Monday, May 9, 2011

The Torture Argument...Tortured Again

     There is a story told about Thales of Melitus, often called the first philosopher (c. 585 BC), that gave philosophy a pretty bad name from its opening act.  Thales, so the tale went, was walking along gazing at the beauty of the stars shining high over Asia Minor one night.  He was not looking where he was placing his feet as he admired the heavens, and as a result fell into a deep well.
     Moral: If you want to be a realist, get your head out of the clouds (or wherever else it
     happens to be) and see the world for how it really is.

     Not many of us, of course, want to be thought of as unrealistic.  This is particularly true in discussions of politics, where we can quickly lose our credentials as grown ups and be labeled on the spot with Thales-like reputations for being dreamers.  The writer Ambrose Bierce in his Devil's Dictionary, defined politics as "a strife of interests masquerading as a conflict of principles," and the definition could be emblazoned on the doorways of every political science department and stand as the motto of any 24-hour news channel.  The "realists" can't be sidetracked by any "clash of principles," any consideration of  whether a policy is morally good or bad for our Republic.  They must look rather, for whose horse gains and which one loses, whose oxen are being gored and which ones fed, whose chickens are coming home to roost. (OK, I'll stop with the zoo story right now, I promise.)

     Whether this "realism" makes even minimal sense as our total framework for rational political discourse is a point I'll explore in later installments of this blog.  What I want to underscore now is that this "realism" loses even its superficial  coherence when our talk is about the policy of torture.  The talk has surfaced again with the killing of Osama bin Laden last week.  Several commentators and members of the previous administration (and a few of their relatives) have claimed that the so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques" (like water boarding) that were used for years after 9/11 actually paid off and got us the intelligence we needed to get the job done.  There's not much in the way of evidence for this claim, and no doubt the arguments will go on at least forever. (See earlier blog about stupidity.)

     The moral proscription against torture is about as clear, as universal and as unyielding as any principle we have in our human reason.  It stems almost automatically from one of Immanuel Kant's formulations of the categorical imperative--formulations that define what it means to have a moral point of view at all:

           Human beings must never be treated merely as means to some other end,
          but always as ends-in-themselves

     A policy of torture, then, is precisely a denial of a moral point of view.  Unlike, say, debates about whether or not an economic or fiscal policy makes sense, debates about whether torture makes sense don't really get off the ground.  Yes, some theorists ("realists" who are not comfortable with moral reasoning?) argue that if the United States tortures suspected terrorists, then terrorists will think it's all right to do it to our citizens as well.  But that is not why torture is wrong.  It is wrong because human beings must not be treated as mere means to someone's ends, even when those ends are made paramount by national sentiment. (And, by the way, do we not already know that terrorists are doing it anyway?)  One also hears people say that torture is wrong because it seldom gets really truthful information from the person being abused.  That would make it useless, not morally wrong, hardly equivalent ideas.  Nor is torture wrong because it violates international law.  Those conventions have force only because they embody Kant's imperative; we don't get our moral codes from laws.  It's the other way around:  the rights embodied in the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights would have moral force even if the amendments had never been approved.

     Yet, isn't torture sometimes justified?  What about the "Ticking Bomb Scenario" where the only way to save millions of innocent people from imminent destruction is by resorting to the infliction of excruciating physical or psychological pain on someone who has the requisite information?  Well, more on this in the later blogs mentioned above, since even the most frightening case imaginable has more moral complexity than is usually supposed. Yet even without a lot of subtle analysis, these cases should still trouble us, and only someone completely insensitive to the moral point of view would take them lightly.  Indeed, in these hypothetical situations --which seemed to happen at least once a week on the T.V. series "24"-- we appear to be caught in "moral blind alleys," to use an expression of philosopher Thomas Nagel, situations where we appear to have no good choices available.  (There are others we can come up with as well).  Note also that these cases have nothing to do with torture as a policy, which is where the focus of our moral discussion should be.

     Political "realism," then, turns out at least sometimes to be a pretty unrealistic option for those of us who resist throwing our moral--our human--frameworks overboard.

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