Ticking time bomb scenario
The ticking time bomb scenario is a thought experiment used to justify torture, even though torture is typically viewed as so barbaric, immoral, and unreliable every developed nation has agreed to stop practicing it. The thought experiment is often presented as:
- A terrorist has planted a nuclear bomb which will detonate in five hours somewhere in the heart of a major city. Because the city is so populated, evacuation is impossible, and hoping to find the bomb through random searching is hopeless. Luckily, the terrorist has been caught, but he won't divulge to bomb's location.
In this scenario, is torture justified, and, if it is, aren't you morally obligated to use it?
Many people have no problem favoring torture when presented in such a clear-cut way, but there are criticisms to this thought experiment.
Despite happening frequently in fiction, critics have argued that this scenario never happens in real life because it requires several factors, each of which is highly unlikely on its own. You must be aware of the bomb before it detonates, you must find and capture the terrorist alive and be confident you have the right person, they must possess the key information you lack like the bomb's location and how to defuse it, they must not only surrender the information you desire, but also not give you false information, and all of this must be done quickly enough to still have time to reach and stop the bomb. Because of all these factors, it's safe to say that a scenario like this has probably never happened.
In reality, when terrorism succeeds, it is almost entirely unpredictable, but when it is thwarted, it is not because of torture, but through surveillance, under-cover infiltration, the inability of would-be terrorists to obtain destructive materials, or the incompetence of the terrorist. When organizations like the US government torture people, it's not because they're missing a single crucial piece of information, but because they're hoping the victim will have some as-of-yet unknown information, but this tactic often results in false confessions. A more realistic telling of the thought experiment might go like this:
- An anonymous tipster warns that a terrorist has planted a bomb in a subway terminal which will go off in one hour. Police are dispatched to the busy area and arrest three suspects based on prior convictions of violent crime. Although each seems shady, there isn't any concrete evidence linking them to a bomb, and each denies knowing anything about a bomb. Searching their homes and places of work would take hours, but, if a bomb does exist, dozens of lives will be at risk.
In this more realistic scenario, torture seems less like an imperative and more like a human-rights violation. It's not difficult to argue in favor of torture in the original highly contrived case because you're 100% sure the terrorist has the answer you need to save millions of lives. But allowing torture can lead down a slippery slope where it we start justifying it under less certain terms.
Torturing an Innocent
An alternate form of this thought experiment involves introducing an innocent party:
- The terrorist is caught, but his dossier describes him as being highly resilient to torture, so it's unlikely that any amount of suffering will get him to confess before the bomb goes off. However, the dossier also explains that the terrorist loves his children dearly. His three children, aged three, five, and six, who are oblivious to their father's crimes, are brought in and the captors say they will force him to watch them torture his kids until he gives up the location of the bomb.
For most people, it is much easier to accept torture when it's conducted against a violent criminal, but that makes it easy to conflate torture with punishment. Adding an innocent third party into the mix helps to eliminate punishment leaving only torture to be discussed. Can we ever justify torturing innocent people to save more innocent people?
This variation addresses the common criticisms of the thought experiment. Instead of being 100% sure the person is a terrorist, you're only 75% or 50% sure. At what level of certainty does it stop being a moral imperative and start becoming a human rights violation? How can you even calculate such a certainty? Likewise, instead of a million potential victims, what if there are only 1,000 or even 10. Are the two factors related so that an increase in one cancels out a decrease in the other? And, if so, what ratio should be used to indicate morality? Is there any way to determine the cutoff point that isn't arbitrary?