Torture and neuroeconomics

by on September 22, 2006 at 5:30 pm in Law | Permalink

Studying some neuroeconomics has made me even more opposed to torture than I was in the first place.  Yes I will make an exception for the ticking nuclear time bomb.  But if we are torturing a very very bad person, I don’t see the torture as satisfying justice.  The part of the brain which suffers is not the same as the part of the brain which planned the crime.  Yes neuroeconomic data are hard to interpret.  But under one view, there is a sheer production of pain which is severed, to some extent, from the individual personality of the criminal.  It is almost as if we are creating a new suffering entity which consists of little more than pure suffering.

I don’t think this is the most important argument against torture, but it is one additional consideration.  Retributive justice does not weigh on the pro-torture side of the scale as much as one might think.

Matt Yglesias surveys what the recent "torture compromise" really means.

1 Robert September 22, 2006 at 5:25 pm

Is torture even looked upon as a form of punishment here in the “western world”? The only pro-torture argument I’ve heard in a good while is that of it being an effective interrogation method when all else fails.

Also, do you have any introductory books (or books at all, for that matter) on neuroeconomics, to recommend? The selection at Amazon appears somewhat scarce, but I’d like a good introduction before hitting the academic papers.

2 Honest Bob September 22, 2006 at 5:47 pm

Talk about missing the point.

No one in the West talks about torture as retribution or punishment. It’s job is to get the individual being tortured to spill the beans.


3 Rhadamanthus September 22, 2006 at 6:47 pm

I’m wondering why Tyler wants to turn subunits of the brain into persons with moral standing. Why, Tyler, why?

4 Constant September 22, 2006 at 6:59 pm

That “torture” is not “punishment” is a matter of definition, but their distinction has nothing to do with whether they are unpleasant to the recipient because punishment is supposed to be unpleasant just as torture is and therefore they share the dimension of unpleasantness. Torture is however by definition different from punishment because torture is to coerce an action in the future and punishment is to punish an action in the past.

An example: when the American boy was caned in Singapore, that was not torture even though it was extremely painful for the boy, because it was to punish an action in the past rather than to coerce an action in the future. In contrast several of the activities which Bush is being criticized for would be mild as punishments, and are criticized not because they are unconscionably painful but because their purpose is to coerce an action (spilling the beans).

5 fishbane September 22, 2006 at 7:28 pm

People do, in fact, talk about torture as a punishment. Very well regarded legal minds do. (He did later repudiate the idea, but not on moral grounds.)

If someone of Eugene’s obvious brilliance and training thinks like this, that leads me to believe the same impulse that leads to prison rape jokes happen in the heads of many, many other people.

6 EclectEcon September 22, 2006 at 8:24 pm

There is a very important distinction between torture (which, most commenters identify as inflicting pain to extract information) and cruel and unusual punishment (which is primarily retribution). I have an article on the economics of the latter, which can be accessed here for those who are interested.

7 DK September 22, 2006 at 8:42 pm

Whether or not people talk about this, IMHO, torture as punishment is directly relevant to what went on at Abu Graib, where torture degenerated from an interrogation tactic to punishment to pure sadism. I agree with Tyler that it creates an experience of pure suffering disassociated from the personality or actions of the victim, although my perspective is more Christian than neurological.

8 Constant September 22, 2006 at 11:23 pm

I would rather be whipped than executed. Apparently, then I would rather be tortured than punished. It seems to follow, then, that torture is not necessarily worse than punishment, at least not from the point of view of the person being subjected to it.

I would also rather be caned than be imprisoned for one year. Again, punishment appears worse than torture.

I am of course adopting a definition of torture as being the deliberate infliction of extreme pain. Caning and whipping are torture under that definition, regardless of their function.

9 mike September 23, 2006 at 12:07 am

Whether or not people talk about this, IMHO, torture as punishment is directly relevant to what went on at Abu Graib, where torture degenerated from an interrogation tactic to punishment to pure sadism.

Torture, in that circumstance, was not inflicted by the MPs to personally gather information. Supposedly, the MIs wanted them “softened up” for conventional interrogations and were left to their own imaginations as to what sort of pain and degradation to inflict. There is a good argument for not allowing such reckless and unstructured forms of abuse to occur. After all, you are applying torture, in that instance, before you have even begun to find out what you might accomplish using conventional interrogation and before you’ve even evaluated what a subject is likely to know. Such torture is not going to be merely functional, but sadistic also.

However, I don’t think that makes a case against using torture to facilitate interrogation under the more controlled circumstances we’ve seen the CIA use it to get information of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and company.

10 Constant September 23, 2006 at 6:14 am

All punishment is deliberate infliction of suffering. Folks who want to distinguish between punishment and torture but who do not want to talk about their distinct goals, are reduced to making claims about what is or is not overly severe suffering. Well, in answer to that, who’s to say what is or is not overly severe? If one person says X is not too severe but Y is too severe, and someone else says Y is not too severe, by what principle can we decide who is right?

