Tick, Tick, Tick

If you talk to non-pacifists long enough, you’ll eventually find someone who advances what’s become known as the Ticking Bomb argument in favour of torture. Steel-manned, it goes like this:

Suppose you had arrested a terrorist mastermind, and you knew that he had planted a bomb which would explode on a timer. If he didn’t tell you where the bomb was, many innocent people might die. Since he’s a terrorist mastermind it’s reasonable to assume that he wouldn’t want to tell you. By torturing the information out of him you would save many lives: how can this not be considered morally just?”

Since this argument is normally made by non-pacifists, it is generally not useful to reply that torture is never morally just: we might believe that but they don’t. As such, there needs to be a different reply, one which makes sense to non-pacifists. Permit me to make this argument below.

Firstly, please note that this is a utilitarian argument: it relies upon the belief that morality consists of a balance of different factors, and that a small harm can be outweighed by a large good. Utilitarianism is not itself a bad position to take (I identify as utilitarian myself) but it’s not the only form of morality out there. Many people believe in moral absolutes, for example, in which a given harmful act can never be absolved by its consequences, no matter how good. If you meet such a person making the Ticking Bomb argument, please remind them that it is by nature a utilitarian argument and see what their reaction is.

Secondly and more importantly, it is a perfect-information argument. It assumes that you have a terrorist mastermind, that this terrorist mastermind knows where the bomb is, and that you will be able to tell whether what they told you is true. These things don’t happen in the real world: all we have is guesses and estimates and the shadows of our own biases. Since the Ticking Bomb is a utilitarian argument it rests upon statistics, probabilities and large numbers, and that means that those are methods that can be used to argue against it.

Let’s take it a step at a time and see what a non-perfect-information (that is, a non-fantasy-world) version of the Ticking Bomb would look like.

Suppose You Had Arrested A Terrorist Mastermind

Except you hadn’t. Terrorist masterminds don’t exactly advertise the fact, they tend not to wear uniforms or insignia of rank, and the history of security operations is full of mistaken identities. The security forces do the best they can, and that means arresting lots of people in the hopes that one of them knows something.

Thus in our non-fantasy version, there isn’t a single terrorist mastermind in a cell somewhere, cackling and twirling his mustache. There’s a hundred people, all looking like civilians, of whom at least ninety-nine are indeed civilians. One of them might be the terrorist mastermind, or they may not. Let’s be generous and assume that one of them is. You don’t know which one it is. So you torture them all. As a result, you get one hundred people telling you that they don’t know anything about a bomb, ninety-nine of whom aren’t lying; and then when that doesn’t convince you, they’ll make something up so you take the cloth off their face and let them breathe.

…And You Knew That He Had Planted A Bomb


Did he tell you? Terrorists say things all the time. Most bomb threats are false alarms. You can’t simply round up a hundred people and torture them every time someone phones in a bomb threat.

Did you spot someone planting it? No you didn’t. You don’t have perfect information, remember. You saw someone do something which you think might have been planting a bomb. Again, ninety-nine times out of a hundred it’s a tourist who lost their luggage, a drug dealer making a handoff or an ethnic minority who your police are suspecting the worst of. You might not like such people and you may even be okay with them being tortured, but no matter how hard you hit them they won’t be able to tell you where the bomb is because they don’t know about one.

Did you get a tip-off? Chances are, someone’s trying to use you as their agent in some score-settling.

The reality is that the overwhelming majority of people arrested and questioned in security operations are innocents, and the security forces are well aware of this fact. They refer to it as the “problem of false positives”, which takes us back to the problem above: if you arrest a hundred people for suspicion of planting a bomb, ninety-nine of them are innocent.

To make it worse, terrorists generally operate in cell structures: you have to arrest the right terrorist mastermind, not just any terrorist mastermind.

But there’s an even bigger problem here.

…He Had Planted A Bomb

Terrorists, most of the time, aren’t planting bombs. They might be recruiting or spreading propaganda or training one another or gathering information or any one of a thousand other things. Actual terrorist bombings – or even attempts – are rare, and take up a small amount of their time.

This means that the real terrorist mastermind, even if you had him amongst those ninety-nine civilians, probably can’t tell you where the bomb is because you probably didn’t arrest him during the relatively small amount of time between when he planned the location and when the bomb went off.

Once again, this means that when you’ve got him tied to a chair and you’ve got those pliers in your hand, his pleas of ignorance are entirely the truth.

If He Didn’t Tell You Where The Bomb Was

A hundred people, all being tortured, will tell you a lot of things in order to get the torture to stop. This is also true for any sort of mistreatment of prisoners which is euphemistically referred to as not being torture. If they say “I don’t know anything about a bomb, please let me go, I’m innocent” and you decide not to take their word for it, then you’re going to hear a lot of people saying things that they think you want to hear. Some of them will take the opportunity to rat out their enemies, and some will tell you rumours that they heard going round but have no basis in fact.

This goes for the terrorist mastermind himself too, of course. He’ll be lying to you and giving you plausible false information just like everyone else. Most groups train people to withstand interrogation, meaning that he’s probably calmer than the ninety-nine others around him and can pretend to be innocent better than they can. His plausible false information might lead your agents into an ambush or make them commit an act which can be used as terrorist propaganda, or it might just waste their time. Alternatively, he might tell the truth.

In the best case scenario, he tells the truth. You now have a hundred leads to check out, one of which leads you to the bomb, and all of which have to be investigated as if they’re potentially ambushes, or are potentially terrorist propaganda plays, or are the business rivals of someone you took prisoner.

Better get moving.

Many Innocent People Might Die

Ninety-nine of them, in fact, in your prison cells, getting their fingers smashed with hammers.

Oh, what’s that? You’ll let them go once you establish that they aren’t terrorists? How? Terrorists don’t carry ID cards. They look just like civilians because they are civilians, and everybody is going to be protesting their innocence. You’re either going to have to kill them all or keep them all locked up forever, or you’re going to have to let the terrorist mastermind go.

But here’s the catch: you just took those people off the streets and out of their houses on suspicion, and tortured them. They may not have been terrorists when you arrested them, but they damn sure will be afterwards. As will their families, their friends and their loved ones. Unless these people are pacifists then they will take up arms against you for doing this, and unless you’re a pacifist then I think you’ll agree that they’ll be utterly justified in doing so.

Surely It Would Be Justified?

In a non-perfect-information world (that is, the real world), we instead have this scenario:

You have the suspicion that a bombing might be happening, so you arrest some people who you think might have been involved. All of them claim innocence, so you torture all of them. They tell you some things. It’s possible that one of those things is the clues to a bomb. It’s more likely that none of them are, or that one of them is an ambush. It’s virtually certain that several of them will be people who are owed money by your prisoners. Either way, you let the survivors go afterwards and say “no harm done, fellows, let bygones be bygones?” Then you wonder why there are more terrorists in the world afterwards.

From a utilitarian standpoint, this is pretty weak stuff; and this is supposed to be an argument which rests upon utilitarian principles. When examined closely, however, we can tick off all of its assumptions as being nothing more than perfect-information fantasies and therefore unbecoming of intelligent people. Tick, tick, tick.


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