Why is torture such a dirty word?

I’ve been intrigued by the recent posts at Overcoming Bias on the topic of torture. The proposal is that torture could replace imprisonment for many offences. While my initial response was repugnance at the idea, that may reveal my biased perspective of imprisonment.

As James Miller points out

…both prison and torture impose costs on criminals. Why is one type of cost crueler than the other? If a convicted criminal is indifferent between …torture or being imprisoned …then why would it be excessively cruel to torture but not to imprison?

In New Zealand we distinguish between preventive detention for those who pose a risk to society, and imprisonment as punishment for a crime. Could it be that torture is a cheaper and equally effective way to achieve the goals of our justice system in the latter case? It certainly achieves the goals of punishment and retribution for the crime. The sticking point for me is that torture does not aid in rehabilitation of a convict. However, I’m not persuaded that the current justice system does much of this anyway. It seems to me that people are more likely to find it hard to lead an ‘honest’ life after a long period of imprisonment than after a brief bout of torture. This is particularly so when the money saved in running prisons could be spent on genuine rehabilitation programs.

Is this a case where economists are as guilty as anyone of shying away from an efficient solution because of the moral biases involved? Or is there a real reason why torture is shunned by our society while, simultaneously, calls for harsher prison sentences grow ever stronger?

17 replies
  1. Matt Nolan
    Matt Nolan says:

    I guess the argument against torture is a ‘slippery slope’ type one. By allowing torture the state is allowing physical violence as a form of punishment for things it does not approve of. As a result, it would be hypocritical for the state to punish people for physical violence in cases where they view something as inappropriate.

    Now I hate slippery slope arguments, and I think the one I just wrote down is dumb. After all, we currently lock prisoners up, but its not justifiable for a citizen to lock another citizen in a cage for ‘inappropriate’ actions. As a result, that argument doesn’t hold.

    We could say what happens if we discover that the person was innocent, how can we reverse the damage of torture. Of course the argument against that is that, if a person is in jail for 20 years and we discover they are innocent, we can’t give them 20 years back either.

    However, introducing torture would ‘normalise’ physical violence to some degree. This could change the structure of the social game we play in a suboptimal way. To some degree, violence breeds violence, any society that is willing to have torture admits a willingness to accept some degree of violence.

  2. Kimble
    Kimble says:

    For most people, imprisonment is the lesser ‘evil’ to torture, therefore it is going to be the more palatable alternative. Dont forget, this isnt a one way street, for every punishee there is a punisher. You also need to consider the effect on the person administering the punishment.

  3. Idiot/Savant
    Idiot/Savant says:

    The simple reason we don’t do it is the same as the reason we don’t allow people to rape children no matter how willing they are to pay for the privilege: because it is immoral. Which is a roundabout way of saying that there are some things other than economics which affect decision-making.

  4. Matt Nolan
    Matt Nolan says:

    I disagree with Idiot/Savants statement that there are things other than economics that affect decision making (as economics is the study of individual decision making with scarce resources).

    In economic terms, what he/she is saying is that the idea of having no physical punishment provides an easy social norm for bounded rational individuals. If we allow the state to use physical punishment then this social norm (moral) would break down. Now the social norm was here for a reason: Physical violence provides an externality on the person it is done on, so the social norm appeared to reduce consumption and help deal with this negative externality. As a result, if the norm breaks down, we could have more consumption of physical violence, which is suboptimal.

  5. rauparaha
    rauparaha says:

    Morality is an interesting objection to state sanctioned torture as a punishment. Sure, we don’t like to see people hurt, but we also don’t like to see people imprisoned. Cases where private citizens kidnap and imprison people for years against their will, and subject them to intimidation, violence and possibly rape are usually headline criminal cases. yet that is what prison is reputedly like. I’m not sure what fundamental difference there is between such imprisonment and controlled infliction of harm on someone, which is the proposed alternative. Both are disagreeable but why is one OK while the other is immoral?

    When it comes to slippery slopes, there seems to be no more acceptance of imprisonment and violence in our society than torture. I’m not sure why changing the state’s method of punishment would affect the norm towards violence any more than it affects our norm towards kidnapping and imprisonment.

    I think the point about the effect on the torturers is a good one. It would be a most unpleasant job; anyone who didn’t find it so would probably be a bad candidate for the position. However, we sanction sending people to war to kill others, so I don’t think that the nature of the job is hugely different from some others that we expect people to do.

  6. David S.
    David S. says:

    “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster… when you gaze long into the abyss the abyss also gazes into you… ”

    -Friedrich Nietzsche.

    As an atheist, I think discarding well established morality without proper analysis of the roots of such morality would provide an incomplete assessment of it’s implications. After all, religion, “belief”, morals, are all products of human sociological evolution, and such ideas would have perished to natural selection if they did not have some real use.

    What society would benefit most from is rehabilitation, and people learn by mimicking others. The idea that, “violence begets violence” is not a concept that should be restricted to religion, after all, all religion is a product of sociological evolution. The ideas it promotes that remain relevant to our day in age should remain in our society, in spite of our realisation that there is no objective evidence for the concept of god (nor free will, for that matter).

  7. Matt Nolan
    Matt Nolan says:

    David, it is true that violence may beget violence. However, that cannot be taken as an objective fact. We are trying to discuss how torture may be inappropriate, and one way to do that would be to describe how violence may beget violence. E.g. There is a social norm to not be violent, but government torture would break down this norm.

