Why Is Torture Wrong?

Or more precisely, why is the belief that the torture of captured combatants is wrong compatible with anything other than some form of pacifism? I mean this an actual question, not as a passive-aggressive assertion.

It can’t just be that it involves inflicting horrible pain and suffering. The moment before an enemy combatant surrenders, it is legal (under the current rules of war which govern U.S. military operations as I understand them), to shoot this person in head, launch burning petroleum jelly onto him that is carefully designed to stick to his skin and clothing, or deviously hide explosives that will maim him (but intentionally not kill him) when he steps on a landmine, in order to slow the advance of the group that must then carry him, and also to make it easier to subsequently kill both him and the person who assists him.

It can’t just be that the prisoner is helpless, or that the imbalance of power between the inflictor and recipient of the suffering is so high. The whole point of maneuver in warfare is often to put yourself in a position where you can cause massive causalities from a protected position. It is normally a retreating army that suffers the worst causalities. After all, it is legal (as I understand it) to drop a bomb from a virtually invulnerable aircraft at 30,000 feet onto an enemy combatant who has dropped his rifle and is running away at high speed. Presumably, it is actually illegal not to do this if so ordered by a superior officer.

Why is it that if this person turns around looks up at the plane and says the words “I surrender” that it suddenly becomes wrong to punch him in the face hard enough to make him bleed? Not prudentially foolish, but morally wrong?

It can’t just be that “hitting somebody hard in the face is really awful, seems mean, and is not something I would want done to me”, because everybody but a pure pacifist agrees that we have the right after he surrenders to lock him in a prison camp and deprive him of liberty for an indefinite period (basically, as I understand it, until hostilities have ended). Going to prison is unpleasant, and is not something I would want done to me.

So apparently it’s OK to inflict (the most extreme imaginable) violence when the guy is totally helpless in combat, but suddenly upon his saying the words “I surrender”, any serious violence beyond confinement becomes wrong. Now, the natural justification for this is, I assume, that until he surrenders, if you let him run away, he might very well come back to try to kill you later. Therefore, once you have operationally captured him you are entitled to imprison him for the duration to prevent this future plausible attempt to kill you, but that is all. Why is that all? What changed when he said “I surrender?”. After all, he might escape from the prison camp. It might be your judgment that killing him, or intentionally injuring him short of death while he is imprisoned – as per landmines – might serve your purposes better. One could imagine all kinds of prudential reasons why one might make the judgment that war aims are better served by torturing such a captured combatant. What is the moral reason that you should not pursue such a course of action?

You may be bound by an agreement that you (collectively, as a national unit) have made to treat prisoners in this way. But, either that treaty had a prudential motivation, or it was made, in part, because (at least some of) the signatories viewed torture of captured combatants as morally wrong. So, we’ve just kicked the can back one step: why did the national unit consider torture of captured combatants to be morally wrong?

You may argue that torture, as a practical matter, is never confined to the intended cases, and leads to corruption. But this is a prudential argument – it doesn’t say that some specific acts of torture are immoral. You might argue that torture is so dehumanizing that it inevitably morally corrupts those who do it. But, how does this distinguish it from lots of other things done in war to other human beings (see prior paragraphs)?

Maybe I’m morally obtuse about this (again, I mean that non-rhetorically), but I don’t see how a non-pacifist makes the moral case against torturing captured combatants. Of course, there are at least two ways to interpret that. One is that torture of captured combatants is not morally wrong. The other is to see this as an example of why we should be skeptical about moral reasoning as a way to answer the question; that is, of why we must rely on moral intuition and the traditions of our society.