The Instigator
Pro (for)
3 Points
The Contender
Con (against)
7 Points

Ticking time bomb scenario-Is torture justifiable under extreme circumstances?

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Voting Style: Open Point System: 7 Point
Started: 1/3/2014 Category: Philosophy
Updated: 5 years ago Status: Post Voting Period
Viewed: 4,199 times Debate No: 43364
Debate Rounds (5)
Comments (2)
Votes (2)




Ticking Time Bomb Scenario
-Is Torture ever Justifiable?

Imagine the following scenario (taken from
  • A terrorist group has planted a bomb in a city, with the potential to kill thousands, if not millions.
  • You have a member of the group who knows where the bomb is, but is not willing to reveal the location.
  • Only by torturing this person will you be able to obtain the location of the bomb in time to defuse it.

Feel free to use any reliable source on this topic (Wikipedia is acceptable, as are renowned sources such as BBC.)

Round 1 will be for acceptance of debate.
Round 2 and 3 will be constructive speeches, and the last 2 rounds are rebuttals and closing arguments.

All in all, I look forward to an educational debate on this topic.


I accept, and I look forward to an interesting debate.
Pro may make the first argument.
Debate Round No. 1


In the case of this ticking time bomb scenario, it is justified to torture the prisoner. Apply a consequentialistic approach to this scenario. Consequentialism states that “ends justify the means.” This means that we must weigh the consequences of each possible decision we could make. In this case, we must weigh the consequences of torturing the prisoner versus not torturing the prisoner. If we do not torture the prisoner, we do not risk the damaging the terrorist, but thousands of lives will be lost. However, if we do torture the prisoner, yes, we do risk the psychological damage that torture causes, but we also save thousands of lives in the process.



The flaw in any consequentialistic approach, however, is that it stretches moral boundaries by assuming that anything can be done, as long as the outcome is the desired outcome. For example, in the case of the ticking time bomb scenario, Pro is making multiple assumptions:

1. The attack will happen in a short time, or is imminent.

2. The person in custody is a perpetrator and has information that will assist in preventing an attack.

3. Torturing the person will obtain information in time to prevent said attack.

4. The torture is an isolated occurrence.

5. The attack will kill a large number of people.

1. The attack will happen in a short time, or is imminent.

If the timing of the attack is close enough to merit such a degree of action, would the information be provided to the torturer in time to prevent the attack? As I will elaborate further on later, torture is an ineffective method of coercing information and would not yield usable information in time to prevent any imminent attack.

2. The person in custody is a perpetrator and has information that will assist in preventing an attack.

In reality, is the torturer actually sure that the victim he holds is a perpetrator? The most appalling aspect of torture is that a person completely innocent of helpful information could be fruitlessly tortured for a much longer time, but have no information to reveal. Any proponent of torture in the ticking time-bomb scenario would also stretch their moral boundaries to encompass the torturing of people such as anyone suspected of any degree of involvement, an uninvolved relative, or even a child tortured before a suspect to force the revelation of information. This quickly spins the small "exception" that a ticking time-bomb scenario assumes of itself out of hand.

3. Torturing the person will obtain information in time to prevent said attack.

This assumption first assumes that the person in custody is definitely a perpetrator with adequate information. If not, then the torturers would just be sent off on a wild goose chase. In addition, professional interrogators repeatedly stress that torture is ineffective compared to other means of obtaining information and is not an ideal first shot at success. Also, to avoid torture, the victim could easily give false information, misdirecting authorities and paving way for the completion of the attack. And lastly, this implication assumes that the "best" torturers will be utilized, and training individuals for torture is immoral.

4. The torture is an isolated occurrence.

As stated before, if the torture became an isolated exception, it would most likely lead to proliferation of torture on the futile quest for information and would expand the borders in which torture is acceptable. Hence, an isolated occurrence becomes a widespread occurrence, and this furthers the point that in a ticking time-bomb scenario, torture would not assist in stopping the attack.

