Mill & Torture: Analyzing Torture Through a Utilitarian Lens 

April 2013


In the works of J.S. Mill, his support of civil rights is prominent as well as his mode of thought as a utilitarian. Although Mill does not explicitly state his view on torture, I argue that if the suspect in question was foreign and known to have committed terrorist activities or have ties with those who did, Mill would be in support of their torture in a time of crisis. First, I will explain the baseline utilitarian view as applied to torture. Then, through the analysis of counter arguments, I will support my claim that Mill would support torture under certain circumstances.


In Chapter II of Utilitarianism, Mill states, “The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness” (Utilitarianism). By this principle which Mill holds, no action is intrinsically wrong but is only right or wrong in its consequences depending on how much happiness or utility they bring about. For this paper I will classify torture as including both psychological and physical torture. The implications of this principle with regards to torture mean that the torture of someone would only be wrong if that action brought about more unhappiness than happiness. If Mill strictly followed the Greatest Happiness Principle when assessing the morality of torture, this would commit him supporting the torture of a suspect in situations where the torture of said suspect would likely lead to good consequences.


Undoubtedly, Mill’s view of utilitarianism encompassed more than the Greatest Happiness Principle. One could attempt to argue that Mill held a different type of utilitarianism that allowed him to say that certain actions are intrinsically wrong. While it does appear that Mill seemed to hold “rule” utilitarianism, where the morally rightness or wrongness of an action resides in the utility of following the rule that that action applies to, as opposed to “act” utilitarianism, which holds that the rightness or wrongness of an action lies in the consequences of the action, this still does not mean some actions are intrinsically wrong. Looking at torture through Mill’s eyes as a rule utilitarian, he would undoubtedly hold the general principle “torture is wrong” just like murder, theft and other widely considered immoral acts. However, this still allows Mill to hold that in some cases, torture is morally permissible if the act of torture yields greater utility/happiness than not torturing, such as in the case of torturing a terrorist with time sensitive information. Mill supports these exceptions to moral principles in his essay, Whewell on Moral Philosophy (1852). In his argument for exceptions to certain rules he states:


“To take an obvious instance, the rule against homicide, the rule against deceiving, the rule against taking advantage of superior physical strength, and various other important moral rules, are suspended against enemies in the field, and partially against malefactors in private life: in each case suspended as far as is required by the peculiar nature of the case.” (Whewell on..).


Here, Mill makes direct reference to certain moral rules, including perhaps the most important moral rule against murder, being suspended against enemies in combat or during times of war. It is not unlikely that during a time of crises or war, Mill would say that in particular cases, the moral rule against torture could also be suspended to protect individuals or societies. Although Mill sees the significant importance in following moral principles, much like the reasons for suspending some of these rules during times of war or combat, a terrorist with time-sensitive information would be a crisis where the rule “don’t torture” could be suspended.


Another argument one could make against the utilitarian view supporting torture in certain cases is the fact that the utility of an action cannot always be projected, especially in the case of torture where the stakes of consequences are high. Mill responds directly to this “uncertain expected utility” argument in Whewell on Moral Philosophy, after Dr. Whewell made the same argument against general utilitarianism. In his response, Mill states “If Dr. Whewell can point out any department of human affairs in which we can do all that would be desirable, he will have found something new. But because we cannot foresee everything, is there no such thing as foresight?” Mill argues that even though we cannot predict every outcome of an action does not mean that we should not try to predict outcomes and use our predictions as tools when determining the utility of an action. Mill admits that we cannot know the outcome for every action but this does not mean we should halt our speculation because it is not always accurate. He supports his claim with the argument that prudence depends on making calculations for own course of action and we do not refrain from doing this in daily life and therefore we should see no problem with calculating actions when they pertain to morality. More importantly, Mill states that while prudence relies on our individual actions, the establishment of moral rules only requires the calculations of classes of actions. Mill would easily say that the calculations of torture as a class of action would prove to generate more unhappiness than happiness and the action would not have utility. However, in the case of torturing a known terrorist where it was likely that they had information which if extracted, could save many lives, the utility of torturing that person to extract said information could be calculated to be more than not torturing and not extracting the information. Although you cannot know for sure whether the torturing of the terrorist would provide actual utility, Mill’s ideas on expected utility suggest that if there was a good chance lives could be saved by torturing the known terrorist, the utility of the action would be high enough that he would support the torture of the suspect.


While Mill did hold the Principle of Utility in high regard, he also believed that it was intolerable to violate certain civic rights. One could argue that no matter the utility or lives saved that could come from torture, Mill would say torture violates certain rights that are intolerable to violate. However, in On Liberty and in other works, Mill only refers to the rights of citizens, not the rights of foreigners and especially not of those who have been known associates of criminal groups. More importantly, Mill holds that the state can exercise power and seize rights if a person plans to harm or is harming another citizen: “that the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others” (On Liberty). If Mill was in support of the state exercising power over a citizen that planned to harm other citizens, it’s safe to say that he would be in favor of the state exercising power over a person not of the state who was known to have ties to crime. Since Mill did not express his views of rights for foreigners in a state, we must look elsewhere for what he would say on violating the rights of a foreign terrorist. In Chapter V of Utilitarianism, Mill states why you would want to defend rights in a society and he states that he can think of no other reason than that of “general utility” (Utilitarianism).


If Mill grounds the reason for defending rights in utility, it is unlikely that he would be eager to defend the rights of a terrorist who likely had information which if known could save lives. In this case, Mill would analyze the utility of two situations: the utility that would come from not interrogating/torturing the terrorist and therefore not getting the time-sensitive information and the utility of torturing the terrorist with time-sensitive information. As we have already established, we can never guarantee the utility that will be brought about from a certain action and torture is no exception. But we have grounds to believe that Mill would assess the utility of not torturing the terrorist, which would rule out the biggest chance for gathering information that would save lives, and would say that the utility of this action, or lack thereof, would be so low that any alternative would be better, including torturing the terrorist with hopes of gathering the information. The low utility of respecting a terrorist’s rights would therefore sway Mill to be in favor of violating rights, if the terrorist had any to begin with, in this type of situation.


Torture, like any other action, cannot have constant predictable consequences. Although Mill held civic rights in high regard, this is pertinent to citizens of a country and not to foreigners, especially those who have been linked to criminal activities. If the suspect in question did not have citizenship and was known to have ties with terrorist activity, the utility of not torturing the suspect does not hold up to the utility torturing and likely obtaining information from said suspect under Mill’s view of utilitarianism.