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James Miller calmly defends torture at Overcoming Bias, without even mentioning terrorism:

Some would argue that it’s excessively cruel to torture criminals. But both prison and torture impose costs on criminals. Why is one type of cost crueler than the other? If a convicted criminal is indifferent between receiving a certain type of torture or being imprisoned for a given period of time then why would it be excessively cruel to torture but not to imprison?

In the U.S. many prisoners face a significant chance of being raped by a fellow inmate. This high chance doesn’t seem to bother many people, and is often the subject of jokes. Yet our society considers it barbaric for a criminal justice system to deliberately torture criminals in ways that may well impose less physical and emotional costs than rape does. I find these conflicting moral views about torture and imprisonment to be irrational.

Anyone willing to calmly object?

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COMMENTS (21 to date)
caveat bettor writes:

Can torture be pareto efficient? My gut says yes.

Alex J. writes:

Miller defends torture punishments as less-bad punishments than extended prison terms. However, the original bans on torture, were primarily against people being tortured to death. That is, the punishments were even more severe than merely executing someone. (Look up Titus Oates. Also, Australian convicts were commonly flogged with scores of lashes.)

So, in the real world of trade-offs, one might deny the government the ability to punish with lesser tortures in order to also deny the government the ability to punish with greater tortures. Given the real experience with public hysteria about drugs and mandatory minimum sentences, this seems likely to be a tradeoff worth making.

He has a good point about prison rape, though. Given the public's disapproval of official torture and lack of concern about prison rape, I bet the real motive is a desire for the electorate to keep its own hands clean.

Randy writes:

I find torture to be no more or less morally objectionable than the use of bullets and bombs. What really matters is the degree of threat posed by the enemy. If faced with an enemy that must be destroyed to avoid our own destruction, we will use any and all methods available. The reason we can calmly discuss the morality or immorality of torture is that we are not facing such an enemy - which, of course, leads to the moral question of whether we should be fighting them at all.

Doug writes:

I disagree with his premise that certain types of criminals/crimes (e.g., securities fraud) "don't pose a risk to society." He then concludes that torture, in these cases, is warranted because it allows such criminals to still perform socially-useful tasks. However, it isn't clear to me these types of crimes are any better or worse than violent ones, such as rape, theft and murder. I'm unconvinced the costs of monitoring these "harmless" criminals plus the costs of torture would be less than the costs of jail.

jsalvati writes:

Perhaps torture is condemned because it is so much more prone to arbitrary enforcement. It is trivial to torture someone you like more harshly than someone you don't like without people knowing, but it is fairly difficult put someone in prison who you don't like for more time than someone you don't like without people knowing. If the discretionary aspect of torture were somehow removed, perhaps it would be more accepted?

Perry E. Metzger writes:

I, for one, object to our society implicitly condoning prison rape, so I feel no contradiction in also condemning torture.

Karl Smith writes:

My sense is that torture is disliked for the same reason that sweatshops are disliked because then you have to acknowledge the suffering of others.

Its not that we don't want people to suffer. Its that we don't want to be forced to think about other people suffering. People like jail because then you don't have to see or hear all the nasty things that happen. Better to lock them up for life, lest they come out and tell you about their experiences.

I am actually morally in favor of torture though I oppose it on public relations grounds. The US should not be seen as a bully.

However, I tend to think that prison is much worse than torture for the simple reason that torture ends. Prison just keeps going and going.

From the point of view of the convicted the best kind of punishments are the ones that are in the past. If you can create the same deterrence in less time then do it.

Lord writes:

Prison is about prevention and punishment. I have a hard time seeing why what a prisoner wants matters at all. Torture on the other hand brings out the worst in the torturer and should be avoided for that reason alone.

Maniakes writes:

I largely agree with Miller's argument here. I don't think things like flogging are inherently more cruel than imprisonment.

Alex J. writes:

Doug, major white collar criminals' damaged reputations reduce the threat of their committing the same crimes again. (Similar to dinging someones credit rating for skipping out on a debt.)

Matt writes:

20 Lashes?

As someone who spent jail time, 20 lashes is worth about one week of time, if the lashes are non-barbed leather, and the strokes are limited to a force of 20 pounds.

