VOLUME 03 NUMBER 04 & 05


TORTURE is the worst thing we do to people. A torturous society —the sort of society increasingly legitimized since September 2001 – is the worst society we can create (Brecher, 2011). Why? Why is torture the worst form of human cruelty? It’s because of what torture is. More specifically, the act of torturing being what it is, it ‘s because of the sort of intention that it’s necessary to have in order torture someone. It’s a matter of the sort of person someone has to be, in order to be a torturer.

Here is a brief account of torture that brings out what torture is: “The subject of judicial or interrogational torture is ‘broken’ when, and only when, he has become so distraught, so unable to bear any more suffering, that he can no longer resist any request the torturer might make. The tortured then ‘pours out his guts’.” (Davis, 2005, p. 165) The capacity of the tortured person to act, that is to say — to think and then to do something, rather than just to behave in response to external stimuli — is broken. That is what makes torture, whether interrogational, intimidatory or punitive. Slavenka Drakulic’s fictional but all too realistic account of rape as torture makes the point all too graphically: “The person who returns to the ‘women’s room’ the following evening is no longer A. … A. has left the body standing in front of them. Like her mother whose eyes lived on long after she was dead, A.’s body is still alive, but A. is dead” (Drakulic, 1999, p. 89). And because what makes us a person, rather than some other sort of being, is precisely our capacity to act, to do things, it follows that the person being tortured has, in their own eyes, ceased to be a person. That’s why although “A.’s body is still alive … A. is dead”. That’s exactly what torturers aim for: to break a person, to make them into only a body. The torturer has to get the person


Illustration by yuCo Man

Bad arguments are always dangerous. And since torture is the worst thing we can do, bad arguments in favour of it are the worst arguments we can make. They are especially dangerous. Liberal proponents of torture should know better. That they don’t is a measure of the intellectual and moral corruption of our time.

they are torturing to “pour out [their] guts,” but to do so in that precise moment just before the response to “any request the torturer might make” becomes just that, an unthought response, rather than an action. Otherwise they are no longer able to give the torturer what they want, namely a truthful answer to a question, complete submission or indeed personal dissolution. To put it another way: the torturer wants their victim not just to be forced into being an object, to be broken, but to assent to being made an object, to assent to being broken.

The unsurpassable words of Jean Améry, an anti-Nazi resistance fighter who eventually committed suicide some 35 years after being tortured by the Gestapo, makes this clear:
“Only in torture does the transformation of the person into flesh become complete. Frail in the face of violence, yelling out in pain, awaiting no help, capable of no resistance, the tortured person is only a body, and nothing else besides that“(Améry, 1980: 6).

What could be a more complete negation of a person than to break them, to make them into just an object? Dershowitz crassly assumes, as do many others, that “[P]ain is a lesser and more remediable harm than death” (Dershowitz, 2002, p. 144). From that, he argues that, since “nonlethal torture” is less bad than death, and since the death penalty is widely accepted, interrogational torture short of torturing to death must also be justified (Dershowitz, 2002, p. 148; p. 155). But to end a person’s life, terrible as it is, is not on a par with making them into something that is not a person, an object, whether temporarily or permanently. Perhaps it’s their commitment to a consequentialist view of morality that prevents apologists for interrogational torture from understanding this simple fact, that there are things worse than death. Or perhaps it’s their commitment to accounting only what can be, allegedly, measured – and the termination of life puts an end precisely to measurement of pain, pleasure or whatever — that allows them to be consequentialists. Either way, they’re wrong. (These considerations might of course be reasons for rejecting consequentialism as a plausible account of morality.)

Here’s one way, then, of understanding why intending to break a person is the most corrupt intention another person can have. It’s set in the terms proposed by Immanuel Kant, when he proposed as a principle that we “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means to an end” (Kant, 1997, p. 38).

Why does this bring the point out so well? Because Kant’s principle seems self-evident. What argument could anyone make in favour of treating persons merely as a means? Try it. I think you’ll fail. And if there can be no good reason to use another person just as a means to some end, then doing that to them is fundamentally anti-rational. But then, since we are persons, that’s to say embodied rational agents, if we go against rationality in this way – doing something that cannot be rationally justified – we are going against ourselves. We are doing something like contradicting ourselves in what we are doing.

So in torturing another person, the torturer is effectively denying their own personhood. They are going against themselves as rational agents. That’s why the sort of intention that torturing requires is the worst intention a person can have. It makes them into something other than a person inasmuch as it requires them to go against what makes them a person and not a thing.

And that’s one very good reason why politicians, lawyers, philosophers and others who advocate torture in extremis need actively to be countered in their attempt to create a torturous society. It’s also why they’re being disingenuous in asking other people to torture on their behalf; and why when someone like the impeccably liberal Michael Walzer says that he “would do whatever was necessary to extract information in the ticking bomb case — that is, I would make the same argument after 9/11 that I made 30 years before” (Walzer, 2003), he is being dishonest. For the question isn’t “What would you do if….?”, but rather, “What would you demand of someone else, someone prepared to undergo the training required to become a skilled torturer, that they do on your behalf?” Or has Wlazer undertaken torture training? Are Walzer and the rest of the liberal defenders of interrogational torture prepared to become professional torturers “for the good of their fellow-citizens”?

Bad arguments are always dangerous. And since torture is the worst thing we can do, bad arguments in favour of it are the worst arguments we can make. They are especially dangerous. Liberal proponents of torture should know better. That they don’t is a measure of the intellectual and moral corruption of our time.


1. Améry, J., (1980). Torture: in J. Améry, At the Mind’s Limit, tr. S. & S. Rosenfeld. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 21-40.
2. Brecher, B. (2011). Torture: a touchstone for global social justice. In H. Widdows and N. Smith Eds). Global social justice (pp. , 90-101). London: Routledge.
3. Davis, M. (2005). The moral justifiability of torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. International Journal of Applied Philosophy, 19, 161-78.
4. Dershowitz, A. (2002). Why terrorism works. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
5. Drakulic, S. (1999). As if I am not there. London: Abacus.
6. Kant, I. (1997 [1785]) Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, ed. and tr. Mary Gregor . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
7. Walzer, M., 2003. Interview, Imprints 7, 4; available at; accessed 29 September 2014.

Bob Brecher is Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Brighton, and Director of its Centre for Applied Philosophy, Politics & Ethics. He has published over sixty articles in moral theory, applied ethics and politics, healthcare and medical ethics, sexual politics, terrorism and the politics of higher education. His latest book, Torture and the Ticking Bomb (Wiley-Blackwell, 2007) is the first book-length rebuttal of calls to legalise interrogational torture. Currently he is working on a theory of morality as practical reason, building on his earlier Getting What You Want? A Critique of Liberal Morality (Routledge, 1997). A past president of the Association for Legal & Social Philosophy, he is also on the Board of a number of academic journals as well as being a member of several Research Ethics Committees.