Searching for an essay?

Browse the database of more than 4500 essays donated by our community members!

Is Torture Ever Justified?

“There is one place in which one’s privacy, intimacy, integrity and inviolability are guaranteed – one’s body, a unique temple and a familiar territory of sens a and personal history.”1 Through the horrific acts of torture, one’s body changes from the once sacred life-dwelling ‘temple’ into an instrument used merely to inflict severe physical pain in the hope of gaining much-needed information or simply to mete out punishment or coercion.2 Torture results in varying responses and reactions both during and after these physical and intangible emotional and mental violence displays. None of these responses has a slightly positive effect on the tortured, instead often leaving the human soul mentally unstable and suicidal. Moreover, every set of universal laws, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, rebukes all acts associated with torture. Thus, in rudimentary terms, the act of torture has no legal, let alone moral grounds, which can be justified.

Torture, it seems, began at the creation of mankind and has endured being, sadly, a part of the human condition in one form or another. The now violent acts of torture evolved from early forms of legal conduct. In the beginning, natural and innate laws governed society and its well-being by the desire to survive and live harmoniously together. When either of these requirements fell victim to one’s avariciousness for rebellion or lust for self-focused ambitions, the acts were punishable often by death or what we would now signify as acts of torture.3 “The law of primitive humans used exile for punishing major offences…”4 During these seemingly primitive times, punishment existed through the ejection of delinquents from society and the civilised world.

This process of punishment, i.e. exclusion and expulsion from civilisation, is a part of what is often referred to or classified as torture.5 The necessity for a common code of laws became ever-present as the population of the anthropocentric society grew. It was later decided that any actual forms of punishment through the means of what is now identified as torture would only be “committed against enemy tribes and animals”6 The majority of the early European laws were adhered to because of the ‘eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth’ style of punishment, also known as Lex Talionis.7 During this time, at approximately 1000BC, torture was most commonly used as a means of “exacting vengeance for real or imagined wrongs. Public displays such as stoning and crucifixion were used mainly to deter other criminals.”8 “The suffering of the victim was maximized to demonstrate society’s outrage and deter others”9. Thus, torture methodology has existed for many millennia and has ceased to differ from the acts of torture conducted upon humans today.

Although society may have seemingly come a considerable way compared with the social constructs of the ancient world, it is still debated whether acts of torture should be morally justified and, if so, under what pretences and under what circumstances. In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, accepted on an international level, it is prohibited for anyone to be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.10 Although this law is universally accepted and acknowledged, there are still approximately 123 countries that are known to be practising some form of torture; most of these acts of torture are conducted not to gain vital information but rather to severely punish the person for some form of misconduct.11 Torture is never justifiable as means to punish a person. Prisons, monetary fines, probations, social exclusion and many other forms of punishment are much more socially acceptable and justifiable than the ethically wrong torturous acts of brutal physical pain that can lead to mental instability and much worse.

The torture aims to indoctrinate the ‘subject’ into believing that there is no escape from the physical, emotional and mental pain, and thus, the only viable option is to give in the torturer’s command. The ‘indoctrination’ of the abused becomes apparent when bodily functions cease to operate, and the mental ability and functionality of the abused becomes little more than a dependant child striving for normality and equality.12 Torture lasts not only for the period during which the horrific event takes place, but it continues to dwell within the heart and soul of the person, leaving them with no sense of freedom, individuality or security. As the psychological heartache and pain persist at breaking down the human soul, the once found desire and passion for living slowly diminishes to a minimum, with many of the abused choosing to commit suicide rather than live with the pain of the past. “The sounds, the voices, the smells, the sensations reverberate long after the episode has ended – both in nightmares and in waking moments.

The victim’s ability to trust other people – i.e., to assume that their motives are at least rational, if not necessarily benign – has been irrevocably undermined. Social institutions are perceived as precariously poised on the verge of an ominous, Kafkaesque mutation. Nothing is either safe or credible anymore.”13 Defining and classifying differing acts of torture into varying brackets of acceptability can be dangerous because of the lack of clear boundaries between what is morally acceptable and what is morally intolerable. “Some kinds of treatment are so extreme as to be obviously and universally unacceptable.”14 Other forms of conduct vary in their levels of acceptability depending on the particular contexts. For example, a conclusion could be made when forming an opinion on the treatment of adults compared with that of a child, that an adult could acceptably be put through considerably more than an innocent child.

