The Ticking Time Bomb: When the Use of Torture Is and Is Not Endorsed

Abstract

Although standard ethical views categorize intentional torture as morally wrong, the ticking time bomb (TTB) scenario is frequently offered as a legitimate counter-example that justifies the use of torture. In this scenario, a bomb has been placed in a city by a terrorist, and the only way to defuse the bomb in time is to torture a terrorist in custody for information. TTB scenarios appeal to a utilitarian “greater good” justification, yet critics maintain that the utilitarian structure depends on a questionable set of hidden assumptions. Three experiments were conducted to investigate endorsement of torture when these hidden assumptions were violated. In Experiment 1, results indicated that endorsement varied as a function of the success likelihood of torture and its alternatives. In Experiment 2, people found torture to be more acceptable, less wrong, and more obligatory when the suspect in custody was described as a “terrorist” than when he was described simply as an individual, and when he was described as culpable as opposed to innocent. These results are more consistent with retributive justice than utilitarian “greater good” concerns. The results of Experiment 3 indicated that utilitarian decision profiles were not associated with lower levels of empathic concern but were instead associated with personal distress and the ability to transpose oneself into a fictitious character's experience. Across the three experiments, deontologists were more likely to reject torture than utilitarians.

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Spino, J., Cummins, D.D. The Ticking Time Bomb: When the Use of Torture Is and Is Not Endorsed. Rev.Phil.Psych. 5, 543–563 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13164-014-0199-y

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Keywords

  • Moral Judgment
  • Moral Dilemma
  • Perspective Taking
  • Acceptability Rating
  • Empathic Concern