Torture has been a tool of coercion for nearly all of human history, whether to instill fear in a population or force people to convert, but almost all contemporary attempts to justify the use of torture revolve around torture as a means of extracting information from a victim. Used in this context, torture has a number of prominent advocates, despite the fact that ample historical and experimental evidence suggests that torture is a particularly ineffective way of extracting information (Cole, 2008, p. 375). Despite its inefficacy, torture was a central element of the United States' response to the terrorist attack of September 11th, 2001, and its supporters frequently invoked the image of a high-value target refusing to provide time-sensitive information. Regardless of these dramatic scenarios or even the question of torture's efficacy, it is possible to definitively demonstrate that torture is not acceptable under theories of ontological, deontological, utilitarian, or natural law ethics, and as such should be rejected by any nation that purports to support morality, freedom, or basic human rights.
Before considering how torture is ultimately condemned by the ethical theories described above, it is necessary to define torture more clearly. The United Nations Convention on Torture defines it as:
Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person, information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person […], but only in situations where the torturer is acting in an official capacity. Other texts define it slightly differently -- for example, including the stipulation that the victim must fear for his or her life -- but the United Nations' definition is useful for this study for two reasons. Firstly, it begins by defining torture as pain or suffering inflicted with the express purpose of extracting information, which is precisely the context in which the United States has used and attempted to justify torture (Annas, 2005, p. 2127). Secondly, it includes the requirement that the torturer be acting in an official capacity, which is useful because it allows one to narrow the discussion of torture to those contexts in which it is most relevant. In other words, it allows this study to continue with a clear definition of torture in mind which excludes colloquial uses of the term but includes those situations which are most important to contemporary debates regarding torture.
There is one more minor detail that must be noted before proceeding, if only because there is a small but vocal contingent of commentators who argue that the United States has not tortured anyone over the course of its War on Terror. While this flagrant disregard for reality does not actually influence the veracity of this study's argument, it is nevertheless necessary to rebut this fanciful notion before proceeding, if only to preempt the usual misdirections and faulty counterarguments that arise in response to condemnations of torture, and condemnations of the United States' use of torture in particular. Put simply, the United States has tortured thousands, if not millions of people in its history, and continues to torture thousands more at this very moment. This is because, in addition to soldiers who "forced prisoners to strip naked, leashed them, and made them crawl like animals" in military prisons, and CIA interrogators who waterboarded a wide variety of terrorist suspects, at any given time the United States is holding thousands of individuals in solitary confinement, which is definitely torture according to the United Nations' definition and is most likely torture according to any other reasonable definition of the word (Angell, 2005, p. 557). Torture is not an abstract concept that exists only in history or select "black sites" across the world; there are thousands of people enduring ongoing, sometimes indefinite torture at the hands of the United States government every minute of every day.
Having provided a useful definition of torture and preemptively dealt with a particularly annoying side-argument, it is now possible to effectively demonstrate why torture is unethical according to theories of ontological, deontological, utilitarian, and natural law ethics. Ontological ethics concerns itself with a mode of ethics based on the centrality of being, and as such pays particular attention to the "dialogue between autonomous peers," which regards each individual being as an autonomous agent (Capurro, 2006, p. 176). While ontology itself grapples with the concept of being as such, in the case of ontological ethics one may consider being to be the object of ontological study; that is to say, when one talks about the interactions between autonomous beings, one is using the term "being" as a kind of textual constant (in the mathematical sense); it represents a useful idea that there is a word for, but which has not yet been fully defined in human thought. In this case one could quite easily argue that torture is unethical according to an ontological interpretation, because it violates the autonomy of the individual above and beyond what has been agreed to within the explicit and implicit contracts individuals make as part of a society.
In deontological ethics, the metric by which one may determine if something is ethical or not is to consider whether or not it treats autonomous individuals as a means or an end. To treat an autonomous being as a means, rather than an end in itself, is to rob that being of its autonomy. In this context, torture becomes almost obviously unethical, because it treats the victim and his or her suffering as a means to an end. The most likely counterargument would be to suggest that if torture is used in the service of a greater good than it is ethical, because, for example, if the victim is withholding information regarding an imminent attack, then protecting the autonomy of the intended victims of the attack would justify violating the autonomy of the torture victim. According to deontological ethics, however, even "legitimate ends cannot make up for illegitimate means," and so the desire to save imminent victims does not justify torture (Haque, 2004, p. 657). Even beyond this, however, it is possible to demonstrate even this example in unethical, because it proposes a kind of three-way circle of ethical responsibility, whereby the torture victim's disregard for the victims of the imminent attack justifies the torturer's disregard for the torture victim; even this justification is shown to be unethical, because the torturer is actually using the autonomy of the attack victims as a means to justify an end, namely, the use of torture.
Utilitarian ethics determine ethics according to the idea that ethics should produce, for lack of a more precise term, the most good for the most people. In this sense they differ from ontological and deontological ethics, because they do not posit any universal standard of ethics, but rather argue that ethics should have a specific goal and proceed to develop standards from there. In the case of torture, one might attempt to argue that utilitarian theory would actually permit torture in the kind of ticking-clock scenario described above, because the "bad" inflicted on the torture victim vastly outweighs the "good" of saving all the victims of an imminent attack. However, this represents a reductive conception of utilitarianism, because more than anything, it relies on having a much broader view of any situation than most people are accustomed to. For example, in the aforementioned scenario, one cannot merely consider the effects of torture on the torture victim and attack victims, but also the more diffuse effects authorizing torture has, on the specific organization, the government, and society as a whole. When considered along these lines, it becomes clear that torture is not permissible within utilitarian ethics for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it does not provide accurate information, so there is no reason to believe that the information gleaned from torture in a ticking-clock scenario would actually prevent the deaths of others (Arrigo, 2004, p. 544). Secondly, the authorization of torture by a government marks the beginning of a process of ethical degradation, which causes "breakdowns in key institutions […] independent of the original moral rationale" (Arrigo, 2004, p. 543). Put simply, when considered from the perspective of utilitarian ethics, torture is just not useful.
Perhaps more than any other ethical theory, ethics based on notions of natural law must condemn the use of torture, because it rests upon the dual recognition that there are certain "natural laws" governing the behavior and experience of humans, and furthermore, that human reason can ascertain the best means of gleaning a standard of ethics from these natural laws. In other words, "human beings share significant common characteristics in virtue of which some conditions and practices are bad for every human being and some other conditions and practices are good for every human being," and one…