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February 16, 2006


Read this from The Guardian:

A high court judge yesterday delivered a stinging attack on America, saying its idea of what constituted torture was out of step with that of "most civilised nations".

The criticism, directed at the Bush administration's approach to human rights, was made by Mr Justice Collins during a hearing over the refusal by ministers to request the release of three British residents held at Guantánamo Bay.

The judge said: "America's idea of what is torture is not the same as ours and does not appear to coincide with that of most civilised nations." He made his comments, he said, after learning of the UN report that said Guantánamo should be shut down without delay because torture was still being carried out there.

Yup. The key is what counts as "civilized," what separates the civilized from the barbaric. The American king has determined that civilized doesn't matter much any more for his kingdom. Although our moral intuitions tend towards the judgement that torture is wrong, we're nevertheless pressed recently to rethink the US position on torture. This is largely through ex post facto oopsy justifications, wacky analogies, red herrings, hypothetical leaps of faith, and rhetorical excess by those who have some lord-knows-what reason for promoting torture as policy.

[Self-promotion alert] I'm currently editing a book on torture called, well, On Torture, and am particularly interested in hearing what you have to say on this. The book includes original essays by some truly great writers and philosophers (Goytisolo, Todorov, Ehrenreich, Taussig, Britt, Lingis, etc.), and i want them all to push the boundaries of how we think about torture, including the possibility of a justification for torture as policy.

There aren't any good moral arguments for torture. I'll state that flatly. If you're interested, I've explained this in a nutshell here. Edited from an earlier post: For starters, from a philosophical and ethical view there is no coherent justification for torture except, questionably, from the abused "ticking time-bomb" analogy. Certainly not from Kantian positions based in the fundamental dignity of human beings. An exception could be one qualified by lex talionis (eye for an eye). This argument has been used to defend capital punishment: in brief, one gives up one's claim to human dignity when one violates the universal rule that would apply to others whom one has terrorized or tortured or whatever. The penalty aspect then comes from LT -- what to do with this violation? Eye for an eye. But this argument doesn't apply to Abu Ghraib, for example, because, as US generals have admitted, perhaps some 80-90% of "detainees" (itself a consciously chosen term by the administration) were caught up in the wrong place at the wrong time. So, without any guilt in the first instance, a justification for torture based on the Kantian-lex talionis combo claim above appears to have no basis whatsoever. In this instance, in fact, if we assume widespread torture and abuse, most of the victims are innocent. Those who are guilty may be found guilty but only after the fact of torture and not prior, as would be necessary to make the claims above.

From a consequentialist point of view, I think things are a little trickier. It appears clear that if there's a ticking time bomb and someone is tortured who gives you the information on where that bomb is and you thus save thousands of lives with the info gained from torture, then there's a case to be made. But it's unclear in practice whether this case holds up. First, in the Abu Ghraib case, it's clear that the outcomes of the use of torture have largely been to strengthen the insurgency in Iraq, help to recruit further fighters -- Iraqi and foreign -- to the cause of battling the American occupation, and has demolished respect for the US worldwide, not to mention its moral standing in the international sphere. These all have extremely negative short-term and long-term consequences. Second, torture is famously ineffective. The person who is tortured will say anything to make it stop whether the information is true or not.

I can't imagine that we can find justification for torture in other ethical approaches such as virtue theory, feminist ethics, pragmatism, etc.

So, what's the point in torture? It's one of the worst things human beings do to each other -- perhaps the paramount abuse of other humans. It's why we end up with odd formulations in capital punishment that killing people who have killed is okay, but "cruel and unusual punishment" in addition to capital punishment is beyond moral bounds. Clearly, if we're looking to consequences, the Abu Ghraib cases and the legal contortions of the Gonzalez memo, etc. suggest that there are some beneficial outcomes in mind on the part of the administration. I have no idea what these could be.

But, recently, Victor Hanson (who once wrote a good book on agrarianism, but is now a winger hack) suggested that,

The question for a liberal democracy is not whether torture is effective, but whether its value is worth the bad publicity and demoralizing effect on a consensual society that believes its cause and methods must take a moral high ground far above the enemy's.

He's right, in a way. I wouldn't use the vulgarism, "bad publicity," but I would say that there's a much larger issue of American standing in the world. And this matters regarding the very nature of international legitimacy. More later on this....

[Cross-posted at Phronesisaical. Lindsay encouraged self-promotion, by the way]


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"The key is what counts as "civilized," what separates the civilized from the barbaric."

Really? Do you think this is a useful dichotomy, given its history?

And it is, after all, rather hard to keep the two apart, as even Domingo Sarmiento, author of the classic text subtitled, precisely, "Civilization and Barbarie," soon found.

Seems the link didn't work. Here it is: Plenty othe places to find more of the same, though.

I'm a bit confused. You say:

There aren't any good moral arguments for torture. I'll state that flatly.

But then in your discussion you keep dismissing arguments because they wouldn't apply to Abu Ghraib. So are there no good moral arguments for torture, or no good moral arguments for that torture?