    We then have to see if this explaination holds up to scrutiny, E.g. If torture leads to a violent society, why does prison not lead to a society where people lock each other up.

    Then we can work from there:

    e.g. The urge to be violent is part of our natural being, part of our instinct, however the urge to lock people up isn’t. As a result, we require a social norm to stop violence, but not to stop people locking each other up, and so we use a policy that allows us to keep our social norm, but still achieve the goal of punishing criminals.

    Another chain of logic that moves against torture, as James was saying, is the rehabilitation. Torture does not rehabilitate, but taking someone out of society and explaining to them how what they did is wrong might do the trick.

  8. Peter
    Peter says:

    For an encore I invite Matt to explain the position that child sex is wrong, from an economist’s perspective.

  9. Matt Nolan
    Matt Nolan says:

    Easy, although the person perpetrating the crime may gain some satisfaction, there is an externality from his consumption decision, which is the damage to the child. There is a value judgment that the size of the externality is greater than the benefit of consumption in all cases, and thereby we regulate the consumption of it, by setting a quota of zero. Punishment for breaking the quota (as the cost of consumption has not been fully internalized unless they are punished for it) we have jail time.

    It is important to realise that I’m using a simple utilitarianism framework to analyze issues. I am not trying to say what is right or wrong, just trying to understand why things can be seen as right or wrong. It is important to question our beliefs, if we don’t then we will never know if something we believe it completely wrong.

    I thought that liberals would agree with this form of analysis, and it would be conservatives that would be up in arms. However, it seems that in NZ everyone calls themselves liberal so that they can feel better than other people.

  10. satsumasalad
    satsumasalad says:

    Torture is a subjective term, I’m sure you have deliberately not defined it.

    How about removal of parts of the body for certain offences? This would be easier to implement than what most of us mean by “torture.” And we wouldn’t be alone – some parts of the world do this already. And we used to do it, not all that long ago. You could do it under general anaesthetic, it needn’t be physically painful. The “torture” would be with the criminal for the rest of their lives, of course. Would that be preferable?

    I dispute though that you wouldn’t find anyone suitable who was prepared to be a torturer. Much like executioners in the days of capital punishment, being a state-sanctioned torturer/maimer would be a career like any other, distateful to some but tolerable to others. People find ways of coming to terms with things that society considers essential – abbatoir workers, undertakers, pooperscoopers, or, further along the spectrum, podiatrists or dare I say bankers – all of these are jobs I couldn’t bring myself to do, but have legions of dedicated professionals who love their work. Ever seen “Worst Jobs in History”? If society accepts and approves, you’ll get people to do the job. No worries.

  11. rickyjj
    rickyjj says:

    “Easy, although the person perpetrating the crime may gain some satisfaction, there is an externality from his consumption decision, which is the damage to the child. There is a value judgment that the size of the externality is greater than the benefit of consumption in all cases, and thereby we regulate the consumption of it, by setting a quota of zero.”

    You do seem to be saying exactly what Idiot/Savant accuses you of…
    Given a theoretical situation where the world was going to be destroyed unless the only person who could save it was allowed to rape a child, it seems like economists would agree that the benefits of saving 6 billion people would far exceed the “externality” of the rape of a child.
    However it would still be wrong to let this happen.

  12. Matt Nolan
    Matt Nolan says:

    “However it would still be wrong to let this happen.”

    Wrong is a value laden term. Wrong also tells us that something has a negative externality. By saying it is wrong, you are making the same value judgement that I made when I discussed that case.

    Just saying something is wrong and not making a decision is not a choice. In that case the choice you make by doing nothing is to let 6 billion people die.

    It is important to divide the positive and normative parts of your analysis. Economics lets us use the framework of methodological individualism to set up the problem, but we can’t make a decision until we apply some value judgements.

    In the example you have provided, all choices provide a negative social welfare. The social planner should make the choice that minimises this cost. That is the positivist part. Next we need to attach values to each of the choices, which will allow us to make our decision, this is normative.

    Personally I’d rather that we all died, as that would be the end of it, there would be some immediate negative impact on utility (the pain of dieing), and I’d attach zero future payoff to everyone. Compare this to the childs case, she/he gets a negative payoff immediately, and a reoccuring negative payoff into the future. However, an economist can compare individuals payoffs in an objective framework, so as soon as I do I have become subjective and what I have said is value laden.

    This argument is ridiculous rauparaha, I think the people we are discussing this with (except for satsumasalad) are so desperate to sound moral and caring infront of people that they have become as close minded as the Catholic church in France before the revolution.

  13. James
    James says:

    I hate to lighten this discussion, but has anyone considered that some types of torture may be enjoyable for some people. Think about the incentives.

    Of course as an economist I refuse to make a moral judgement on such people…

  14. Matt Nolan
    Matt Nolan says:

    Admit it James, you are one of those people 😉

    You raise a good point though, some people enjoy their punishment and it gives them an incentive to commit crime. For some people jail is like this. They might have friends or family in jail, and it can give some people a sense of belonging. In this case, jail does not provide the punishment that might be required. Of course I’m sure this is the exception, not the norm.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] people tend to attack us in emotive terms. When my colleague (James) discussed the way people view torture, he was berated for being ‘immoral‘.  More recently, supporters of the labour movement […]

  2. […] people at no right turn are unhappy with our discussion on torture as an alternative to imprisonment.  That’s fine; however the last sentence of their post interested […]

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