Michael Levin argues that contemporary views which regard torture as an instrument that is only practiced by primitive societies is fundamentally flawed. This is because, for Levin, whereas torture itself carries clear moral objections, such as the acts of physical and psychological violence performed on the victim of torture, these concerns can be outweighed by a greater threat. Namely, if the victim of torture is for example a terrorist, whose actions will kill hundreds or thousands of innocent civilians, Levin argues that it would be entirely moral to perform torture to prevent such an atrocity.
Levin does not defend torture as a type of punishment, but instead torture would thus be used as a tool to extract necessary information from the victim of torture, information that would be used to defend the moral stance that a greater portion of society should be protected. Furthermore, as another part of the process of this argument, it could be argued that in such a hypothetical situation, if those with the power to torture, such as the government or various security apparatuses that are part of the government, did not use this tool at their possession, they would be acting immorally and unethically, precisely since because of their inaction they would be putting in danger numerous lives. It is ethically wrong to disqualify the option of torture at the outset, because one does not know if a dangerous ethical and moral situation will arise where the use of torture can contribute to providing potentially life saving data. The idealist position, that the individual life has an intrinsic value and therefore should not be made subject to torture, is thus countered by Levin precisely by emphasizing the value of the lives of those who would be harmed by the terrorist action if it is not stopped. In short, torture to gain information is an ethically sound tool since it can help protect the greater good of society.
John McCain’s article “Torture’s Terrible Toll” in contrast argues that torture is incorrect since, firstly, it does not serve its intended purpose, and, secondly, it means that the one who practices torture automatically loses any type of ethical or moral high ground he may have held. With regards to the first argument, McCain refers to his own experiences as a prisoner of war. Arguments in favor of torture tend to stress the need to receive vital information that can serve the public good. However, McCain argues that much of the information that is gathered through torture is precisely bad intelligence.
This is because the victim of torture is under extreme physical and psychological conditions and will essentially say anything so as to avoid the pain he or she is experiencing. The very aim of torture, to gather intelligence, is thus a flawed premise. McCain’s second main point is that using torture essentially makes the person using torture the same as the one who is being tortured. Assuming that those who are tortured are committing unethical acts, by being, for example, a terrorist, by using torture as an option, this is essentially the same as reducing oneself to the level of the terrorist. It means that the values which are supposedly different than the values of the terrorist are now sacrificed, as the practitioner of torture is aggressive, violent and inhumane.
McCain further argues that this sacrifice of moral high ground then can precisely have the reverse effect and increase terrorism, because the terrorist will feel justified in continuing the fight against a brutal, violent and barbarous regime that practices terrorism. Furthermore, if prisoners are captured by the terrorist, the terrorist will have no qualms not using torture methods, because he or his allies have also been the victims of such methods. Torture, for McCain, thus fails at its intended goal of gaining valuable information and also is morally bankrupt.