The hypothetical “ticking time-bomb” scenario represents a unique argument in favor of torture.  There will be a terrorist attack on Christmas day and a captive may know where and by whom.  Torture seems more reasonable in this scenario for a few reasons.

  1. It’s a clearly defined one-off thing.  We can use torture to defuse the ticking time-bomb and still claim to have a general policy against torture except in these special cases.
  2. The information especially valuable and verifiably so.
  3. There is limited time.

If we look at torture simply as a mechanism for extracting information, in fact reasons #1 and #2 by themselves deliver at best ambiguous implications for the effectiveness of torture.  A one-off case means there is no reputation at stake and this weakens the resolve of the torturer.  The fact that the information is valuable means that the victim also has a stronger incentive to resist.  The net effect can go either way.

(Keep in mind these are comparative statements.  You may think that torture is a good idea or a bad idea in general, that is a separate question.  The question here is whether aspects #1 and #2 of the ticking time-bomb scenario make it better.)

We would argue that a version of #3 is the strongest case for torture, and it only applies to the ticking time-bomb.  Indeed the ticking time-bomb is unique because it alters the strategic considerations.  A big problem with torture in general is that its effectiveness is inherently limited by commitment problems.  If torture leads to quick concessions then it will cease quickly in the absence of a concession (but of course continue once a concession has revealed that the victim is informed ). But then there would be no concession. And as we wrote last week, raising the intensity of the torture only worsens this problem.

But the ticking time-bomb changes that. If the bomb is set to detonate at midnight then torture is going end whether he confesses or not.  Now the victim faces a simple decision: resist torture until midnight or give up some information.  The amount of information you can get from him is limited only by how much pain you are threatening.  More pain, more gain.