A C Grayling: Should we torture someone to save thousands of lives?

Two items in the current Intelligence and Security Committee report make an interesting pair: its statement that the terrorist threat to the UK remains "severe", and its revelation that an "ethical counsellor" has been appointed to provide an avenue for security services staff to express concerns about their work.

The two items jointly highlight a familiar dilemma. Do we abide by normal standards of human decency in times of danger, or is it justifiable to use harsher methods of getting information to safeguard the public? Controversy has arisen over "rendition" and various forms of coercive interrogation, including waterboarding. Concerns about these matters have been voiced by security service staff, and with them concerns about sharing information with less ethically scrupulous countries, and whether in preventative work among immigrant communities, personnel should be trying to change people's beliefs.

The ISC report says that a dozen staff members have been to see the ethical counsellor. The appointment of an ethics counsellor is particularly welcome in an organisation where tough decisions have to be made. The mere existence of such a person is a reminder that questions of principle lie behind every action. The ISC's satisfaction that few staff have seen the counsellor could indeed be a good sign, but it could be a bad one too. Given the shadowy nature of the security world, limits are sure to be pushed. Rendition aside, what about invasion of privacy, interference in individual lives, and the effect on security personnel themselves?

The crux, though, is whether an individual's human rights can be put into temporary abeyance in the interests of thousands at risk? Would it be acceptable to torture someone who knows the whereabouts of a "dirty bomb" in the centre of a city?

The utilitarian view in ethics says that torturing one person to save many is justified. The deontological view in ethics says that torture is unacceptable even in the extremist circumstances. Real life does not seem to fit well with such a stark contrast, but these two theories mark the opposite poles of what an ethics counsellor might advise. In hoping that the counsellor inclines to the latter, we would be sharing the view of Bishop Bell speaking of the Allied bombing campaign in the 1940s: "We are fighting barbarians," he said, "must we behave like them too?"

A C Grayling is professor of philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London