Torture in the Public Mind



This study considers the clash between views on what is ethically permissible and the claimed imperatives of the war on terror. It does so by examining the forms of reasoning that members of the US public apply when judging the acceptability of torture as a tool of that war. Moral judgments are formed around two models of ethical reasoning. The first, usually referred to as the deontological perspective, deems that the ethical merit of an act is intrinsic to its character. The second, consequentialist, view, evaluates ethical merit by the consequences an act produces (for example, lying might be good). Because, however, policies often are judged in light of both perspectives, ethical impulses do not always point in the same direction. Our study uses both survey analysis and experimental methods to elicit the relative weight of deontological and consequentialist arguments that have been marshaled for and against torture. We find that across various levels of torture, the former dominate in the public mind. We also find that, counterintuitively, attitudes toward the abusive treatment of terrorist suspects are not significantly related to the intensity of the perceived foreign threat.