The Prohibition on Torture and the Limits of the Law

32 Pages Posted: 10 Jan 2004

See all articles by Oren Gross

Oren Gross

University of Minnesota Law School


The debate about the moral and legal nature of the prohibition on torture and about the permissibility of carving out exceptions to that ban is generally conceptualized as a clash between two opposing poles with no middle ground between them. One may support an absolute ban on torture. Alternatively, one may believe that the duty not to torture, even if generally desirable and laudable, does not apply in certain exceptional circumstances, or, even if it does apply, is overridden, canceled or trumped by competing values.

This paper defends an absolute prohibition on torture while, at the same time, arguing that truly catastrophic cases, such as the paradigmatic ticking-bomb scenario, should not be brushed aside as merely hypothetical or as either morally or legally irrelevant. The paper suggests that the way to deal with the "extreme" or "catastrophic" case is neither by reading it out of the equation nor by using it as the center-piece for establishing general policies. Rather, the focus is turned to the possibility that truly exceptional cases may give rise to official disobedience, i.e., public officials may step outside the legal framework and be ready to accept the legal ramifications of their actions. I argue that the prospect of extralegal action supports and strengthens the possibility of formulating and maintaining an absolute prohibition on torture.

Keywords: Torture, Human Rights, Emergency

Suggested Citation

Gross, Oren, The Prohibition on Torture and the Limits of the Law. Available at SSRN:

Oren Gross (Contact Author)

University of Minnesota Law School ( email )

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