Torture, Terrorism and the State: a Refutation of the Ticking-Bomb Argument


Vittorio Bufacchi, Department of Philosophy, University College Cork, Cork, Ireland.; Jean Maria Arrigo, Project on Ethics and Art in Testimony, 10 Oxford Street, Irvine, CA 92612, USA.


abstract Much of the literature on torture in recent years takes the position of denouncing the barbarity of torture, while allowing for exceptions to this veto in extreme circumstances. The ticking-bomb argument, where a terrorist is tortured in order to extract information of a primed bomb located in a civilian area, is often invoked as one of those extreme circumstances where torture becomes justified. As the War on Terrorism intensifies, the ticking-bomb argument has become the dominant line of reasoning used by both academics and policy advisers to justify a legalized, state-sponsored program of torture.

This paper argues for the unconditional refutation of any attempt to justify torture, without exceptions. We argue against the consequentialist reasoning of the ticking-bomb argument not from a deontological position, but on consequentialist grounds. Empirical evidence suggests that the institutionalization of torture practices creates serious problems. Torture interrogation fails to fulfil its initial purpose as a low-cost life saver, while its long-term potential is the devastation of democratic institutions.