Armed Hostilities

The Topic of Torture in Ticking Time-Bomb Cases

Table of Contents
  1. Introduction
  2. Torture and Utility
  3. Torture and Rights
  4. Absolutism-in-Principle
  5. Absolutism in Practice
  6. Personal Opinion
  7. Conclusion
  8. Work Cited


Nowadays the ticking time-bomb problem is the subject of endless debates in the ethics field. The ticking time-bomb scenario is a thought experiment, which aimed to clarify whether torture could be justified. The scenario implies a fanciful case when authorities manage to arrest a terrorist, having been provided with information on the location of a bomb, which will explode and kill a significant number of innocent people. The terrorist refuses to reveal the information about the bomb, and torture is a possible method, by which authorities could clarify a bomb’s location to save thousands of lives. In this case, is it ethically acceptable to have him tortured? Answers to this question are diverse and regard both options. Someone is convinced that it is unethical to torture the terrorist, others believe that it may be acceptable, but still wrong in the context of saving the lives of the population. Professor of Philosophy, Fritz Allhoff, represents his reflections on this topic and describes his own opinion in his first monograph Terrorism, Ticking Time Bombs, and Torture. This way, analyzing his position and presenting my view is the purpose of this paper.

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Torture and Utility

First of all, Fritz Allhoff attempts to identify an attitude to torture in the case mentioned above from the position of utilitarianism. He states that the torture of a deleterious terrorist or even an innocent person can be justified by utilitarian thinking in case of bringing practical usefulness (Allhoff 2). From the author’s point of view, utilitarianism is a moral theory, which is most likely to excuse torture. The utilitarian tends not to take into consideration such human rights as a right against being tortured but relies on hedonic calculus. Nevertheless, among the utilitarian, opposition to torture may be possible by rejecting utilitarianism, as such a philosophy may potentially justify torture, or by denying the practical excuse and accepting theoretic support. The main reason for the utilitarian to justify torture is saving innocent people’s lives. This position regards “preventing a utility loss rather than effecting a utilitarian gain” (Allhoff 2). Although torture justification does not match the major commitment to bringing more practical usefulness, it could be excused by this theory. The reason for it is not the usefulness of a choice, but an advantage of the loss over the alternative.

To realize it, the process of interrogation should include the following requirements. First of all, the least sufferable form of torture should be used against a terrorist. If the necessary information could be obtained by a less harmful method, for instance, during a conversation, that should be applied at first. Secondly, the necessity of torture should be reasonable, so the needed result should be guaranteed. Therefore, it is worth ensuring that a person is adequate and is not going to deceive with misinformation. This way, authorities may receive the necessary information and stick to moral issues as far as possible, attempting to benefit society.

Torture and Rights

Then, Fritz Allhoff departs from a utilitarian stance and describes an opposite position, which takes into consideration human rights and perceives them as the major value. He asks himself whether the right against being tortured is absolute, whether the torture is impermissible, and categorically cannot be justified. To answer these questions, the author introduces examples of other right violations and their consequences. For instance, drunk driving is always followed by revoking a driver’s license, so the right to drive is forfeited due to a violation. The same happens to a murder, who forfeits this right to freedom. After these examples, a logical question follows whether a terrorist, who intends to violate other people’s primary right to life, has a right against being tortured. This way, Fritz Allhoff advanced the opinion that the absoluteness of some rights is not guaranteed. However, the rights that are supposed to be absolute exist. One of the examples is the right to due process, which even the offender cannot be forfeited regardless of crime severity. Therefore, classifying the right against being tortured as a substantial one presents a controversial issue.

The author proposes a criterion for deciding whether a right may be justifiably violated, which implies the possibility of restitution after the infringement. This way, a person, who has a particular right, which was infringed, is owed compensation. It has not been decided whether the same option is available for a terrorist, who has been tortured. Moreover, while this process, it is very likely to receive some injuries and damages, and a person may need medical assistance. At the current time, these issues do not have an appropriate solution.

Fritz Allhoff introduces two possible options of torture justification according to existing rights. The first one includes stating the potential danger that the right against being tortured may cause, while the second option is to argue the torture justification nonetheless. The first one is more precise, but maybe ineffective, while the second strategy is riskier and more ambitious. For this reason, the author opts for arguing the torture justification.

Discussing human rights, it is worth mentioning that some of them would be infringed in any upshot. The terrorist intends to violate innocent people’s right to life, and its prevention requires the rights against being tortured infringement. The author is convinced that the solution to this thought experiment addresses the understanding that not all violations have a different degree of importance in the moral context. All the infringements cannot be equal in their consequences, and in this case, it is preferable to choose the alternative, which is less harmful. Therefore, torture appears to be morally permissible as compared to the right to life violation.

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Fritz Allhoff divides the absolute positions to torture into absolutism-in-principle (“a principle”) and absolutism-in-practice (“a-practice”). According to the author, “a principle holds that torture never could be justified whereas a-practice holds that it could, but never would, be justified” (Allhoff 13). In detail, “a-practice allows that torture could be justified, but denies that whatever circumstances are sufficient for this justification—perhaps including those of ticking time-bomb cases— will be manifest in the real world” (Allhoff 13). A principle denies the possibility of appearing in such circumstances at all. The a-principle issue in the context of torture in ticking time-bomb cases is examined in this part of the paper.