In fact, you seem to pretty much immediately concede that there is a "good" moral argument for torturing torturers. Sorry, but I am adrift as to what you're actually arguing.

Jon -

Yeah, I don't disagree with that assessment. In fact, I forgot in the post to continue with the civilized/barbaric theme. I'll get back to it later. I know it's problematic, which also makes it provocative. But I think there is a sense in which this kind of distinction is in play in a political sense, where the goal is to move the goalposts. Hegemons not only write the content of appropriate behavior on the international scene; they write the rules by which appropriate behavior is judged or evaluated too. Ultimately, there's not just a bit of hubris here by promoters of torture regarding US standing in the world and what any legitimacy it maintains allows it to do.

Eli - That is confusing. I don't see myself as justifying ANY kind of torture. Maybe it's convoluted in the post - sorry - but the point is that proponents of the policy of torture rely upon the fictitious 24 episode of the ticking time bomb. We can hypothesize lots of different things, and it's important that we're able to do that. If there is an argument for torture, I think, it really does rely on that general kind of hypothesis (although perhaps not this particular one). But this particular hypothesis itself doesn't do the groundwork of justification. This is especially the case when we look at actual practices or torture such as in the particular instance of Abu Ghraib and the administration's insistence on torture being within not merely its legal and political power but also its moral power. This collapses even the ticking time bomb as a source of justification since the torturers would presumably only know about the ticking time bomb after they've tortured. And then in that case, we know that information gotten via torture is notoriously unreliable. So, the claim is that the hypothetical is used a priori to justify actual practices, but then you'd have to go around torturing willy-nilly to realize the hypothetical and give its justificatory force.

Something like that anyway. What do you think?

Thank you for raising this issue, Lindsay. One of the most convoluted lines of thought from this regime has been, first, to deny that we ever torture; second, that when torture transpired, to deny that it was policy to do so; and finally, when it was revealed that President Bush's administration had spent much of their time in preparation for war finding justifications for us to torture, denying once again that we torture. This, despite John McCain's assertion (you remember Senator McCain--he was tortured in Vietnam) that torture is ineffective.

Years ago, I read something that troubled me very deeply. I'll try to remember which book it was in, but I think it was called "The Death of Obergruppenfuehrer Reinhard Heydrich." Heydrich, the head of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (RSHA, or Reich Head Security Office) was the SS official who masterminded turning the concentration camps from prison camps into murder factories. By 1943, he had been stationed in Prague, as Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia (the present-day Czech Republic). The British trained a small team of Czech exiles as assassins, and they blew up Heydrich's Mercedes (Heydrich, one of the most arrogant Nazis, not to mention one of the cruelest and coldest, didn't vary his route).

When the SS captured two of the assassins, they tortured and interrogated them for hours, but neither of them would talk. The SS and Gestapo torture and interrogation techniques included truth serum; amputating fingernails; leg braces with spikes that closed, iron maiden-like, over the leg; and simple beatings. Nothing they did to the assassins sufficed, though, until they finally wheeled in an aquarium, in which floated the head of the mother of one of the men. He broke down and confessed what he knew, and in their fury and vindictiveness, the Nazis destroyed the town of Lidice, the man's hometown, along with every man, woman and child in the town.

This story troubles me because it is a case wherein torture _was_ effective. Of course, guffawing buffoons like Charles Graner and Lynddie England will never have the intelligence to use torture effectively. For them, it is simply the bully's blunt object, to express their own frustration. It's just a taunt for them. Their kind will never be effective, as the Gestapo sometimes were, though many in the Gestapo, too, were given to the same dull-wittedness. Also, the main problem for those who would be tempted to follow the Gestapo's example is that the story above is not a ticking-bomb story; the bomb had gone off already. As mentioned so often, the ticking bomb secret is almost impossible to torture out of people, because the one being tortured can usually wait out the bomb.

But torture's effectiveness is not at issue. We should not reach the sewer level of debating its effectiveness. It is a moral issue. We refrain from torture because doing it is a worse crime than any we would prevent. Those who would defend it, understand that what you are proposing is satanic. You propose to excuse torture, on the grounds that it's necessary in order to prevent evil; that it's not so bad as what the Nazis did; or that one shouldn't care about a Muslim, even an innocent one. I am not a Muslim. But the person who says these things lies.

It seems to me all you need is utilitarianism. So what if only 1% of detainees deserve an eye out, if we get a goodly amount of deterrence by poking out 100% of eyes and scaring the beejeebus out of our enemies and meanwhile score some prevention via a few shreds of actionable intelligence. If the ticking timebombs are WMD, their potential victims allow us to offset a lot of torture on the principle of maximizing happiness. It's just you have to reject human rights to practice pure and unfettered utilitarianism. Isn't it? (also we lack an exchange rate table by which to balance someone else's torture against us losing an arm or a sibling) Are there good moral arguments for human rights? I'll state flatly that I thought that these were things about which philosophers disagree. Who's the judge of a good argument? What if it makes us feel good to torture people? I think we're going with our guts on this one.

