Sunday, November 02, 2008

Understanding Poetry...err, I mean Torture

My English 101 class is working on critical thinking skills by analyzing a series of pro and con arguments about controversial topics. One of the issues the students selected to discuss was whether or not torture is ever morally justified.

The affirmative is argued by Mirko Bargaric and Julie Clarke in a strange article entitled "Not Enough Torture in the World?" They argue, following Alan Dershowitz's lead, that harm minimization can be attained by making torture legal so that oversight can be made. In a section called "The Formula" they set out the circumstances in which torture would be acceptable. And let me just say before I quote, that I am not making this up and it is not a piece from The Onion:

The strength of the case in favor of torture can be mapped as follows:

T x O


W=whether the agent is the wrongdoer
L=the number of lives that will be lost is the information is not provided
P=the probablility that the agent has the relevant information
T=the time available before the disaster will occur ("immedicacy of the harm")
O=the likelihood that other inquiries will forestall the risk.

Whew. Where to start?

I find it funny that "W" is represented as an either/or quanity but "P" is a probability and hence on a sliding scale. One wonders whether or not the numerical value of "W" is such that it can be "0" and the numerical total crossing the threshold could still be reached? If it isn't, then is it so high as to make L and P irrelevant?

These are, of course, ridiculous questions for a ridiculous formula. My real question is this. Where is Robin Williams when you need him?


peter said...

Wow, that is one perverted formula. Even a quick glance shows that only "L" and maybe sometimes "T" are likely ever to be quantified with any degree of confidence before the torture actually begins. Are you sure this wasn't Ashcroft's idea? ;-)

Kenneth R. Morefield said...

Peter, "perverted" is exactly right, in every sense of the word.

Doug said...

Congratulations, Bargaric and Clarke, you have just discovered the formula for the TV show "21." Unfortunately, in the real world, there are seldom any dramatic countdowns and the information one gets from torture is highly suspect--victims of torture will tell their tormentors anything they think they want to hear. The sad irony of it all is that torture is a highly ineffective way of gathering accurate information.