When We Torture: Moral and Pragmatic Arguments For and Against Torture, and Their Effect on Public Support For Redressing Past and Preventing Future Injustice

Emanuele Castano, Psychology, New School for Social Research

Bernhard Leidner, Psychology, New School for Social Research

Research Grant, 2009

Violence can take many forms, and it can vary in scale and intensity. This research project focuses on one specific type of violence that is usually perpetrated against a relatively small number of individuals, but surely not less heinous or consequential: torture (Rothenberg, 2003; Skoll, 2008). There are several reasons for focusing on torture. One reason is that it has been a central element in many of the conflicts that have characterized the 1970s and 1980s, particularly in Central and South America, where torture (e.g., Peters, 1984; Staub, 1989) and disappearances (e.g., Argentine National Committee of the Disappeared, 1986) were also central to postconflict attempts to rebuild the countries socially and politically (e.g., Becker, 1986). Furthermore, the recent use of torture by the United States has stirred countless debates, further contributed to already-entrenched divisions in public opinion, and damaged the US’s reputation and moral authority worldwide.

The project aimed specifically to develop an understanding of how the debate over lethal and nonlethal torture against prisoners perpetrated by one’s government affects people’s opinion about how to punish perpetrators and compensate victims, and whether and how to prevent torture in the future. This is considered an important step, for public opinion will inform individual and group behavior and thus affect policy.

Appealing to the moral and good in human nature may be worthwhile and effective after all, and may help strengthen the normative power of international humanitarian law.

Broadly speaking, arguments against torture fall into one of two categories. First, torture can be opposed on the basis of pragmatic arguments, considering cost-benefit analyses regarding its efficacy (e.g., torture does not work) or its repercussions (e.g., loss of reputation). Second, torture can be opposed on the basis of moral arguments (e.g., torture violates human rights). We conducted three experimental studies investigating how these two types of arguments affect US citizens’ attitudes toward US-committed torture. In Study 1, Americans expressed stronger demands for redressing the injustice of US-committed torture after they were presented with moral rather than pragmatic arguments or no arguments against torture. Study 2 replicated this finding and showed that the effects of moral arguments against torture on Americans’ opposition to torture further depend on how attached someone is to his or her country, and how much someone glorifies his or her country. Specifically, moral arguments increased justice demands among those who typically react most defensively to wrongdoings committed by their own country: people who are strongly attached to their country and strongly glorify it. Finally, Study 3 demonstrated that the effect of moral arguments against torture on justice demands and support for torture among strongly glorifying Americans is driven by moral outrage and empathy but not guilt. That is, moral arguments against torture made strongly glorifying Americans more outraged about the behavior of their own country, and made them more empathic towards the victims of torture; this increase in outrage and empathy then made them more opposed to torture.

To conclude, moral arguments against torture committed by one’s own country seem to increase demands for justice and decrease support for torture, precisely in those people who are most problematic from the perspective of social justice and peaceful intergroup relations—that is, people who strongly glorify their own country. Rather than being a naïve or hopelessly idealistic approach, appealing to the moral and good in human nature may be worthwhile and effective after all, and may help strengthen the normative power of international humanitarian law.

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