5. The attack will kill a large number of people.

Pro assumes that any attack in a ticking time-bomb scenario would involve the endangerment of thousands of people. However, in reality, the attack could potentially involve any number of individuals; one person could be in danger, or one hundred thousand people could be in danger. Given that a legal exception is on the line, precision is mandatory. How many people are enough to justify torture at the aforementioned level? Does one person warrant the torture of twenty, fifty, a hundred people more?

All in all, consequentialism fails to support the affirmation that in a ticking time-bomb scenario, torture of the prisoner is justified. It stretches morality to a breaking point, and I have repeatedly delineated the the deplorable means; the ends would never justify the means.

The spotlight is now on Pro.

Debate Round No. 2


Countering Con's argument, a deontological approach (The one Con is using. It states that morals are the top priority when dealing with any situation.) has flaws of its own. For one, it is putting morals ahead of countless lives. What Con is saying is that one should be willing to let an insurmountable number of people die, simply to follow ethical behavior. I do not support completely "throwing morals out the window," but if disobeying one rule will save many lives, it is what is truly right to do.

I will now answer the five assumptions Con claims Pro is under.

1. This attack is imminent.
While there is no part of the situation flat-out saying that the bomb is soon to explode, looking very closely into the situation and applying some logical deduction, one can conclude that the situation is very very imminent. The situation states that "...planted a bomb in a city." Seeing as how tight security is nowadays, one can deduce that the bomb is going off relatively soon, since the terrorist group would not want their bomb to be prematurely discovered and disarmed, preventing them from reaching their goal. Looking at some real-life examples. The Oklahoma City bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah building (about to use the source, for example. The bomb was parked in front of the target building around 8:57 am. The bomb detonated at 9:02 am. This shows that terrorists prefer to set off their weapons very quickly after the weapon is placed.
Con brought up the possibility of it being too late to disarm the bomb. Considering the time difference between planting and detonating, this is a very real possibility. However, what Con does not bring up is that in this case, it is considered a "try or die" situation. We can either try to solve the problem, and may not solve it, or we can sit back, but there is a 100% chance that the problem will not be solved. We can torture the prisoner, and may not save lives, but if we do not torture the prisoner and at least attempt to obtain the information, it is certain that those lives within the city will be lost.

2. The person in custody may not actually have the information.
Con is stating that Pro is under the assumption that the prisoner has the information. However, looking back up to the ticking time bomb scenario, it is a given fact that the person in custody has the information.

3. Torturing may not get the information.
There is one major point that can be brought up against this argument. Referring back to the end of my refuting of Con's first contention, this is a "try or die" situation. Torturing may or may not get the information we need, but not torturing for sure will not get us the information, and thousands upon thousands of innocent lives will be lost.

4. The torture may become widespread.
To refute this topic, refer back to the original situation. It is given that the terrorist in custody has the information. I do not think that this situation calls for no-holds-barred, do-whatever-is-needed torture. I believe that torture should not cause any permanent physical damage, but in this situation, torture is justifiable.

5. The attack may not kill any people.
One contention that can be brought up against Con's statement again comes from looking closely and analyzing the given statements of this scenario. The bomb has been planted in a city. At any given time at any given city, there are at least tens of thousands, or even millions of people packed into a small area like a city. If the bomb goes off, it is certain, no matter where the bombs planted, as long as it is in the city (which holds true, according to the background scenario), that many lives will be lost, a minimum of perhaps 20. However, terrorists, which often try to kill the most amount of people with their bombs, would plant their bombs in places that would cause maximum damage, like crowded areas or building foundations. This brings up the minimum death toll to at least 100, and up into the thousands range. This potential body count increases if the terrorists are using larger and more powerful bombs to accomplish their task, or perhaps even being in possession of a nuclear bomb.

