A Useful Thought Experiment on Torture

Tyler Cowen has an interesting thought experiment that is very useful in explaining why legalized torture is so bad.  He analyzes what you would do if you had information and were being tortured for it.  He posits that you want to give the information and you want to minimize the torture, so he tries to analyze how you could convince that you gave up all the information so you could stop being tortured:

I see a few options:

1. Break down immediately, beg for mercy, humiliate yourself, and spill the beans.  (If you talk right away, will they torture you anyway?  And since no further good information can be offered why should they stop?)

2. Go in acting tough, really tough.  At the first sign of serious pain, start crying and switch to strategy #1.

3. Wait until they apply their "best shot" torture, and then talk.  They will feel they have done their job and stop.

4. First offer (or make up) compromising information to show your disloyalty to the cause your torturers are fighting.  Your confession will then be more credible.

5. Say you don't know anything, try to fight the torture, but break down when you can't stand it any more.  You can't fool them, so the best you can do is to actually "go through the wringer."  You are stuck in the pooling equilibrium, and trying to deviate only makes you worse off.

Which of these is the most credible signal that you have told all you know?  Can you do any better than number five?

This is a tough one, because if you give up your information too quickly the torturers won't believe that you told them everything and will continue torturing you.  But if you don't tell them quickly enough, you get a lot of torture that you could have avoided.

Now suppose that you don't actually have any information, because you have been mistakenly picked up.  How are you going to convey that to the torturers?  You can't tell them you don't know anything at the beginning--they won't believe you and will continue torturing you.  You can't tell them anything useful because you don't know anything useful.  So you are being tortured and you don't know anything.  Is it probable that you will start making stuff up in the hopes that your torturers will think they got something eventually.  I suspect it is probable. 

So if you are not a terrorist and you get picked up by those who torture, you will probably get tortured even more than many real terrorists because you can't break and give verifiably useful information. 

Conservatives don't believe in the infallibility of government agencies and all indications are that the intelligence agencies are more fallible than many.  So why would we set up a situation where innocents are likely to be tortured more than the guilty, and which is likely to produce vast amounts of faulty information?  Doesn't seem wise.  It also doesn't seem right. 

Posted by Sebastian Holsclaw at May 5, 2005 3:25 AM