College of LAS « Illinois


The Problem with Torture

The morality of torture—and why the debate over its use often misses the point.


In some ways, David Sussman appears just as you might expect a professor-philosopher would: His office is filled with loose pieces of paper, he speaks in long, complex sentences filled with parenthetical asides and conditions, and during discussion he closes his eyes thoughtfully, searching for the best word or phrase.

On one point, however, he sounds something like a reluctant dungeon guard.

“It was not my desire to become the torture guy,” says Sussman, an associate professor of philosophy in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

But indeed he has, albeit in a more scholarly way than the title may imply. Sussman writes about torture, and ever since his philosophical essay “What’s Wrong With Torture?” appeared in 2005, he’s been quoted, cited, and asked to speak numerous times to lawyers, scholars, and others on the moral distinctions of the practice.

Part of the widespread response to his work comes as a product of addressing a topic that has gained the spotlight in the wake of Abu Ghraib and other instances of torture at the hands of U.S. soldiers and intelligence agents after the September 11 attacks. Yet Sussman feels that much of the debate about torture has insufficiently addressed core moral questions about it.

“That’s what the paper’s intent amounts to being,” Sussman says. “Talking about this to show why there might be something right about the intuition of there being something really morally [distinctive] about torture, that doesn’t just make it continuous with other forms of violent, or cruel, or damaging, treatment of people.”

In Sussman’s view, torture is harder to justify than even killing, in some respects.

“A good question is, ‘Why doesn’t the logic of self-defense—which we use to justify killing people, blowing their bodies to bits, incinerating them—why is that not in principle available here?’” Sussman says. “There are two sides to this. People who don’t want to engage this [question] at all, or the people who say, ‘There’s nothing special about torture. It’s a question of tactical effectiveness.’”

To help make his point, however, that torture is morally distinct and requires special consideration, Sussman refers to George Orwell’s novel 1984, which, albeit fictional, portrays psychological trauma echoed in accounts by real torture victims, he says.

In the horrifying, torture-filled climax, the protagonist, Winston Smith, and his lover, Julia, have been captured by O’Brien and the Thought Police. Faced with the prospect of having a cage of starving rats fitted over his head, and unsure what his tormentor wants, Smith screams the famous line, “Do it to Julia!”


“It’s all up to Smith to figure out what O’Brien wants,” says Sussman. “What would possibly satisfy him? What betrayal or perversion would be deep enough to satisfy O’Brien? And he comes up with betraying Julia in this way. He has to play the role of his own tormentor.... [The excerpt] does seem to be borne out of the experience of lots of victims of torture.”

In other words, as Sussman points out, torture forces a victim to contribute to his or her own violation. It’s a key point that other moral philosophers often use—and credit Sussman for—in their own discussions.

Clues to the moral gravity of torture come through accounts by victims that reveal deep psychological wounds. Torture victims have described a lasting sense of a kind of “living death,” Sussman says, and refer to their tormentor as a “perverted God.”

“And so characteristically there’s a psychological dynamic within victims of trying to figure out, mollify their tormentor, who is in some ways inscrutable, cannot be challenged, cannot be bargained with, but who holds everything in his hands,” Sussman says. “Even if this is something they don’t decidedly want to do, [victims] find aspects of their feelings and emotions sort of mobilized to try to find some way of appeasing this distant figure.”

This kind of fearful, self-undermining process forces people to experience intimate aspects of themselves—their bodies, pain, and emotions—as another being. It leaves victims with a sense of shame, and worse, he says.

“Once you had that experience of something that you thought so essentially your own being available to another, you think that you can never reconcile,” Sussman says. “That part in some way remains other, or estranged from you, afterwards. Maybe that’s what’s going on when people talk of themselves as dead while still alive.”

Sussman places torture more in the moral realm of rape and kidnapping rather than killing or maiming in combat, which at least includes the victim’s ability to resist. This also means that the moral problem with torture isn’t necessarily about pain. Sussman’s interpretation renders a broad scope of torture techniques as immoral—including waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and forms of disorientation.

There are instances where torture does fall into the same moral category as self-defense, Sussman believes. He refers to a case several years ago in Germany where a kidnapper was captured by police as he picked up ransom for a nine-year-old boy. The kidnapper revealed the boy’s whereabouts only after he was threatened with torture (unfortunately the boy had already died).

Justified torture, however, is hard to attain under Sussman’s view. For example, self-defense wouldn’t justify torturing someone who knows about an evil act but is not involved. And while torture might be justified in so-called ticking bomb scenarios such as those found in the television drama 24, where Jack Bauer tortures terrorists who possess knowledge of imminent attacks, Sussman notes that the characters are operating under knowledge and confidence that are almost always unrealistic.

Sussman has done further writing about torture, including defining the limits of torture. But these are heavy topics to ponder, and he sighs heavily at the prospect of adding to the volume of thought about torture in the future.

“I want to write about something else for a while,” he says.

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By Dave Evensen
Spring 2009