Why Torture is Always Wrong

With the recent release of the “Torture Memos” there has been an enormous amount of discussion centered on the treatment of wartime prisoners.  If you have missed the discussion, just turn on Fox News or CNN.  You will soon find yourself immersed in the topic.

Those who support using torture or “enhanced interrogation techniques” to get information from captives argue that the ends justify the means.  In other words, if we are able to gain important information about our enemies through these techniques, then the techniques are okay.  To defend the use of the “enhanced interrogation techniques”, supporters are calling for the release of classified information (in addition to the Torture Memos previously released) to show that the techniques were successful in extracting vital military intelligence.  The thought is that if it can be proven that important information was gained through the process then the process cannot be criticized.

How should we think about torture (or whatever you choose to call it)?  Is it ever okay?  If torture does result in giving us greater military intelligence, can it be justified?

I came across an important article by Christopher Tollefsen that discusses this very topic.  I believe Tollefsen is exactly right in his assessment of the issue.  In his article, Tollefsen attempts to give a precise definition of torture and condemns the practice as always wrong.  Here is a quote from the article:

It is important to be clear, as a moral matter, on what boundaries should be accepted in interrogation of human beings. These sorts of boundaries, regardless of whether they are called torture, or “cruel, inhuman and degrading” treatment, are the ones that matter for our most basic assessment of how agents of the United States Government should comport themselves when questioning terror suspects. The discussion should not, that is to say, begin with questions about how the nature of the terrorists’ crimes, or their status as illegal enemy combatants, affects what may be done. For, if there are forms of treatment forbidden as such for all human beings, then such forms of treatment will be ruled out for terror suspects just as for prisoners of war, and common criminals.

Please read the entire article and let me know what your thoughts are concerning this important issue.  If you missed the link above you can find the complete article here.

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14 Responses to Why Torture is Always Wrong

  1. Davo says:

    I still have trouble believe that there even IS a debate on torture. I’m completely embarrassed by the actions of our government. That we would degrade ourselves by stooping to such a level destroys any appeal for credibility and sympathy to the rest of the world.

    I don’t understand why efficacy is a factor in a discussion on ethics. The Final Solution was extremely effective. The US government was extremely effective at unsettling and decimating native American populations.

    The ethical question is not, “Does torture yield accurate information?” But rather, “Does torture dehumanize a fellow human?”

    If it’s a question of efficacy, then perhaps torture has a case. But God help us if efficacy becomes the sole standard.

  2. Kelsey says:

    I have a very articulate friend who argues eloquently that some of the more “mild” forms of torture, like waterboarding, are sometimes justifiable. He claims that terrorists have forfeited their protection against torture. But aside from the inhumane implications of torture, my main issue with this position is that torture victims are almost always SUSPECTED terrorists, but have not been found guilty, which means that it still cannot be justified in any legal or moral sense.

  3. Tim Farley says:


    I have heard others say that terrorists and other criminals have forfeited their protection against torture. I am just not sure I buy that line of thinking. Is that the not the same as saying that some people have forfeited their status as humans? Is that possible? Even those who support the death penalty would say it must be done in a humane way. I agree that criminals can forfeit certain rights and protections, but they can never forfeit their humanity. There are some things that are always inhumane.

    I think the article I referenced in the original post does a good job of speaking to this argument, which is one of the reasons I like it.

  4. Jeff says:

    I’m not disagreeing, but it appears obvious that the combatant that is willing to inflict the great horror on their opponent with whatever means possible (such as suicide bombings, torture, etc.) will ultimately win the war. Having a higher sense of morality is a huge liability in an armed conflict. I’m not arguing that we should lower our standards, but that we should understand the cost of the issue as we debate it.

  5. Tim Farley says:


    Thanks for your comment. You bring up what is probably the best argument for why torture is okay. If the enemy is doing it, why shouldn’t we? First, I am not sure that your statement “that the combatant that is willing to inflict the great horror on their opponent with whatever means possible (such as suicide bombings, torture, etc.) will ultimately win the war” is necessarily true. In WWII, the U.S. and its allies did not use the horrific methods that Germany used, but were able to prevail in the end. I do not think that use of force (including killing and imprisoning) is wrong, but to treat our enemies as less than human is always wrong.

    Secondly, I do not think that our morality should be determined by the enemy. If we feel that there is a proper level of conduct determined by absolute right and wrong, we are obligated to abide by it. I am not saying that the line that we cannot cross is always easily discerned. It often is very difficult, but we must act based upon our convictions of right and wrong, not based upon what others may or may not be doing.

