In regards to the question about whether or not it is ethically appropriate for a nation to use torture to extract information in order to save lives from an imminent threat (and all other means of obtaining the information have been exhausted) the many different theories of ethics will have many different answers.
Utilitarianism would likely prima facie approve of the use of torture in order to achieve the greater good for the most amount of people. The only requirement for morality for the utilitarian is to ask if the ends justify the means. It is also possible though that a more reflective utilitarian that sees more than just the immediate situation would see the consequences to be eventually negative for the greater good rather than positive. It may immediately save lives, but in the long run it may corrupt the moral integrity of the nation and therefore achieve a far worse end in the long run than the immediate good of saving lives (not to mention the immediate evil of torture).
Kantian Duty-Based Ethics
Kantian duty-based ethics would not allow for torture because allowing for torture to some individuals cannot be universalized without self-contradiction. If torture became a universal rule for obtaining information that we felt was extremely necessary and useful for saving lives then everyone could potentially be tortured. This maxim is self-contradictory and so the Kantian would not likely opt for allowing the torture of terrorists.
Virtue Based Ethics
Being that virtue ethics focus more on the personal character developments of people, rather than the moral ethics in a particular decision, the virtue ethicist would likely disapprove of torture; for if they ascribe to Plato’s cardinal virtues it brings into question the ethic of justice. For the virtue ethicist who follows the ideas of Aquinas it is possible that torture to them would violate love (although a round-about case could be made that the torture was validated because of your love for your country and family who could be at danger). Overall, I believe that virtue ethics would have the hardest time answering this question due to its complex nature which depends more on the circumstances and motivations of the one doing the torturing than anything else.
Christian-principle Based Ethics
Lastly, the Christian-principle based ethic would not likely allow for torture. Christian principles allow for war, but only when it is done so for just reasons. Even then the war must be fought honorably and for right reasons. There were many times where David had the opportunity to take King Saul’s life, but he refused to touch the Lord’s anointed. David had been anointed to be the future King of Israel, but he waited for God’s timing and would not take the throne in a dishonorable manner. Likewise, Christians cannot engage in war, although it may be just to engage in the war itself, in a dishonorable manner. To torture someone is to deny them their base dignity that they have as a creature made in the image of God. That said though, perhaps a case could be made in extremely justifiable circumstances to coerce the terrorist into talking as long as that coercion did not go so far as to cause permanent mental or physical damage.
The question then for the adherent of the Christian-principle based ethic is: what is considered honorable or dishonorable? What would be the line between torture and coercion? That is perhaps as difficult a question as the one first posed above. That which is honorable is likely that which brings ultimate honor to God and honor to the individual who commits the act –without dishonoring the one receiving the act. The line between coercion and torture is perhaps those actions which would not cause permanent mental or physical damage.
One objection some Christians may make is that if Christians may wage just wars in order to protect ourselves and our nation then they should be able to use torture for the same reasons as well. Waging a just war to protect ourselves or our nation is a greater good. Some would call any type of warfare a lesser evil. Christians may sometimes take a life if it is for the sake of justice, but doing so is still considered a lesser evil to accomplish a greater good. Taking a life for the sake of justice would be a lesser evil than torture because in torture the person remains alive. If Christians are allowed to take a life in the name of justice for a just war, then should they be able to torture, which is a lesser evil than taking life, for the end result of justice as well? There are some Christians who think this way. But this type of thinking does not necessarily come from the Bible. It is actually a form utilitarianism where the end justifies the means.
Admittedly torture for the sake of saving lives is somewhat of a grey area as far as the Bible teaches, but in those areas that are grey we must refer ourselves back to cases, area rules, principles, and bases (Holmes, 2007). In the Bible we do not specifically have cases where torture is condemned or permitted. So we advance to area rules. There are no specific area rules on torture, but we do have some area rules that may relate: “Thou shall not murder” (Ex. 20:13); “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18); “Love your enemy” (Matt. 5:44). These rules do not answer the question but they bring us closer. Some Biblical principles help us to balance out our answer: “A time for war and a time for peace” (Eccl. 3:8); “What does the LORD require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Mic. 6:8); “The Lord works… justice for all who are oppressed” (Ps. 103:6). We see two main principles: love and justice. These two principles will act as counterbalances to help us decide in moral grey areas. Lastly we have theological bases, particularly on the nature of God. Some of these are: God is love (1 John 4:8), God is just (Ps. 7:11), and God is judge (Ps. 75:11). So where does that leave us then?
The line between coercion and torture is blurred, and so the Christian would do best in avoiding the conflict all together. Following the principles of loving your enemy and loving justice with meekness means that you may sometimes be at a disadvantage in the short-term when you are unwilling to use the tactics that a non-Christian may have no fear of using. But part of being a Christian means you answer to a higher authority. We must remember that our actions must bring glory to God, and that what we accomplish here on earth is not always the end goal. The end goal is heaven. And while we get to heaven only by the grace of God through faith in Christ our works will only be rewarded if they are done in such a way as to glorify Him.
The appropriate course of action is to not torture the terrorist. This can be supported by every ethical system. The Christian-principle based ethic is the most appropriate ethic because it allows for accountability to a higher source than even government demands and a basic respect for every human being based on the mere fact that all men are created in God’s image (Gen. 1-2). This ethic may allow for forceful coercion (but not torture) so long as the person is treated with dignity and respect (and that the overall motivation was out of justice and love). But, the Christian would be better off to avoid the blurred line all-together. The Christian-principle based ethic allows for us to do the right thing for more than duties sake. It also allows us to look beyond the immediate consequences of utilitarianism and “fear God rather than men” (Acts 5:29, NKJV). It is superior to that of virtue ethics because virtue ethics cannot tell us what is objectively just, wise, courageous, or temperate; but God’s law can.
Holmes, A. F. 2007. Ethics: Approaching Moral Decisions. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press