To sum up my arguments, Con stated that Pro is assuming some things that may be wrong, but they are given in the scenario background and are therefore absolute and correct. Also, a consequentialistic approach to this scenario is the best way to go, as a deontological approach destroys the value to life by putting ethics ahead of thousands of lives. Torture may not be effective, but in this case, it is a "try or die" situation, and torture is the only viable option we currently have to solve the problem.

I now end my speech and allow Con to speak.


I would like to begin by stating that a deontological approach to the topic of the ticking time-bomb scenario is much more accurate and effective than a consequentialistic one. First of all, as I will later establish in my speech, torture does not improve the situation of the ticking time-bomb in any way; and second, torture is immoral and therefore not justified. This also clearly rebuts any consequentialistic approach, as the consequence of using torture in this case can be much worse than if torture was not employed. In this debate, Pro is promoting the assumption that an immoral act should be used in a vain attempt to procure information, even if the attempt may actually worsen the situation at hand; this is obviously mistaken.

I will now refute the claims that embody Pro's speech.

1. The person taken into custody has the information, and therefore torture must be used to obtain said information.
However, any terrorist at the level of planning such an attack would definitely have been previously trained to combat or defend themselves against coercive methods such as torture. Since the goal of the torturer is to obtain information that will alert officials to the location of the bomb and place preventive measures, the moment the person in custody gives information, the torture will cease and attempts to dismantle the bomb before detonation will be made. However, it would be extremely easy for the prisoner, having been trained to handle torture, to provide false information to his interrogators. This false information can throw the officials off track and even potentially increase the effects of the bomb by moving "evacuees" within its range. Therefore, even if the person taken into custody has the information, torture would not reveal the answer.

2. This is a "try-or-die" situation and torture is the only way.
As I have previously stated, torture is less effective than other means of coercing information. [1] If this was truly a "try-or-die" situation, why would the interrogators resort to a second-rate form of interrogation to obtain the particulars of the attack from the person in custody? In this situation of imminent danger, wouldn't a quicker form of question increase the chances tenfold that the thousands of people Pro states are in danger might be saved?

3. Something must be done about the attack, as it will kill many people.
As I have previously stated, the person in custody is in the perfect position to misdirect the authorities and increase the casualties resulting from the attack. In addition, Pro has conceded that there may not be enough time to disarm the weapon. Therefore, the attack could either go as planned or have its effects magnified as a result of torture. Once again, seeing as this is a "try-or-die" situation and it is close to impossible that torture will alleviate the effects of the attack in any way, why would we resort to such an immoral form of interrogation?

In summary, Pro has failed to realize that in the case of the ticking time-bomb scenario, employing the interrogation method of self-torture would be absolutely self-injurious. As Pro has previously stated, thousands of lives are clearly at stake. There is very little, almost inadequate time to obtain information from the person in custody in order to prevent the attack. Why then, is torture being used as the interrogators' one shot at success? Why, when torture is clearly ineffective, would the interrogators still expect to obtain any result through the implementation of this interrogation method? In this "try or die" situation, torture is obviously not the answer.

I now conclude my speech. Thank you, and the spotlight is now on Pro.

Debate Round No. 3


Deontology in life-or-death situations is a flawed way of making decisions. Imagine that there is a person, and you see him hiding an automatic weapon, about to walk into a crowded area. You happen to have a gun, and you can either shoot him or let him continue. Consequentialism states that you should shoot the person in question, saving many lives. However, deontology states that you should let that person go, letting this person kill innocent lives. It is easy to see the flaws in deontology; it states that your actions are more important than lives. As shown in this article (, it states that “the belief that torture is always wrong is, however, misguided and symptomatic of the alarmist and reflexive responses.” An “alarmist” is “someone who is considered to be exaggerating a danger and so causing needless worry or panic.” (

I will now counter Con’s previous arguments, using this scenario (from A wrongdoer has taken a hostage, and threatens to kill this hostage unless a demand is met. This demand is unreasonable, and so police have only one option to get the hostage back: kill the captor. As it has been stated in the article, this hostage scenario and ticking time bomb scenario are morally equivalent, and as such, analysis and backing from either scenario can be used to justify action in the other scenario.

