Does Torture Work?


Tyler Cowen on the news that the intelligence that eventually led to the raid on Osama bin Laden’s hideout may have been the result of torturing detainees at Guantanamo:

I have never been pro-Guantánamo, or for that matter pro-torture [], but I am willing to report results which may run counter to my views. The moral and the practical do not always coincide, and perhaps we should be celebrating just a bit less. It is possible this is not a totally “clean” victory on our part.

This is one of the reasons that I think it’s important not to put too much emphasis on practical arguments against torture. After all, if the reason you oppose torture is because torture doesn’t work, then you’d better be prepared to change your mind if it turns out that torture does work. I’m not willing to do that.

The obvious counterfactual here is that although torture might have produced actionable information that eventually helped locate bin Laden, perhaps we could have gotten the same information another way. And maybe so. But I doubt that this kind of abstract argument has much impact on most people. The fact is that torture probably does work in some cases, and if you oppose it, you need to oppose it even so.

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