Ticking time bomb scenario  

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The ticking time bomb scenario is a thought experiment that has been used in the ethics debate over whether torture can ever be justified.

Simply stated, the consequentialist argument is that nations, even those that legally disallow torture, can justify its use if they have a terrorist in custody who possesses critical knowledge, such as the location of a time bomb or a weapon of mass destruction that will soon explode and cause great loss of life. Opponents to the argument usually begin by exposing certain assumptions that tend to be hidden by initial presentations of the scenario and tend to obscure the true costs of permitting torture in "real-life" scenarios—e.g., the assumption that the person is in fact a terrorist, whereas in real life there usually remains uncertainty about whether the person is in fact a terrorist—and rely on legal, philosophical/moral, and empirical grounds to reaffirm the need for the absolute prohibition of torture.


The concept was first introduced during the 1960s in the novel Les Centurions by Jean Lartéguy which is set during the First Indochina War. The version in the novel has the following conditions:

  1. The evidence in support of the contention that he has the relevant information would satisfy the requirements of evidence for convicting him of an offence.
  2. There are reasonable grounds for believing that he is likely to tell the truth if severe torture is threatened, and, if necessary, applied to him.
  3. There are reasonable grounds for believing that no other means would have the effect of compelling him to tell the truth.
  4. There are grounds for believing that if the information is obtained quickly, there is a good chance of defusing the bomb before it goes off.
  5. There are reasonable grounds for believing that the likely damage to be caused by the bomb will include death of many citizens, the maiming of others, including the infliction of much more severe pain on others with much more lasting effect than will be the effect of the infliction of torture on the person who has been captured;
  6. There are reasonable grounds for believing that the torturing will not have consequences which would be worse than the damage likely to result from the bomb going off.

According to Darius Rejali, a professor of political science at Reed College, the possibility of sudden, massive destruction of innocent life provided French liberals with a more acceptable justification for committing torture.

See also

In fiction

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