  1. 1.The person may not have the information, and torture may not be effective.

This argument essentially states that torture may not give us the information that we need. However, going back to the article, it states that we must base all decisions on the best evidence we currently have. It goes on to state: “Absence of perfect information is never a good reason not to act, otherwise we would never leave our houses—we might get hit by a car on the way.” Again, this refers back to the fact that this is a try-or-die situation. If we torture the person, there may be only a minuscule chance that we save the lives of those in the city. However, not torturing the person secures the fact that all those in the target city will die as a result of our inaction.

  1. 2.Torture is not an effective form of obtaining information.

No alternatives have been provided to torture, and so we must assume that torture is the only solution to this problem.

  1. 3.It is highly unlikely that torture will help in this situation.

While Con does state that with torture, it is close to impossible to save the lives. However, Con fails to mention that by not acting (what they say is the best option), makes it absolutely impossible to save the lives of the people in the city.

Going back to reinforce one argument earlier:

The torture may become widespread

This argument that Con is making is under the assumption that torture is not already widespread. Referring back to the article, it states that in 2003, 132 countries have been reported using torture. This article also states that the ban on torture actually increases the amount of torture in the world. It goes further, however. Con is trying to abolish torture or at least reduce its occurrence. This article says that legalizing torture will actually reduce the amount of torture, since countries are now more accountable.

Con has stated that at this point, there is almost nothing we can do to save the lives. However, Con does not state that there is absolutely nothing we can do, and in this case, we should try our best to save the lives. Not saving these lives by torturing the captured terrorist would lead to so many repercussions that it is obvious that torturing the prisoner is the right thing to do.

My speech is now over, and I hand control over to Con.



First of all, in scenarios such as the ticking time-bomb scenario or the hostage scenario, deontology is not a flawed rule book for decision-making. As I have repeatedly stated in my speech, torture is not the best form of interrogation or coercion, so how can it possibly be justified to use such an immoral method? Consequentialism also fails to back Pro's point that torture is the way to go in the aforementioned scenarios, as the increased efficiency of a method other than torture proves the exact opposite.

Thus far, I have avoided mentioning these other methods to stay within the parameters of the debate, but as Pro has assumed that torture is the only option, I will now prove otherwise.

Torture can prove detrimental to the cause of the interrogator. Recent research proves that the stress and sleep deprivation caused by torture and "enhanced interrogation techniques" can cause the person in custody to remember less well. In addition, these methods are easy to deceive - the person in custody can easy spin a web of lies, giving the interrogator all he wants to hear - and this could be disastrous. Lastly, according to experienced interrogators, torture does not result in trustworthy intelligence. This has the full potential to become calamitous. Pro assumes that this is the only option. However, techniques such as withholding vital evidence or giving the impression that the interrogator already knows everything about the crime are far more effective in yielding confessions from the person in custody. [1] In addition, both these techniques make it much harder for lies to go undetected. Therefore, torture is neither the only nor the best option in scenarios such as the ticking time-bomb scenario.

I will now counter Pro's arguments.

1. The first scenario that Pro brings up, with a person hiding an automatic gun, is irrelevant to this debate and therefore should not be considered. Although deontology versus consequentialism is a key argument in this debate, only scenarios such as the ticking time-bomb that concern the justification of torture should be considered. As the scenario at hand concerns a one-off attempt to stop the gun wielder instead of torture, it does not apply.

2. Pro states that this is a "try-or-die" situation, and that torturing may result in only a minuscule chance of saving lives. However, contrary to his following statement, not torturing the person and using a method I've previously mentioned in my speech actually increases the chances of saving the lives and livelihoods. Therefore, since the interrogators only have one chance at success, shouldn't they choose one of the many more effective methods?

