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Wrong, Wrong and Wrong: Analyzing Torture From Kantian and

Utilitarian Philosophical Perspectives

Michael Gsovski, Weinberg '10

Philosophy 264-20

Professor Garthoff
February 19, 2007

The situation provided for this paper is dense, but luckily it is still condensible. The situation is
roughly the following: A radiological weapon is about to be detonated by terrorists in Chicago, killing
thousands. An American official believes that if she tortures a suspect who she has strong evidence
knows information which could prevent its detonation, she might receive this information from the
suspect. She also believes that the suspect would be unlikely to cooperate with her otherwise and that
the only effective means of torture would be burning the suspect's flesh or gouging his eyes out.
We will be analyzing this from two separate philosophical viewpoints: Kantianism and
Utilitarianism, beginning with the Kantian view. A Kantian moral system revolves around the concept
that the basis of morality is our shared humanity. What makes our humanity a moral trait is our ability
to have reason for our actions (practical reason), and therefore, our potential to have a good will, the
most valuable object in Kantian philosophy. A good will is in turn made possible by our ability to
control our own actions in accordance with the categorical imperative.
Kantian philosophy recognizes two The categorical imperative is a motive for action derived
utterly independently of any circumstance a situation may offer. This differs from the hypothetical
imperative, where motive to action rises from the ends necessary to fulfill a goal, and authorizes all
means necessary to achieve that goal. For example, a hypothetical imperative would be not to rape and
kill a family of six to avoid trouble with the police, while a categorical imperative would be not to rape
or kill anyone. In Kantian philosophy, in order for any action to be moral, to stem from a truly good
will, the motive behind it must conform to a categorical imperative.
There are two main methods of formulating a categorical imperative. The first is the universal
formula of the categorical imperative. This formula stipulates that for an action to be moral, a person's
maxim for that action must be able to be a universal law for all beings. An action can fail to be
universalizable by either being producing a contradiction in the law of nature or a contradiction in the
will. A contradiction in the law of nature is when one is unable to universalize a maxim because doing
so would prevent one from performing the action that the maxim wishes to effect. A contradiction in
the will is when one cannot have a maxim that he may at one time or another later wish to will not to be
a universal law for all beings.
However, in order to test the universalizability, of the maxim of the official in our scenario, we
must first establish what the maxim is. The maxim, from the official's point of view would likely be
one very strict to her circumstances. As an agent of the government, she would not be inclined to say
that anyone should have the ability to torture another person, as that is illegal and is regardless counter
to her interests. She would also say that the ends of her actions are to save citizens under her protection
from being killed, as anything as vague as 'to help people', might well be misconstrued. Therefore, her
maxim is that agents of a government may torture people if they believe it might yield information that
would save citizens under their protection from being killed.
This does not cause a contradiction in the natural law, as torturing of individuals for information
does not prevent the further torture of more individuals. Indeed, as an nation's proclivity for torture
becomes known, those imprisoned under its laws will likely be more willing to submit under torture, as
they will know that a nation's capacity for harm is unbounded.
But it does cause a contradiction in the law of humanity, as the aims of many governments
clash, and therefore the American official might well object to the application of her maxim in the
hands of another government official. For example, an Iranian government official may torture an Azeri
nationalist to reveal the identities of his compatriots on the grounds that unimpeded, the Azeri
nationalists may incite rebellion against the central government, which will result in the loss of Iranian
life. However, an American official would argue that the Azeris have a right to self determination (as
the American would feel that they are oppressed) and the Iranian use of torture is unjustifiable against
people that she feels to be innocent of crimes. This disapproval of the maxim that the official would use
to explain her own use of torture is a clear contradiction in a law of humanity. This contradiction means
that the official's maxim is not universalizable, does not comply with the categorical imperative and
cannot be moral.
The second method of formulating the categorical imperative is the humanity formula. The
humanity formula stipulates that people have to always be treated as humans, with the the ability to
make their own, autonomous choices utilizing their practical reason. It specifically states that human
beings are not means to an end, and cannot be used as such like one would use a common tool. To use
someone as a tool strips them of their dignity, another inviolable human trait. The underlying message
is to respect the basic humanity of every person, and never to use anyone as a means to an end.
The official's actions in this case clearly violate this principle, largely due to intent the official
possesses to deprive the suspect of his ability to refuse to tell the official where the bomb is. This
official, in stripping the suspect of his ability to conduct practical reasoning, turns him into a tool for
the obtaining of information related to the bomb. This obviously violates the humanity formula of the
categorical imperative, and makes the action immoral, but advocates of torture have two counter
arguments. They are both flawed.
The the first is the argument that the official simply wants to help the suspect make the correct
choice according to the categorical imperative (i.e. to not kill thousands of people).This is wrong
because, the choice that the official offers the suspect is not one between being morally correct or
incorrect, it is the choice of either divulging the information that the official wants or having his eyes
gouged out. This cannot be a legitimate choice of options, because one's natural, biological impulse is
to avoid pain. Torture is designed to shut off the parts of the brain responsible for independent thought,
to strip them of their autonomy, to make them serve a master's will.
The second argument will rear its head after the first has been disposed of. An advocate of
