Nobody Cares if Torture “Works”


I’ve long thought that, like the death penalty, support for torture is more about exacting retribution against bad people than it is about the utility of the policy in protecting good people. This why I expect that the Senate’s report detailing the horrors of the CIA’s torture program and debunking claims about its effectiveness in preventing terrorism will have no discernible impact on public opinion.

So far, I’m right: Americans still support torturing terror suspects, even if you call it “torture” and not “enhanced interrogation,” and even after the report’s thorough refutation of the claim that torture prevented attacks.

Support for the death penalty, in principle, comes from the idea that some acts are just so awful that offenders deserve to die. People want to see murders killed because they’re bad people, not because it deters crime — which is why decades of research that show it doesn’t has not settled the debate over capital punishment.

I think the discussion over whether “torture works” is just as irrelevant. People who oppose torture do so because it’s a human rights violation, regardless of the guilt or innocence of the person being tortured, and regardless of its stated goal. (The Senate report found that more than a fifth of the people detained and tortured by the CIA were innocent.)

But though people who support torture are more likely believe it has good consequences, motive is not utilitarian. Torture-supporters hate terrorists and want to see suspects punished, as cruelly and unusually as possible. If it produces some intelligence too, hey, that’s a nice bonus. But the real payoff is the act itself.

It’s admittedly hard for me to prove this, but recently I’ve seen some poll data that is at least consistent with this theory. Almost every demographic group in America supports torture by a large margin — except one. A 2009 Pew poll found that a majority of nonreligious people think the CIA’s torture methods were unjustified.

Moreover, support for torture is correlated with religiosity: the more religious you are, the more likely you are to think that torture is morally justified. Given that conservative religious morality tends to be deontological and inclined towards retribution, I think this lends some support to the idea that people support torture more as a form of retributive punishment than as a utilitarian means of extracting information.