(Remember that all punishment is deliberate infliction of suffering – that’s what makes it a deterrent; obviously if it did not make the subject suffer it would not be feared and it would not be a deterrent)

Here’s a way to distinguish between moral and immoral infliction of suffering. Moral infliction of suffering does not violate the rights of the subject; immoral infliction of suffering does. What are those rights? Well, it’s easier to describe the limits of those rights. But let’s use examples: a person has no right to kill another person. Therefore the intended victim has the right to deliberately inflict suffering on the would-be murderer in order to stop the murderer. An example of this would be kicking him in the balls.

Do people have a right to kick the balls of would-be murderers who are trying to kill them? It is deliberate infliction of extreme suffering, so the folks who have been arguing that torture is wrong and who have been defining it as “the deliberate infliction of extreme pain or suffering on another person” must logically conclude that, no, the targets of would-be murderers do not have the right to kick their attackers in the balls. I, in contrast, would say they do.

Now here’s the opposite example: a person has the right to remain silent. I’m sure people are familiar with the right to remain silent. Because of this right, it is wrong to coerce a person into speaking. Torturing someone to make him talk is an example of such coercion.

11 Mark September 23, 2006 at 8:26 pm

I did not use the word “suffering” precisely because it is a very broad term and is susceptible to semantic games. Extreme physical pain, on the other hand, has a very uncontroversial definition.

Constant is either ignoring or misinterpreting the word “deliberate” which is an extremely important part of the definition of torture. The example of prisoners getting backaches illustrates this: their pain is not deliberate but rather incidental. As for a murderer threatening to kill you, kicking him in the balls is a legitimate strategy because the aim of that action is not the infliction of extreme pain, but rather the incapacitation of the murderer. If you could hit him in the side of the head and knock him unconscious without any pain, that might be a preferable strategy that achieves the same ultimate objective.

And of course I am quite aware of the history of corporal punishment as well as the history of its abolition in the Western world (and most of the non-Western world) and the reasons for that abolition. When the government becomes directly involved in the business of deliberate human cruelty, government tends to become dominated by uncontrollable sadists and sociopaths. The distinction between inflicting pain for reasons of supposed national security and inflicting pain for fun is extremely fragile.

12 Mark September 23, 2006 at 10:43 pm

I didn’t remember using the word suffering. My bad: consider it erased from my previous post. I don’t consider my definition exhaustive; it is just that I am pressed for time and want to give a clear, albeit incomplete, definition that cannot be subject to endless semantic arguments. Moral philosophers get paid to come up with such definitions; I don’t.

Blog comments are not the ideal medium for discussing such subtle issues. I would recommend anyone interested in the torture debate (which really should be anyone with a pulse) to read Thomas Nagle’s essay “War and Massacre.” It is by far the most cogent modern piece of writing on morality during wartime I have read.

I agree that corporal punishment is a different issue but you were the first to bring it into the discussion. The morality of various forms of criminal punishment is a difficult area but requires much more than a couple of paragraphs to do it justice.

Finally, I will note that what I mean by “deliberate” is that your actions and intentions track the level of pain in the victim. If you are in a situation where you have to defend yourself and you have the choice of incapacitating him using an extremely painful method versus incapacitating him using a painless method, the choice of the painful method is morally indefensible. If in practice there is no painless method available, then painful self-defense is morally justified because the defender’s intentions do not track the pain of the victim. It is intentions that matter — not goals — in defining torture. Again, you should read Nagle on this point as I cannot completely flesh out the distinction in a couple of sentences.

13 Keith September 24, 2006 at 4:24 pm

To me, the solution seems relatively straightforward. We don’t want to give the US government authority to torture anybody it chooses (or to rendition anybody it chooses to torturers) because that can go wrong pretty quickly. Basically, you can get innocents telling torturers what the torturer wants to hear, and that’s detrimental to everything we’re trying to accomplish. In addition, it’s not necessarily all that effective with your super-ignorant tribal low-level guys, who probably have no idea how swell we are. Pleasantly surprising the rank-and-file might be a more effective interrogation method.

But if you have a guy like KSM, who clearly does know relevant stuff, then torturing him seems okay by me. The fact that he’s really bad and helped kill 3,000 people probably contributes to my sanguine attitude on the matter.

So why don’t we have a Congressionally authorized waterboarding list? The President submits names, and Congress votes on authorizing waterboarding for each name. That way, we keep the waterboarding to the hard-core upper-level guys who fit the following criteria:

a) we already know that they know stuff, so we’re not risking having some poor innocent goat farmer making a bunch of false confession

b) they will not respond to nice methods.

Who’s with me?

14 joan September 25, 2006 at 9:19 am

The most compelling argument I have read against torture was by Vladimir Bukovsky published almost a year ago during the last torture debate.
“with the exception of the Black Death, torture is the oldest scourge on our planet (hence there are so many conventions against it). Every Russian czar after Peter the Great solemnly abolished torture upon being enthroned, and every time his successor had to abolish it all over again. These czars were hardly bleeding-heart liberals, but long experience in the use of these “interrogation” practices in Russia had taught them that once condoned, torture will destroy their security apparatus. They understood that torture is the professional disease of any investigative machinery.”

15 Malcolm September 29, 2006 at 12:02 am

Torture is not used as a punishment but as an agent to get some one to talk. I have rarely heard it used as punishment. Torture can also have little to no effect. By the time a person has been tortured enough to talk, their body has released so many endorphins that the person is flying higher than a kite. Torture is an outdated method that doesnt need to be used.

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