torture will say that while in the process of being tortured one does not have the ability to make
decisions, a very real decision is available at the start, for a person to be a terrorist, or not to be a
terrorist. By choosing to be a terrorist, a person consents to the harms that come with the job, including
torture. However, this argument ignores one central point, that the terrorist also consents to his
confederates not to divulge his information. It is therefore to be assumed that he has sworn himself to
accept torture and also to resist it and not give the information he has. Assuming his support to both
consents to be ironclad (which it has to be in order for the “but he consented” argument to be valid),
then the result of the torture will simply be pain inflicted on the suspect with no information released.
That is not torture, as torture must produce information. That is punishment. By producing punishment
instead of information, the results of the official's torture would conflict with her maxim for action,
rendering it morally wrong.
While both formulations of the categorical imperative will reach the same conclusion (as would
be expected, since Kant believes that both are formulations of the same concept and would therefore
reach a like result when applied), it is still possible to judge which does a better job of explaining the
reasons why torture is wrong. The formula that does this is undoubtedly the formula of humanity as it
is less susceptible to personal interpretation.
Personal interpretation is arguably the single greatest danger that a moral system faces. If
people can just take whatever they want out of moral theory, then the theory becomes meaningless and
becomes solely about what a single individual wishes to do. Even when considering concepts of
'autonomy' and 'practical reason', Kant only held these to be means towards the good will, which was
the only inherent good. This good will comes from one's ability to practically reason following the
categorical imperative, which is to say to think in the ways that he believed to be correct. Despite his
emphasis on autonomy, Kant still believed in the singular correctness of his philosophy and would
likely not approve of excessive liberties taken with it.
The way to examine the relative ease creating personal interpretations of philosophy is simple
in that complicated philosophies are in most cases the most prone to differing interpretations. This is
why The Bible has been so misinterpreted over the ages. There are really only ten rules (old testament)
and a couple dozen guidelines (new testament) that are essential to obey in order to be a 'good
Christian', but they are sandwiched in hundreds of pages of additional parables and ancient legal
judgments, which often hold conflicting messages. Guess where somebody who wants to be a 'good
Christian' but also wants to tie a homosexual to a fence post and then beat him until dead turns when
he opens his Bible? The extra pages.
That the humanity formula is simple and possesses a great deal of focus and clarity is obvious.
It's only precept is that one always treat people in a way that respects their basic humanity and dignity,
which largely consists in their ability to make their own choices and not to treat them as mere tools to
be used for an end. It is therefore easy to determine whether or not an action is wrong as the formula is
clear that if one person strips another of their ability to reason and make choices or treats them as
means to achieving their own personal agenda, then that action is immoral. Logically, this would be
said that if A or B is true, than action C is immoral.
This is in contrast with the universal formula of the categorical imperative in that the universal
forumla of the categorical imperative, while possessing the same if, then structure, also contains a
preliminary process which is completely open to personal interpretation. This is the process of defining
one's motives. While in the case of the American official, one can define her motives in an impartial
manner and therefore correctly judge the moral rectitude of her actions, her own interpretation of her
motives might be quite different. Rather than face the uncomfortable truth that she wouldn't want other
people doing what she does, she could twist her maxim to fit her situation to make it impossible to find
it immoral.
While Kant would argue that this specificity would then cause the maxim to conflict with
natural law, this is not the case. Take this possible maxim for her action: that a government official can
torture an individual to reveal information relevant to the possible detonation of a concealed
radiological device on its soil. This maxim produces no inherent problems in the natural law and does
not conflict with her own motives, as the U.S. does not conceal its nuclear weapons (they are all clearly
labeled.) It also is a misrepresentation of her motives, as the prevention of the detonation of the
concealed radiological device is not a maxim for action, but rather a consequence of her maxim of
keeping the citizens she is charged to protect out of harm's way. However, it is unlikely that given her
desire to see her actions as moral, the official would consider this distinction. Therefore, the official
would be much more likely to use the universal formulation of the categorical imperative to justify her
Now, most of this paper has dealt with Kantianism, because Kantianism is much more complex
than the philosophy with which it is most often contrasted, utilitarianism. A utilitarian, when analyzing
the situation would consider only one thing in deciding whether torture is morally acceptable, which is
how torture would affect the total amount of happiness in the world. Obviously, a utilitarian would find
that if the torture of one man would prevent the deaths of thousands, this would be obeying the
principle of maximizing the total amount of happiness, as the unhappiness of the one man to be tortured
would be greatly outweighed by the simple joy of thousands of people for being alive. Therefore, what
a utilitarian has to decide would be whether or not the torture has a good enough success rate at
revealing information that a suspect is unwilling to give otherwise.
While this may seem like a hard thing to discern, there is a great deal of evidence, both
academic and historical, to prove that forceful coercion is not an effective method of intelligence
gathering. The experienced viewpoint on the issue is best summarized by the preliminary findings of a
Georgetown University panel composed of both experienced military interrogators and psychologists.
Rather than try and summarize their findings, I will simply quote them verbatim, as they are concise
enough to speak for themselves without simplification:
“ The interrogators maintained that, even in the most urgent situations, torture can not be

