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Why Talk about Ticking Time-Bombs?

Ticking time-bomb cases have played a tremendous role in discourse regarding the moral status of interrogational torture.  In terms of the philosophical literature, an early formulation owes to a seminal essay by Henry Shue:


[S]uppose a fanatic, perfectly willing to die rather than collaborate in the thwarting of his own scheme, has set a hidden nuclear device to explode in the heart of Paris.  There is no time to evacuate the innocent people or even the movable art treasures—the only hope of preventing tragedy is to torture the perpetrator, find the device, and deactivate it.


But not only have these cases appeared in the philosophical literature, they have also crossed over to popular media outlets and, thereafter, into public consciousness.  For example, as Michael Levin wrote in Newsweek:


Suppose a terrorist has hidden an atomic bomb on Manhattan Island which will detonate at noon…  Suppose, further, that he is caught at 10 a.m…., but preferring death to failure, won’t disclose where the bomb is.  What do we do?  If we follow due process, wait for his lawyer, arraign him, millions of people will die.  If the only way to save those lives is to subject the terrorist to the most excruciating possible pain, what grounds can there be for not doing so?  I suggest that there are none.


Such cases, though, presumably represent a departure from real-world cases.  Consider, for example, all that is made certain in ticking time-bomb cases, whether explicitly or implicitly.  It is certain that the detainee is a terrorist.  It is certain that s/he has information regarding the location of the bomb.  It is certain that the torture will produce the information.  And it is certain that the information will lead to the timely deactiviation of the bomb.  In the real world, none of these things is likely to be certain.  Furthermore, in ticking time-bomb cases, there are no negative effects of torture, other than the obvious ones on the torture victim:  no institutional costs, no compromising of liberal values, no nefarious spread of torture, and so on.  In the real world, these effects are at least possible, if not likely or assured.


So why are ticking time-bomb cases so commonly deployed?  Should such deployment stop?  Certainly some critics—like Shue and David Luban—think so.  I disagree and wonder what the rest of you think.  Let me offer some comments in favor of ticking time-bomb methodology and then invite responses.  I think the wrong thing to say about ticking time-bomb cases is that the real world doesn’t work that way:  that’s simply not what the question is.  Rather, the question is whether torture is morally permissible in these cases and changing the cases (e.g., to more empirically plausible ones) misunderstands the dialectic. 


The challenge for the defender of ticking time-bomb methodology is to somehow make the cases relevant.  There are two ways that this could go.  First, we could deny that there is any salient difference between the imagined cases and the real ones; maybe we can find some exceptional circumstances wherein the stipulated features of ticking time-bomb cases are actually satisfied.  Second, we could acknowledge that the cases are different, but use our intuitions in ticking time-bomb cases to ground intuitions in less idealized ones.


Regardless, there is no inherent problem with using these cases.  What matters is what follows from the cases and how they are meant to be made relevant.  I think critics of ticking time-bomb methodology should not object to the use of the cases (cf., Luban’s “intellectual fraud”).  Rather, they should issue a challenge for someone to make those cases informative about the real world.  It is at this interface between the philosophical construct and the external world that the important work needs to be done, objecting to the philosophical construct misses its point.


For more discussion, see Fritz Allhoff, Terrorism, Ticking Time-Bombs, and Torture (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, forthcoming), esp. ch. 5.


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