3. Pro states that "torture is the only solution." However, as I have previously stated, I avoided enumerating other methods to stay within the parameters, and as I have repeated multiple times, torture is not only one out of many solutions, but it is also one of the least efficient.

4. Pro is under the impression that I have stated that not acting is the best option. Contrarily, my argument has been focused around the fact that given the fact that something must be done, and also given the fact that torture is not the best way to obtain information, clearly, a method other than torture can be used, with a greater chance at ultimate success.

The spotlight is now on Pro, and we now move into the final round of debate.

Debate Round No. 4


NOTE: Being a policy debater, I have underlined main points of the speech. If in any way, you find this speech excessively long, reading just the underlined portions should still convey the meaning (Feel free to read through the entire thing though if you want to).

In life-or-death situations, where somebody’s life depends on your action, consequentialism is the superior method of thinking. If you apply this to real-world situations where lives are at stake, you see that consequentialism is everywhere. In WWII, Truman had 2 options to end the Pacific Theatre: He could drop the atomic bombs, or send a million Americans to their deaths (, not to mention countless Japanese lives. If you compare an amphibious assault of Japan to dropping the atomic bombs, the body count is significantly reduced by dropping the bombs (i.e., consequentialism). If Truman had taken a deontological approach to this situation, he would have sent millions to their deaths, on both the Americans and Japanese sides, so he could avoid “killing.” It is obvious the flaws behind a deontological approach. Deontology states that you are perfectly innocent unless you directly cause it. However, indirectly causing something is still your fault, since you started the incident.

On a slightly less dramatic example of how deontology is flawed in life-or-death situations, one should also look at self-defense. If someone points a gun at you and a group of people, and it is obvious that the person has the intent of killing everyone, deontology states that you should just let yourself be killed. However, applying consequentialism, one would realize that this approach will save lives. Killing your captor is all for the greater good, as you save more lives than you take.

Overall, deontology itself is flawed. It states that nothing is more valuable than your actions. While in petty situations, it is superior, when you are comparing the mental state of one person versus the lives of thousands, deontology should never be used. While I do agree that it is wrong to hurt someone intentionally, in the face of a massive death toll, the rules should allow for any amount of suffering that is significantly lower than the consequence of not causing the suffering.

On the alternative option to torture, Con fails to explain why even if torture has been proved ineffective, 132 countries still have been reported to use it. ( The evidence and analysis are superior to that of Con’s side.

Countering Con’s list of arguments:

The first of Con’s argument stated that my “machine-gun analogy” was not topical. However, it is indeed topical. That analogy (as well as the two I have presented in this speech) represent another way of looking at the flaws of deontology in these situations. I believe that only one example is never a good way to prove, so multiple examples have been provided. All three analogies are topical and related to the debate.

Con also stated that since this is a try-or-die, we should prefer the alternatives. However, looking back, torture is an effective method over other forms of interrogation, since 132 countries still use torture, despite “evidence” proving otherwise, and the extreme illegality of torture.

Looking through the previous speech made by Con, an extreme discrepancy appears. Why does Con state that they want to avoid listing alternatives, yet they have given one?

Now I close my side of this argument. To sum everything up, deontology is not a good approach to life-or-death situations, especially if the consequences of torture are greatly outweighed by the deaths of thousands upon thousands of innocent lives.

I hope that you, the audience, have come to realize that in a situation like this, torture is justified and should even be encouraged in these situations.



In the first scenario that Pro proposes supports consequentialism, the end of the Pacific Theatre, it is clear that the ends do not justify the means. If the ends are truly to justify the means, sure, prolonging the war would have come at a cost; however, the Japanese were close to surrender, and those nuclear might not have had any effect on the timing of that surrender. In addition, the end result of that decision was terrible: it pushed the world into the Cold War, killed hundreds of thousands of innocent Japanese citizens that could have survived the war otherwise, and relegated the United States' moral standing in the world. After all, the United States remains the only country to ever use an atomic weapon in war. In this situation, we are weighing the lives of citizens against the lives of soldiers. Citizens have only the interest of living through the war in mind, while on the other hand, soldiers are trained in combat and are willing to die for their country. Clearly, a deontological approach is more valid in this scenario.