MT, dammit...! That's what I didn't get into, but what I think is intriguing. It is indeed a gut check. But then again we raise the issue of what it means to be "civilized." Isn't that one central thing the US is doing? Terrorism is such a great evil, this story goes, that anything goes in battling it. Nevermind going overboard, and nevermind tossing out our moral intuitions. But, clever you, you've seen the problem: if there's not much of a moral argument to be made in defense of torture, what does this say about arguments opposing it? For philostophers, human rights isn't even necessarily a coherent idea, and that would seem to be the leading contender for providing an anti-torture argument.

Back to what it means to be "civilized".... Isn't that, as Jon's link points out, a pretty relative (and historically dangerous) term? But isn't it also crucial? This sounds pompous to say it, but there's a big historical battle going on here over the very nature of what putatively good society's want to be. A liberal society that openly tortures and seeks to justify the practice of torture is one that's deracinating its liberal roots. Into what? Where? Why?

How about, we know what stinks and what doesn't?

And treating people well doesn't, but treating people with hatred does?

I think Arthur Silber had a pretty good series of posts demolishing the "Ticking Time Bomb" theory, largely because it is so notoriously ineffective, and because the process of breaking down the psyche is a lengthy one, hollywood depictions notwithstanding. If there really was a "ticking time bomb", the likelihood is that it'll go off before the individual gives up such important information.

Of course, this scenario opens the door to an argument of degrees. What is the threshold for a ticking time bomb suspect? Just how certain does an officer have to be of the individual's guilt before they can use such force legally? Given the historical use of torture to extract false confessions (Something torture is exceedingly good at), can we trust any confessions of guilt or declarations of plots foiled from an individual who has been subjected to torture?

Indeed there are other methods available. The whle idea of "Winning hearts and minds" might be viewed as "loving hippy crap" these days, but it's an effective interrogation technique used by police. The entire "Good Cop, Bad Cop" routine is based onthat ideal, gaining the individual's trust, overturning preconceptions of the jailor as the enemy, and making them a friend, all for the purpose of using the resulting information to build up a prosecuting case. And that's a technique used within civilian law enforcement; are we to believe that federal intelligence agents aren't capable of more reliable and sophisticated methods of obtaining such information?

What is torture "effective" at? It's effective at dehumanizing the victims, and making sociopaths of the torturers. It spreads fear of the authority that wields it, supresses dissent, and sews the seeds of anger and rebellion, both from allies and enemies. If one wishes to hold a democracy through the will of the people, torture is not merely ineffective at gaining intelligence, but also destructive to the social contract of such a society. If one wishes to hold a dictatrship, and maintain absolute power at all costs, then terror's effectiveness as an intelligence tool is far less important than as a psychological weapon against the people they rule.

"I forgot in the post to continue with the civilized/barbaric theme. I'll get back to it later."

OK, I look forward to that. And I can see that there's a certain rhetorical effectiveness to show the ways in which the so-called civilized doesn't live up to its own ideals. It's a form of shaming. On the other hand, it can't live up to its ideals. And once people latch onto that, it's a short step to defending torture.

Of your various contributors, I'd be most interested to read what Taussig has to say on the issue. The others you mention less so. (Though to provide just one more link, I did just write up something on Goytisolo and his Sarajevo Notebook:

Meanwhile, torture works not so much in utilitarian terms, to gain information. But surely everyone knows that. It works, rather, best on those not tortured. Which is why torture can never be fully secret; if it's secret, it fails. See Diana Taylor on this.

It doesn't work on utilitarian level even, as it would have to either A) work as a deterrent, which it doesn't, instead making your enemies more eager to die rather than be captured, or B) be a useful way of gaining intelligence, which it isn't because information gained under torture is dubious, requires an external source of verification anyway, is prone to being completely made up as the victim attempts to make the torturer stop and also rests on the ability of the victim to actually know the information you seek.

No, on those stated reasons for torture it isn't supported by utilitarian terms, but on the REAL reason for the torture camps it does.

You see torture is not an information gathering source, nor a method of detterence, but rather a good source of propaganda, that's why it gets used, because a victim will eventually either agree to any statement he's given to sign, or die.
Of course the admin can't just up and say "we need the torture camps to provide falsified justifications for acting in this way or acting in that way."

And even the goal is deeply immoral.

MT, dammit...! That's what I didn't get into, but

This is the end of the line, helmut. Now step back from the keyboard and drop the banana.

On the intersection of torture and capital punishment, I believe 'death' was considered a lighter punishment than 'torture, then death', but both types of sentence were handed down. America (originally) retained the death-only form, but rejected the death after torture form. Since Bush II, not so much.

Now we try to outsource torture in a failed attempt at avoiding its moral toxicity, just like we outsource the dirtiest and most dangerous manufacturing to third-world countries.

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