A-principle position includes strong opposition to torture and is advocated by few people. They emphasize that torture cannot be justified for any reason. The author argues this point and states as an argument that an a-principle defense regards only torture cases. Even killing, which forfeits the major human right to life, occasionally may be justified, for instance, in cases of self-defense or war. Therefore, the prohibition of torture appears to be a mystery, as killing is sometimes allowed even legally.

Fritz Allhoff does not support and even criticizes this theory. The author concludes that it “needs to be predicated on some value” (Allhoff 16). He highlights the necessity to think according to a particular situation instead of categorically denying torture under any circumstances. The principal argument for its theory transgresses basic moral principles, but other perspectives are not considered and argumentatively denied at all.

Absolutism in Practice

As mentioned above, a-practice denies possible appearing circumstances, when torture is needed to be justified. As Fritz Allhoff states, “This former claim [a-principle] is true or false a priori, whereas the latter [a-practice] is true or false a posterior” (16). This theory has more defenders and supporters than the previous one. Analyzing this position, the author introduces an opinion that the torture prohibition is reasonable for its moral danger and doubtful chances for receiving necessary information. Moreover, a-practice addresses the fact that the necessity to torture in ticking time-bomb cases has never appeared in practice. Accepting some situations when torture can be justified, a practice theory occupies the middle position between all the opinions. It does not categorically deny the necessity of torture and does not support it for the sake of humanity’s well-being. From an a-practice perspective, the question of torture in ticking time-bomb cases does not present a matter of interest for the reason of the absence of such cases in reality. Moreover, it is worth mentioning that a-practice regards only the issue of torture and does not formulate a position to other hot-button topics.

The author supports a-practice theory most of all as compared to others presented. However, he presents some issues that should be improved, in his opinion. He states, “a-practice is only as plausible as its empirical claim that torture will never promote our core moral values” (Allhoff 17). This way, the absence of any cases does not mean that they do not exist potentially. He conceives the opposition to this thesis as ruling out the possibility of torture justification. His position regards the possible appearing of the necessity to use torture in ticking time-bomb cases and its permissibility in such a case. He also draws attention to the fact that a practice seldom takes the problem seriously. In the context of absolutism in practice, the issues are highlighted, but there is no considerable empirical engagement. Fritz Allhoff also criticizes this theory for its primary argument against torture, which implies the absence of encountering it. He supposes that it might be a better option to accept the possibility of torture justification. However, he considers it to be the best form of opposition to torture.

Personal Opinion

As for me, I can share the author’s opinion on the topic in some aspects. From the perspective of human rights, torture in ticking time-bomb cases appears unethical as it violates the right against being tortured. However, a more detailed and accurate look shows that, in this case, transgression is inevitable. We appear before a choice, whose rights are better to infringe. On the one hand, the option is forfeiting the right to life of thousands of people, on the other hand, the option is violating the right against being tortured by a terrorist. Moreover, respecting the rights of a person, who does not do it and intends to harm society, does not seem to be honest to the whole of humanity. As a killer is punished by prison, a terrorist, who damages a significant number of lives, deserves his punishment. In the context of rights, it is impossible to elaborate a proper attitude, as this issue concerns many more details.

The absolutism-in-principle theory might seem to be superficial and crude. Such a categoric denial of torture at all requires weighty arguments, which are absent at the moment. Although such denial has a moral base, it does not propose any workable solution for the issue. Occasionally defenders of this theory might appear to be too neglectful and unwilling to overview some alternatives. Such strong denial might be gratuitous, as, while neglecting the possible torture justification, the society forfeits the only possibility to survive in the conditions of the thought experiment, but further solutions are not introduced.

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Absolutism in practice theory has a strong logical and argumentative base. It implies the most mediate position and appears to be more credible. The defenders emphasized that the chances for success are not guaranteed, and it cannot be falsified, the same as the absence of encountering the necessity of torture in ticking time-bomb cases correspond to the facts. However, a note of indifference and unwillingness to decide on the topic precisely at the moment causes misgivings. For these reasons, I cannot agree with the author completely that absolutism in practice is ambitious and presents the best opposition to torture.

Unlike other theories and positions, utilitarianism demonstrates certainty and readiness to take appropriate measures in the ticking time-bomb cases. The defenders are determined to provide public welfare with a method, which brings less harm. As for other theories, except for a principle, there is more or less likelihood of torture justification, the same as utilitarianism, which is most likely to accept this option for the sake of saving people’s lives. All supporters of other theories accept even a little possibility for torture justification only for the reason of pragmatism. This way, utilitarian values appear to be the most significant in such a case. Moreover, the theory does not concede damaging a terrorist severely without proper reasons. In the context of utilitarianism, torture justification is only possible in case of following precise requirements, which prohibits unnecessary harmful tortures. Utilitarianism does not imply damaging and injuring but highlights usefulness and pragmatism. In this case, this orient appears to be the right one, as the solution is impossible without any victims. Therefore, utilitarianism seems to be the most accomplished and ready-to-use as compared to other theories.


The topic of torture in ticking time-bomb cases is profound and regards a considerable amount of complicated moral and practical issues. All the alternatives involve sacrifices, that is why opinions on this issue are numerous and diverse. Humanity has not encountered such an experience, so the hardships of solving this thought experiment are apparent. However, the discussions are continuing to increase, as people gradually understand the need to receive a solution to this problem. Hopefully, the solution will be elaborated on before such an acute situation occurs.

Work Cited

Alhoff, Fritz. Terrorism, Ticking Time Bombs, and Torture. University of Chicago Press, 2010.

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