Why is torture such a dirty word?
Posted September 1, 2007on:
I’ve been intrigued by the recent posts at Overcoming Bias on the topic of torture. The proposal is that torture could replace imprisonment for many offences. While my initial response was repugnance at the idea, that may reveal my biased perspective of imprisonment.
As James Miller points out
…both prison and torture impose costs on criminals. Why is one type of cost crueler than the other? If a convicted criminal is indifferent between …torture or being imprisoned …then why would it be excessively cruel to torture but not to imprison?
In New Zealand we distinguish between preventive detention for those who pose a risk to society, and imprisonment as punishment for a crime. Could it be that torture is a cheaper and equally effective way to achieve the goals of our justice system in the latter case? It certainly achieves the goals of punishment and retribution for the crime. The sticking point for me is that torture does not aid in rehabilitation of a convict. However, I’m not persuaded that the current justice system does much of this anyway. It seems to me that people are more likely to find it hard to lead an ‘honest’ life after a long period of imprisonment than after a brief bout of torture. This is particularly so when the money saved in running prisons could be spent on genuine rehabilitation programs.
Is this a case where economists are as guilty as anyone of shying away from an efficient solution because of the moral biases involved? Or is there a real reason why torture is shunned by our society while, simultaneously, calls for harsher prison sentences grow ever stronger?