Persuasive and Unpersuasive Critiques of Torture

Persuasive and Unpersuasive Critiques of Torture

By Ron E. Hassner, University of California, Berkeley

Torture critics have offered two types of arguments in the hope of swaying public opinion against torture: A pragmatic (consequentialist) argument that “torture doesn’t work” and a moral (deontological) argument about the immorality and cruelty of torture. I present findings from two survey experiments about public support for torture among U.S. adults. The great majority of the respondents in these surveys did not endorse pragmatic arguments. They believed that torture was a quick and effective means of extracting information from detainees who had information about terror attacks. Respondents were unpersuaded by the suggestion that evidence extracted by means of torture might be fragmentary, outdated, or merely corroborative. However, when respondents were informed about the protracted nature of torture, which often requires weeks or months of interrogation before yielding results, their support for torture was lower by 14% in one survey and by 30% in a second survey. Survey participants refused to endorse prolonged torture not because they perceived torture to be ineffective, but because they felt that prolonged torture was cruel. Torture critics would be well advised to steer away from less persuasive arguments about torture inefficacy and instead confront audiences with sobering truths about the cruelty of torture.


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