Stories of torture habitually filter through many conversations with aspects such as the human body’s needs being denied in the name of punishment. “Bodily needs denied – sleep, toilet, food, water – are wrongly perceived by the victim as the direct causes of his degradation and dehumanization. As he sees it, he is rendered bestial not by the sadistic bullies around him but by his own flesh.”15 Given the people’s lives most often discussing these issues surrounding torture; it is often hard to comprehend the extent to which the bodily needs are being taken from the tortured and the severe scope of the maltreatment of human life. It is often fairly easy to come to the conclusion that torture is simply not justified in any circumstance when given shocking examples of where torture had been used to punish innocent people. Yet debate arises when certain theories are discussed surrounding the possible justification of torture in extreme circumstances.

The ‘Ticking-Bomb’ theory is one of the only viable theories that exist today with the aim of justifying torture in extreme circumstances. “Should physical torture be applied – where psychological strain has failed – in order to discover the whereabouts of a ticking bomb and thus prevent a mass slaughter of the innocent?”16 The other part of this argument comes out clearly in the above quote, the utilitarians’ point of view; it is justified because it saves more lives than it is harming. “If by killing or torturing the few we (a) save the lives of the many (b) the combined life expectancy of the many is longer than the combined life expectancy of the few and (c) there is no other way to save the lives of the many – it is morally permissible to kill, or torture the few.”17

If this argument was to be morally viable and accepted, boundaries would have to be clear and unambiguous. Such boundaries are often too difficult to conclude upon, and thus, it has often remained, in legal and moral systems, that torture can simply not be justified given the lack of clear differences between right and wrong. An example can further exemplify this problem of boundaries: “[I]n a controversial decision in 1996, the Supreme Court of Israel permitted its internal security forces to apply “moderate physical pressure” during the interrogation of suspects.”18 The phrase “moderate physical pressure” was never defined, and thus torture became legally and morally accepted in some cases. Case reports were often filtered through to the media where “moderate physical pressure” was practised on Palestinian detainees. Reports revealed that the acts were actually of “gross indecency” towards the Palestinian detainees and that abuse was “widespread”, with many Palestinian detainees dying because of a direct connection with the supposed “moderate physical pressure”.19

Even if boundaries for torture could be defined, the ‘Ticking-Bomb’ theory still has its faults as it does not comply with the commonly accepted moral: ‘innocent until proven guilty.’20 People can not simply be put to the punishment of torture if it can not be proven that a direct connection between the “would-be-tortured” and the so-called ‘bomb’ exists. Also, proof can rarely be given that a bomb exists in an unknown location before it is found or explodes. One may ask ‘How can torture be justified, in the ‘Ticking-bomb’ case, if proof of the bomb or proof that there is a direct connection between “would-be-tortured” and the ‘bomb’ cease to exist?’ Cases such as the ‘Ticking-Bomb’ theory rarely take place in today’s society; thus, even if torture was justified in this one circumstance, the occurrence would be almost negligible to extreme pressure to allow torture to be justified in more circumstances.

In our legal system today, it is commonly understood that information obtained ‘under duress’ is often unreliable and is, in most circumstances, not permissible in court.21 When placed under physical, emotional and mental pain and agony, often a person will agree to anything merely to have this brutality stop, disregarding all truthfulness and accuracy. Differing ways of obtaining information are more morally accepted and often acquire more accurate information than the irrational acts of torture such as persuasion, moral pressure and rigorous questioning. If interests lie in the retrieval of quality and accurate information, then acts of torture will surely not be needed to achieve such aims.22