    The Bible tells us that all people are created in the image of God. As image-bearers, we all have inherent value in the eyes of God. This image can never be forfeited regardless of our sins. We always have value in God’s eyes. As fellow humans, we must recognize the value of others and treat them as image-bearers. I am not sure torture is consistent with this.

  6. Davo says:


    I feel like your last paragraph summed up my sentiments on the matter.

    I would also agree that our morality should not be based on a comparison with the actions of others (i.e., they do it to us, so it’s ok for us to do it to them). However, if that’s the case, I don’t understand how that statement logically interacts with the one in which you said “I do not think that use of force is wrong.”

    It sounds like you condemn the torture of terrorists to prevent them from committing another attack (the commission of violence to prevent a future act of violence). How does this differ from other acts of violence (killing or imprisonment, as you mentioned earlier), which you don’t necessarily condemn?

    Or, more simply: What acts of violence would you consider “moral” and why?

  7. Tim Farley says:


    Good questions. This is where it gets difficult, but I will try to explain my logic in this matter. I do believe that people can forfeit certain rights and privileges as a result of their actions. For example, a criminal can forfeit his/her freedom and rightfully be imprisoned to keep others safe from the actions of the criminal who refuses to live under the bounds of law. However, I do not believe that one who is imprisoned should be treated in an inhumane way while being held. The person has forfeited their freedom, not their humanity.

    I also believe a person can also forfeit his/her right to life. This may seem severe, but when a criminal has taken a life (or many lives), the person has forfeited their right to life as well. Again, even in the taking of a life, it must me done in the most humane way as possible. If a person is sentenced to die for their actions, it does not give us the right to treat the person as less than human (i.e. by starving the person to death or other torturous ways of neglecting them or killing them).

    To summarize, I do believe there are proper punishments for crimes – including imprisonment and loss of life (which is consistent with what we find in Scripture). However, even punishments must be done in a way that respects a person’s humanity. I see no support or example in Scripture for torture, but I can find it for imprisonment and even executing those who have committed certain crimes.

  8. Davo says:

    Here is what I hear you saying:

    An act of violence may be moral when it 1) is in reaction to another act of violence, 2) is less than or equal to the severity of the first act, and 3) minimizes the inflicted pain or suffering. That third point is how I understand your definition of “humane.”

    So torture is immoral because it makes no attempt to minimize pain and suffering. Chopping off someone’s hand for stealing is immoral because the severity outweighs the original act. And punching someone because you are angry is immoral because it is not in reaction to another act of violence.

    It seems to me that the rationale behind the philosophy of punishment is that negative behavior is discouraged by fear of a violent repercussion. I guess I’m just skeptical of this premise. The recidivism rate of our penal system is one example of why. I guess I just have a hard time defining violence (regardless of its motives) as moral.

  9. Tim Farley says:


    In your opinion, is there ever a time when punishment is ok? If so, what are the forms of punishment that are ok? If not, what do we do with criminals?

  10. Davo says:

    You hit on a personal conflict between my head and my heart. Everything logically says to me that violence as punishment has to work. Yet, morally I cannot justify any form of violence (especially towards a child). It seems to me that encouraging fear and enforcing obedience motivated by fear is a seriously bad idea when it comes to a child’s psychological development.

    Recent investigation into the lives of Gandhi and King give me hope that love and compassion can be more powerful that violence and fear.

    Honestly, I don’t know the answer to your question. But I am hopeful to learn a better way from the examples of such people as the courageous men I mentioned above.

    If your wondering specifically what I think should be done about the penal-industrial complex in our country, I’ll add the disclaimer that I haven’t fully researched the subject. However, from my superficial interactions with the system, it seems to me that our current system fails miserably. I don’t have answers beyond that I believe that love and compassion could provide a better way.

  11. pertevivro says:

    This is a very interesting topic to me, but I’m not very well educated on it to be able to argue one side or another very competently. I’m not really sure where I stand, however my first reaction is that torture is not okay. I agree with the idea that we should not dehumanizes another human- we are all created equal and need Christ’s grace, love, and sacrifice just the same as another. If torture somehow contradicts this, then it is most definitely something that should never be used. However as I was thinking about this, another question was rising in my mind.

