The Law and Economics of Torture

There's been much talk in the blogosphere lately on the topic of torture. Unfortunately, most of the commentary has been disappointing for its strident dogmatism and abject refusal to consider possible--albeit unlikely--scenarios.

Belle Waring

If the situation is that dire ? torture one so that thousands may live, or whatever ? then the information you?re seeking is clearly valuable enough to die for.

And if it?s something you?re willing to die for, it?s something you should be willing to go to jail for. So the laws against torture should stand and the ?just torturer? should be willing ? no, GLAD ? to take that consequence, because it would have been worth it to get that information.

If it wasn?t even worth going to jail for, then it wasn?t a ticking bomb scenario worth the name.

It is true that in most of these ?ticking-time-bomb? scenarios, the potential torturer should be willing to go to jail for doing the right thing. But saying that someone should do something is not the same as saying someone will do something.

Since most of us are willing to do more for ourselves and our close friends and family members than for complete strangers, it is plausible that enforcement of laws against torture, even in ticking-time-bomb scenarios, will discourage torturers at the margin, and result in an inefficient amount of torture. I may be willing to torture complete strangers to save the lives of many more complete strangers, but I may not be willing to sacrifice my own life or freedom to do so. Selfish, perhaps, but quite possible.

This is not to say that there are no good arguments for a rule against torture in all situations - perhaps ticking-time-bomb scenarios are so rare that the costs of such an exception outweigh any potential benefits. But your argument leaves that question open.

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