Torture is addictive and can become almost “drug-like” in its effect on the torturer.23 Once ‘mild’ torture becomes acceptable, all brackets of conduct in torture over time will become, not only legally, but morally, right and just. “Institutionalizing torture will give it society’s imprimatur, lending it a degree of respectability. It will then be virtually impossible to curb not only the increasing frequency with which warrants will be sought – and granted – but also the inevitable rise in unauthorized use of torture. Unauthorized torture will increase not only to extract life-saving information but also to obtain confessions (many of which will then prove false). It will also be used to punish real or imagined infractions or for no reason other than human sadism. This is a genie we should not let out of the bottle.”24 Torture has been regarded as one of the most serious human rights violations.25 Although rights such as freedom of speech and the right to the freedom of assembly can be taken away during times of national duress and emergency, the right not to be tortured remains. The right not to be tortured cannot, under any circumstances, be taken away nor restricted in any way, shape or form.26

“Torture exists to degrade the human soul and to punish every living organism that dwells in it.”27 Torture is the dehumanising act of punishment with physical, emotional and mental pain that endures within the soul of every one of the abused. Although some argue that there is a just reason for the existence of such a debasing act of violence committed upon human beings, through the means of gaining information, other forms of much more effective and less harmful methodology can and should be used. Utilitarianism provides a further argument for the justification of torture, yet it ceases to accept the fact that the fact no matter how many lives it may save, it is still morally and legally wrong, especially when other more effective approaches could and should be utilised. Every law and moral value upon which every human stand denies that torture could ever be justified. There should be no question in this supposed debate; the act of torture has no legal, let alone moral grounds, which can be justified. “This is a genie we should not let out of the bottle.”28


  • Farrington, K. 1996, Dark Justice: A History of Punishment and Torture. New York: Smithmark publishers.
  • Hardin, G. 1978, Stalking the Wild Taboo. Chicago: Barnes Publishing Group (now Barnes & Nobel Publishers).
  • Mannix, D. 1964, The History of Torture. New York: Dell Publishing Company, Inc.
  • Scott, G R. 1939, The History of Torture Throughout the Ages. London: Luxor Press.
  • Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 5, [online, accessed 16/04/04], EBSCO Host Database.
  • Vaknin, Dr S. 2003, Malignant Self Love – Narcissism Revisited. Chicago: Barnes & Nobel Publishers.


  1. Vaknin, Dr S. 2003, Malignant Self Love – Narcissism Revisited, p66
  2. Hardin, G. 1978, Stalking the Wild Taboo, p14
  3. Farrington, K. 1996, Dark Justice: A History of Punishment and Torture, p37
  4. Mannix, D. 1964 The History of Torture, p12
  5. Ibid, p12
  6. Scott, G R. 1939, The History of Torture Throughout the Ages, p12
  7. Mannix, D. 1964 The History of Torture, p14
  8. Ibid, p17
  9. Farrington, K. 1996, Dark Justice: A History of Punishment and Torture, p22
  10. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 5
  11. Vaknin, Dr S. 2003, Malignant Self Love – Narcissism Revisited, p67
  12. Mannix, D. 1964 The History of Torture, p79
  13. Vaknin, Dr S. 2003, Malignant Self Love – Narcissism Revisited, p36
  14. Mannix, D. 1964 The History of Torture, p70
  15. Vaknin, Dr S. 2003, Malignant Self Love – Narcissism Revisited, p27
  16. Hardin, G. 1978, Stalking the Wild Taboo, p7
  17. Ibid, p7
  18. Vaknin, Dr S. 2003, Malignant Self Love – Narcissism Revisited, p34
  19. Ibid, p34
  20. Ibid, p37
  21. Ibid, p40
  22. Ibid, p41
  23. Hardin, G. 1978, Stalking the Wild Taboo, p23
  24. Vaknin, Dr S. 2003, Malignant Self Love – Narcissism Revisited, p35
  25. Hardin, G. 1978, Stalking the Wild Taboo, p10
  26. Vaknin, Dr S. 2003, Malignant Self Love – Narcissism Revisited, p37
  27. Hardin, G. 1978, Stalking the Wild Taboo, p10
  28. Vaknin, Dr S. 2003, Malignant Self Love – Narcissism Revisited, p35

Cite this page

Choose cite format:
Is Torture Ever Justified?. (2021, Aug 09). Retrieved September 17, 2021, from