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L. Neil Smith's
Number 449, December 30, 2007

"Lives of Drudgery and Servitude"

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Torture and the Trolley
by Larry Pendarvis

Attribute to The Libertarian Enterprise

Alice is a 42-year-old mother of three. One day she saw someone place a large bomb somewhere in her home town. The next day, soon after she mentioned this fact to a friend, she received a visit from investigators who insisted that she tell them what she knew.

Alice, for some reason, was reluctant to cooperate with these investigators. We have no need to know her reason, and she has no need to tell us. We can speculate that she wanted to sell her story to a publisher, or perhaps she didn't like the way the investigators were dressed or how they disrespected her, or maybe she didn't want anyone to know just where she was at 2:00 that afternoon, or maybe child investigators used to take her lunch money. Alice's reasons were her own and we cannot know what they were.

Now, there are powerful men arguing today that torture is justified in order to obtain information that can save lives. Most of these men claim that the justification is based solely upon the fact that lives can be saved, regardless of whether or not the person tortured is known to have committed any aggression. This position implies that Alice may be tortured in order to find that bomb. The proper libertarian position, apparently missed by some uncritical libertarians these days, is that it is immoral to initiate any kind of force against Alice—not even waterboarding—regardless of how many lives will be lost if she does not speak.

No one is morally wrong for inaction unless he has taken on some obligation to act. The consequences of his inaction are irrelevant to the moral value of his decision. To say otherwise is to enter the realm of the communitarian, the consequentialist, the utilitarian, the Marxist, and the democrat.

Even many State Laws recognize this principle—you do not have to render aid to a dying man.

My analysis of this situation depends upon Alice's innocent uninvolvement in the bomb plot. I have no complaints about the severest torture of those who are known to have committed aggression—even torture used merely as punishment of men who have no useful information. I am writing only of those who claim that the saving of lives alone, along with the fact that the torturee possesses information that can save lives, is sufficient justification for torturing a man without any proof that he has harmed anyone or threatened harm to anyone.

As for the title of this piece, many will recognize The Trolley Problem (see—unfortunately, they miss the question of who owns the trolley). This philosophical mind-game is interesting as a psychological study ("What would you do?" or "What if Alice were your mother?"), and non-libertarians even argue about the correct moral path ("What may you morally do?"), but from a libertarian standpoint the moral judgment is clear: It is immoral to initiate force against anyone, even to save umpteen lives (see The World's Shortest Political Quiz, at No libertarian would condone the non-consensual dismantling of a healthy innocent man for organs to save five (or a thousand, or a million) terminally ill patients. But many non-libertarians would; they are the ones advocating the torture of innocents for information.

(Reminder, don't write in, I am not referring to those who advocate torture of men shown to have committed aggression.)


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