’t defenseless.

Most of us believe that there is a sufficient condition for being justified in killing someone in a just war (or other circumstances). The condition is that the victim poses a threat.

Military tactics like surprise or deception are legitimate because they are ways of dealing with threats.

Torture victims still fill an intermediate position because they aren’t themselves threats but, at most, are taking part in something threatening.

Jane Mayer

The handout took some passages from an article on torture and 24 by Jane Mayer (the full citation is on the bottom of the second page).

Mayer has written a number of articles on torture for the New Yorker. I found all of them very interesting.

Update: Taylor asked his friend at West Point about the Mayer article. He said that they were pretty clearly taught, and pretty clearly believe, that torture is illegal and ineffective.