One of the dominant meta-ethical methodologies today is consequentialism. The consequences of your choice determine for you the right choice. Roughly speaking if your choice would lead to harm, then it is wrong. Then, consider the following, is it torture from a consequentialist perspective, and if so why? And if it is not, why is it wrong … or is it wrong at all.

  • We propose first a drug exists which prevents the formation of long term memory. If this drug is taken, no long term memories will be formed effectively and permanently erasing all subsequent memory of the events from the last, say, 12 hours.
  • A torture technique, much like the infamous waterboarding is applied which causes great mental distress, “cracking” the subject but causing no organic damage, i.e., no physical harm which will be detectable the next day by the subject.
  • Therefore the use of the techniques like the above coupled with the absence of memory mean that for the subject there is no way of determining that anything occurred.
  • After questioning is performed and the results reported , both the subject and the administrator(s) of the questioning (the “torturer”)  are given the drug noted above. Thus neither the questioned nor the questioner have any memory of the event. For them, this never occurred.
  • Furthermore, names and data regarding the subject and administrators are not kept. No video record is kept of the interrogation, just conclusions remain with all source information excised. This is to insuring that there will remain no possible (direct) data remaining of the specifics of the interrogation. This prevents the subject (or interrogator) from later viewing and discovering later that they took part this event.

So the question is, where is the harm? It is said that the act of torture degrades the torturer as well as obviously harms the tortured subject. This is in fact why the interrogator as well as subject are given the drug. Therefore with no physical or mental memory of the event, how do we locate harm to the subject? Without memory, is there harm? There is no consequence to subject (or interrogator) on which a harmful consequence can be attached. Where then is the harm located?

The only possible harm is the memory gap that remains. But memory gaps are common. About a decade and a half ago, I had appendicitis. Demoral was administered as a pain killer after the surgery. Intravenous demoral had the effect on me of preventing me from forming reliable memory of the event. Memory of small inconsequential routine days as little as a month or half a year ago fade. Human memory is not so precise that one can realistically locate as harm to an individual the loss of a half of a day in the eight to ten decades of average human lifespan. Couple that with national imperatives to solve crime, stop terror, or save lives by performing the interrogation and one has a consequentialist argument that leads one inescapably to the conclusion that this sort of interrogation is not only not harm, but an ethical good.

My suggestion is that this sort of thing is indeed actually unethical and wrong and that that there is no consequential argument that can be made against it. Therefore this can be posed as is an argument underlining a fundamental deficiencies of the consequentialism as a meta-ethical methodology.

Is this just logical nonsense? Perhaps, but I suspect the technology to implement such a program is not just a hypothetical suppostion, but that it could be implemented today, if a government so chose. That consequentialism is perhaps the dominant meta-ethic should therefore give us pause.


Filed under: Ethics & MoralityMark O.

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