Dirty hands and the romance of the ticking bomb terrorist: a Humean account

On Michael Walzer's influential account, "dirty hands" characterizes the political leader's choice between absolutist moral demands (to abstain from torture) and consequentialist political reasoning (to do what is necessary to prevent the loss of innocent lives). The impulse to torture a "ticking bomb terrorist" is therefore at least partly pragmatic, straining against morality, while the desire to uphold a ban on torture is purely and properly a moral one. I challenge this Machiavellian view by reinterpreting the dilemma in the framework of the Humean theory of justice and moral sentiment. By interpreting the ticking bomb scenario as a dramatic narrative, I argue that it appeals to properly moral sensibilities, which speak in favour of the use of force against the terrorist. The absolute ban on torture, by contrast, is an artificial virtue and a product of political prudence. On this account, the ticking bomb terrorist dilemma therefore imposes a different burden on the political leader from Walzer's version: an ethic of political responsibility demands that the political leader be prepared to sacrifice her moral soul by upholding the law against moral but politically imprudent demands to break it; while the ticking bomb romance appeals to her feelings of compassionate moral concern towards particular individuals. She dirties her hands morally, not by authorizing torture, but by allowing the terrorist's bomb to detonate and take the lives of the innocent.
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DOI 10.1080/09692290.2010.517978
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David Sussman (2005). What's Wrong with Torture? Philosophy and Public Affairs 33 (1):1–33.

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