John writes:

From the point of view of coercive authority, there is no principled distinction between forced imprisonment resulting in rape, government authorized torture, or capital punishment. The public's determination of whether any punishment is immoral (or rather unethical) should depend on the proportionality of the punishment, not the technique. (And perhaps its suitability to the purpose of the action -- incapacitation, deterrence, retribution, or rehabilitation, or in the case of terrorist action, prevention).

But from the point of view of the punished individual, it's all subjective. Some people believe extreme pain is worse than death (hell, some people believe shame is worse than death), while others regard survival or freedom as more significant than freedom from extreme pain or embarrassment. Personally, I would rather take several weeks of Guantanamo torture over a year of imprisonment where I could potentially be raped.

Caliban Darklock writes:

The cost of torture is not borne exclusively by the subject. The individual inflicting the torture suffers damage. The society that willingly submits a prisoner for torture suffers damage. To submit our criminals for torture rather than imprisonment damages our culture.

It's simply not worth the trade. Torture in isolated special circumstances may be worth the trade, but as a matter of course, it is simply not worth the cost of becoming the kind of society that routinely tortures our criminals.

I do agree with Miller's analysis. I just don't feel he's considered all the consequences and externalities. (Not all of them are negative, but enough are.)

Barkley Rosser writes:

There is also the problem of what the torture is for. Are we talking about simple punishment or about efforts to obtain information? For the latter, it is well known that torture is often a very unreliable method as the tortured are likely to say anything to stop the torture.

There is also a higher level problem. Given that now most of the world considers torture to deeply morally objectionable, whether rightly or wrongly, and that it has been outlawed by certain international agreements to which the US is party, allowing torture leads to a massive decline in respect for the country engaging in it.

ed writes:

Let me ask a related question:

Would you torture your child to punish her? Would you send her to her room? Why?

Ian writes:

Imprisonment denies criminals the opportunity to impose costs on society. While a criminal is in a cell they are causing less harm to those outside the confines of the prision than they would if they had their freedom. Torture does not provide for the safety of society by segregating criminal elements. Rape is perpetrated by other prisoners and is coincident to imprisonment. Society accepts rape as a consequence of the prison system.

Bill writes:

Pareto efficiency can be achieved with the right level of torture?!**%$#!!?? Maybe by decreasing torture.

Also, who really does condone prison rapes? Altough it does exist to an extent, how is that an argument for torture? I suggest this is a flawed argument, which goes like this: Prsion rape is terrible, yet it happens and apparently is condoned. Torture is horrible but not condoned. Therefore we should condone torture for the sake of consistency.

That's like saying its ok to kick someone in the balls if he deserves it, because its not as bad for him as getting hit with a baseball bat by another inmate. Not a criminal justice system I would want to live near.

Torture! Come on, just come on.

reason writes:

As some others have pointed out, it is not just the effect on the criminal that are the issue, it is the effect on us. Libertarians ignore externalities yet again!

Constant writes:

"Would you torture your child to punish her? Would you send her to her room? Why?"

A lot of parents would say "yes" to both. Both imprisonment and the infliction of physical pain are used. Parents often hit children repeatedly, and they also send them to their room. Generally they repeatedly hit the bottom of the children with an open palm. The common term for this form of torture is "spanking". It's probably prohibited in Gitmo.

Laura M. writes:

Laura M.
It sounds like prisons just keep getting more and more harsh, violent and scary. I don't think the US goverment should be to blame for that and furthermore, I dont necessarily feel like there is anything wrong with that. Criminals should be scared to get sent to jail and it should be a challenging place where our criminals live. The word torture doesn't immediately come to mind when I think of prisons. Instead I think of terrorism and innocent civilians getting hurt or worse, getting killed. Or our innocent troops getting tortured when they are captured or when they are directly fighting in war and have to fight for their life, never knowing what could happen next, that is torture.

While it is a shame that the occurence of rape in prisons is high, what are we suppose to do about that? Prisons should be a place that people are afraid of and that they are afraid of doing a crime because they will end up in jail. I agree with Lord and his comment, prison should be a place for punishment and prevention.

Richard Peterson writes:

The human mind has shown to have an unlimited imaginative capacity for developing ways to torture and harm our fellow man. Who will be responsible for determining which tortures to use and how to apply them to which crime? The fact that our prison system is disaster and is inhumane is not an argument for inflicting the scourge of torture on our society.
Perhaps we could develop alternative ways of dealing with criminals that would protect society, rehabilitate criminals, and save some of the money that is now pouring into the incarceration/industial complex.

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