considered a viable option. The involuntary circumstances of the disclosure would compromise

the integrity of the information obtained. Decades of research into directly relevant topics such

as social influence, stress, cultural and religious identification, false confessions, and

interpersonal relationships point to the same conclusion, according to the psychologists.

Naïve assumptions that torture “works” fail to recognize that, under torture, the innocent

are apt to fabricate and those with real information and training to resist interrogation are apt to

alter the information or present carefully rehearsed lies instead.

A common argument for torture is the “ticking time bomb” scenario, in which a terrorist
who knows the location of a bomb is tortured in a race to save lives. Interrogators stated that the
terrorist would know that he only has to keep his secret for the short time until the bomb
detonates―a time period known to him but not to the interrogators. Moreover, the torture would
offer the terrorist a prime opportunity to deceive interrogators by falsely naming bomb locations
of difficult access. In their combined 100 years of interrogation experience, the interrogators had
never encountered a true ticking bomb scenario.”1
So accepting the opinion of this group of individuals educated and experienced in this topic that

torture does not produce useful information and may indeed produce bad information, it can be

reasoned that torture does not increase the overall happiness of the state of affairs. In addition, the pain

induced on those tortured and the domestic and international unrest that is unleashed when torture is

used by a government on its own or foreign citizens is clear enough to say that torture creates a great

deal of unhappiness. Therefore, the utilitarian, like the Kantian, would find torture to be morally


Works cited.

1. Rethinking the Psychology of Torture Seminar. “Rethinking the Psychology of

Torture.” Georgetown University and Psychologists for Social responsibility. Psychologists for
Social responsibility. November , 2006. < > .
February 17th, 2007.