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Volume 25 • Number 3

July 2011



Torture Warrants, Self-Defense, and Necessity

by Fritz Allhoff

Ticking time-bomb cases famously—or infamously—invite us to imagine a scenario wherein the torture of one guilty terrorist will lead to the acquisition of information that can be used to save the lives of many innocents. Despite the contemporary focus on such cases, they have a long tradition, dating to the early 1800s. And, throughout their history, they have appeared in various guises, from the literary to the public to the philosophical. The principal moral question suggested by these cases is whether one harm can be effected such that a worse one is not; while there is certainly dissent, most moral philosophers would answer this question in the affirmative. That said, there is substantial doubt as to whether torture would be the lesser harm or, more generally, whether ticking time-bomb cases gain any purchase in the real world or are otherwise relegated to philosophical fiction. But even if they gain such purchase, then what? In other words, even if torture can be morally justified in exceptional cases, should we authorize it? I n the literature—and conceptually—there are three basic approaches to authorizing torture. The first is not to authorize it at all, which is to say that torture—even if justified—requires some sort of punishable civil disobedience (section 1). Another approach is to authorize torture ex ante, such as through torture warrants. On this approach, torture remains prohibited except for when a judge grants permission for its application. Torture warrants have been defended by Alan Dershowitz, and we will evaluate that debate (section 2). Finally, torture can be legitimized ex post, which is to say that torture remains illegal but can nevertheless be (legally) justified or excused; our discussion will focus on the justifications of self-defense (section 3) and necessity (section 4).

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ISSN: 2152-0542