In addition, the self-defense scenario is irrelevant to this debate because in all the other situations mentioned so far, there is a certain amount of leverage over the opponent (for example, being able to torture the person in custody or having the weapons and means to attack the opposing belligerents), while in this case, you are at a clear disadvantage. Also, if we do as Pro says and apply consequentialism by attacking the captor, their clear next move would be to kill you. Plus, if you did not carry a weapon, would you stand a chance?

Also, torture has been proven ineffective. However, 132 countries are reported to use it because not all countries have the moral capacity of the United States. These countries are willing to do anything for power. This blinds them, and they cannot see or distinguish right from wrong. Therefore, this does not justify the use of torture in any way.

Lastly, there is no discrepancy in my fourth round speech, as I stated that "thus far," I have avoided mentioning alternatives, but that I will "now" prove otherwise.

To conclude, consequentialism fails to support the claim that torture is justified, especially when viable alternatives provide better results than such a method of control. Hopefully, you, the voters, have now realized that torture can never be justified, and that deontology is completely practical in this situation.

Thank you, and we now conclude this debate.
Debate Round No. 5
2 comments have been posted on this debate. Showing 1 through 2 records.
Posted by whiteflame 5 years ago
And so I'm left with one final argument that comes out In R4 from Con. To be honest, I'm not sure whether either of the alternatives to torture that he described would be effective. They may very well not be. But I don't see any response to that point from Pro beyond pointing out a non-contradiction in making it. If there had even been a sentence response on why torture is more effective, or just a short explanation of why these methods are ineffective, this would have been a slam dunk for Pro. As I didn't, the decision becomes harder, since I now have an alternative that is apparently better.

What it comes down to is my perception of which is more important. Should countries be allowed to pursue the low-likelihood-of-success-option of torture? Or should they focus on the two methods proposed by Con? My decision goes to Pro, and only because Con provides no point at which his proffered methods are mutually exclusive. Both methods appear to be usable while utilizing torture. They may be slightly less effective, since the person getting the torture may have issues with memory and may clam up, but that's not directly explained. Hence, vote goes to Pro.
Posted by whiteflame 5 years ago
It's a tight debate, and both sides should be proud of their argumentation, it was a very worthwhile read. The reason for the vote comes down to two possible questions: is deontology better than consequentialism in this circumstance, and is torture the best method we have available for getting information out of a suspect?

The former debate is a bit muddled, and I can see both sides winning aspects of it. I'm giving slightly more weight, however, to Pro's argumentation here. Despite non-topical examples, he demonstrates a value to bringing consequentialist dogma to bear over deontology. I don't think Con's arguments fully tack this back.

So it comes down to whether this is the best consequential route. From Con, I get a guarantee of minimal but widespread harms. From Pro, I get a low likelihood of preventing calamity. I don't hear enough from Con about why I should prefer a certain harm to an incredibly uncertain but important benefit, though that would have been enough to win the round if it had been well-articulated. I've judged a lot of Parli, and I often hear how important it is to prevent nuclear war, no matter how unlikely that war is to occur as a result of a given plan. A solution with a very low likelihood of success, no matter what the possible outcome, may not be preferable to something that is guaranteed. Since I don't get this, and since I get from Pro some argumentation regarding why it's important for any slim chance to be used to the fullest, Pro is winning slightly here.
2 votes have been placed for this debate. Showing 1 through 2 records.
Vote Placed by neilk787 5 years ago
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Total points awarded:07 
Reasons for voting decision: Con had better arguments and reasoning and had an overall stronger case. Clear con victory.
Vote Placed by whiteflame 5 years ago
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Total points awarded:30 
Reasons for voting decision: Given in comments.