    Say a terrorist planted a bomb somewhere in Manhattan and the authorities snagged him and had him in custody. Would I think it was okay to torture him to try to get the location of the bomb out of him? When I started to mull over this, I realized I, in fact, did not know where I stood on this subject. I mean, would a situation like this justify torturing one man who chose his actions to save thousands/millions of innocent people? The argument could go either way- yes, it does justify torture. The man knew the consequences of being caught in his actions yet still went through with them and the people of New York should not be held accountable for his idiocy. -No, it does not justify torture. The terrorist has the same right to civil respect as all of the other people. I must admit, looking just at this, I lean towards torture in this situation.

    However, if torture was implemented in our government, because of the government’s already corrupt state, I would be scared to see how torture would be abused. There’s no telling how far people would take it and how twisted it would become. Therefore, even though I’m not sure if torture is always morally wrong and have not done enough research or spent enough time searching for answers about it to really make a final decision, right now I have come to the conclusion that I disagree with implementing torture tactics, especially to only further our military advantage.

  12. Tim Farley says:


    I appreciate your honesty when you say that this is an area of conflict for you. It reminds me of something one of my seminary professors used to say: “Sin is messy.” Sin makes a mess of everything because it is not the way things are supposed to be. Dealing with sin is difficult because of the mess it causes. A good book on this topic is Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be by Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. I think every thinking Christian will learn much from this book. Dealing with sin should cause a good amount of conflict in all of us because sin goes against the design and our sin impacts more than just oursleves.

    I think one area of disagreement between you and me is that you seem to define love differently than I do. You seem to believe love requires always showing kindness, gentleness and permission to do as one desires. However, I believe love is “looking out for the welfare of another.” I believe in such a thing as “tough love.” When a parent punishes a child, it is (or should be) done not as an act of violence, but because the parent understands that the overall welfare of a child is served by training the child through the use of punishment. So if a parent puts a child in timeout for pushing another kid on the playground, it is to teach her how to get along with others and because the parent loves her and wants her to thrive in life, not because the parent does not love her. If we do not teach her how to interact with others, it would be detrimental to her development and ability to interact with others in the future. Our lack of correction could be said to be “unloving” because of the long-term consequences. I think this is where the proverb “spare the rod, spoil the child” makes sense.

    Loving our neighbor also may mean that we have to defend one person (or group) while punishing another. What is more loving: saving a child from a kidnapper by harming the kidnapper or letting the kidnapper get away with the crime? In most kidnapping situations, these are the only two options. You are not going to have much time to “guilt” the person into abandoning their plans.

    I do not argue that our current penal system is the best way. That is another topic altogether. However, the Bible does seem to support punishment for those who break the law. I am not even sure how we could function as a society if we did not punish criminals in some way. I do not believe it is possible. Again, sin is messy and dealing with it is messy, but we must deal with it. It seems that God does give authority to government to restrain and punish wrong-doing. What else does Romans 13:1-7 mean?

  13. Tim Farley says:


    Thanks for commenting. The example you mention makes a good point. It is not always easy to determine what is and what is not “torture” or when / if there is a time to use methods that are not usually acceptable. I agree that we do not want the government using toture tactics while disregarding the moral issues involved.

    Could we justify torture if we did not know that there was an imminent threat to our safety involved? I think most cases would fall in this area. We do not know there is a bomb planted that we must find. We only know that there might be a plan of some type. Can we justify torture when our infomation is not so concrete? I am not so sure.

  14. aaron says:

    A few points:

    1. None of the alleged terrorists have been convicted of anything. Unlike convictions in the USA. I do recommend that you read some of Sister Prejean’s ( of Dead Man walking) books and see how many innocent people are executed each year, and just now, people on death row are being released based upon DNA evidence that they were not able to have duing their trial due to cost! That state does not have to do DNA testing,and many defendents can not afford it.

    2. John McCain, while help prisoner, admitted to signing an anti-America confession. I hope now one that feels torture is okaay voted for McCain, you would be voting for a self admitted anti-American.

    Or, is it possible that he did htis just to end hte torture, that he had a breaking point and lied!

    3. This will not be popular, but just I am a BIG fan of our constitution. Just as the soldiers swear an oath ot defend it, I think citizens need to carry part of that burden as well. I feel human life is not as important as protecting the constitution. Soldiers do not swear to protect freedom, the swear to uphold and protect that constitution, even at the cost of their life.

    Part of that deal is not torturing. Even if it hurts us. Our values are only good when we use them when it hurts us. It is real easy to keep your values when you have somehting to gain.

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