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September 20, 2006

Rape and other forms of torture

I've been making a lot of pragmatic arguments against torture. Some commenters on this thread pointed out how disturbing this project seems.

Ultimately, I think that empirical evidence advances every discussion, and that, in principle all moral positions should be up for debate.

However, I can definitely where Trystero and the other commenters are coming from.

It's sort of like writing rape-prevention posts about how you shouldn't rape people because it's not going to be as much fun as you think, or because you might drive your victim into the arms of radical feminists, etc. It seems either obscene or otiose to explain to would-be rapists why rape is a poor means to their ends. The moral argument against rape is so strong, and the consensus on the subject is so broad that it seems silly even to consider the instrumental arguments against it.

If thought I could convince people not to rape with good arguments, I would try. Nevertheless there something morally distasteful about being patient or reasonable with rapists. Same with torturers.

Maybe the mistake is assuming that torturers are motivated by rationality any more than rapists.


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Ultimately, I think that empirical evidence advances every discussion, and that, in principle all moral positions should be up for debate.


Also, as a practical matter, the pro-torture side has a very elaborately constructed set of rationalizations that are very appealing to people who are not necessarily otherwise inclined to support torture. Demolishing those rationalizations (and, potentially, reaching people who would otherwise be seduced into support for torture) is a moral and practical good.

It's sort of like writing rape-prevention posts about how you shouldn't rape people, because it's not going to be as much fun as you think, and you might drive your victim into the arms of radical feminists, etc....There something morally distasteful about being patient or reasonable with rapists. Same with torturers.

But it's not a great analogy because a) rape is an individual action (setting aside Abu Ghraib for a moment) while torture is action by governments, and b) I think (correct me if I'm wrong) you were trying to reason not with the torturers themselves, but with people who may or may not support the torturers.

Part of the difference is that with torture you have people standing up in a public forum and supporting it. A public discussion is precisely the sort of place where reason should be used.

A lot of people say a lot of fucked up things about rape in public, but no one in the US publically advocates it, even as a tool in war. If they did, there would be an opening for rational argument. Lord knows how far society would have to disintegrate before this situation came up, though.

I'd be more inclined towards believing the same thing, were the arguments in favour of torture not predicated almost entirely on its utility. By ceding that aspect, you turn it into a "practicality vs. morality" debate, which they can undercut by using those unrealistic 24 scenarios or by pulling out some variation of "you want us on that wall, you need us on taht wall."

Hit them from BOTH directions, practicality and morality, and they have nowhere to run to.

As for rationality... I'm afraid I must disagree. I'm confident that the vast majority of torturers out there are almost certainly rational. Wrong, and quite possibly damaged by the experience, but still rational, if only because they can defend it using efficicacy arguments.

Rape and torture are repugnant acts of personal violation, and to a large extent, two variants of the same act -- dehumanization through brutality. I have to assume that the people who feel that torture is justifiable are doing so from a consequentialist perspective, which I often share, but one based upon absolute moral relativism, which I do not share. Such people cannot also be believers in things like universal human rights, and it is nothing but hipocrisy for them to state otherwise. If the US were to legalize torture, the country should be immediately ejected from every human rights body it presently belongs to.

It's interesting to note who is a supporter of torture, I think, for future reference. After speaking with torture victims, I have come to share their understanding that a person who can justify dehumanizing a person for some ostensibly limited reason can evetually justify doing it for any reason, given time. Torture-apologists, let alone torturers, are telling you a lot about who they are are as people, and how they view themselves and everyone else. As much as they might like to claim that it's just a chit-chat about an idea, it is much more fundamental than that.

I see Tom and Rob said what I was going to say, so I will simply reveal that for a split second I read the title of this post as "RAP and other forms of torture", and my immediate thought was: huh, I thought you young 'uns *liked* that stuff.

I've been less active here than I might be (RSS feeds tend to do that to me, and I have way too many blogs I load directly. One of the downsides of LJ, but I digress).

For those who care about my résumé cut and paste the following strings into google

"terry karney" torture

pecunium torture

If you like you may substitute "interrogation" for torture, which will give a set of related, but different, posts.

The thumnail sketch.

I am an Army interrogator, and interrogation instructor. I've been doing the one for 14 years, and the other for 12.

I understand your dilemma. When I chose this line of work (I was 25) I did some research. I was able to say I was glad torture doesn't work, because if it did, I'd have a terrible problem, because I think it wrong.

The most grave problem is that torture harms the torturer, more than it harms the tortured. Torturing removes a small piece of one's humanity, each time one commits an act of it.

I have seen those who have engaged in it. They are broken. I have been (in training situations) tempted to engage in minor acts of it. It was a case of, "first a little, thence to more." I managed to see where mind games were edging to abuse, and stopped; but I can see how people without the same training as I'd managed to get (no small amount from teaching Geneva) could be seduced by the apparent effect (see Milgram).

These are the bullet points.

It gets bad info, which leads to bad intel.

One can't know who has information.

It is a self-re-enforcing behaviour, with its own built in rewards.

When used, it becomes more prevalant; because it appears to get results, when other methods seem to be failing.

The false answers skew the collection effort, by creating lines of, seemingly productive, enquiry and diverting limited collection assets to blind alleys.

It is wrong, because it violates basic human rights, and debases those who practice it, by placing those on whom is practised (or, and this is where the rot sets in, upong whom it might be practised) to sub-human status.

It corrodes the ideas of jurisprudence and the rule of law, because one is being encouraged to engage in things which would be unconscionable if perpetrated on the innocent; which means the torturer (and this extends to society) has to assume a base level of guilt to all who are in custody.

I think Lindsay has an important point. Every society has things that it won't even debate -- to give reasons why it is imprudent to commit these acts would itself be a violation of decency. In a better society, one of those things would be torture. Unfortunately, we don't live in that society, so we have to engage in the debate. But it diminishes us.

"Every society has things that it won't even debate"

Having SCOTUS decide an election, lowering taxes when starting a war, privatising Social Security, and using nuclear weapons in Iran the Bush administration has a method of raising the limits of the thinkable. What is thinkable is doable. And only what is thinkable can be prevented. All our imaginations should be in overdrive. They are worse than you think.

Many of the things which a society refuses to debate are the baser aspects of themselves.

No one in Rome, Greece, Egypt, pick your ancient world culture, debated slavery; it just was.

Same for Serfdom (in Russia that lasted until the 19th century).

Talking about the bad things one does, is the opposite of diminishing.


"A lot of people say a lot of fucked up things about rape in public, but no one in the US publically advocates it, even as a tool in war. If they did, there would be an opening for rational argument. Lord knows how far society would have to disintegrate before this situation came up, though."

Though apparently, talk is cheap. We still use it. The anal rape of Abu Gharib to the rape of Iraqi women by U.S. military intelligence. I think it's sort of tongue and cheek, we as a culture and civilization say it's a bad thing, however, when it comes to wartime, we send the lowest edjucated, sometimes bottom of the barrel kids to do what maybe a better edjucated, more emotionally stable man should be doing. We don't teach people self control under stressful conditions, and in these sorts of circumstances where a nineteen year old and his fellow male soldiers have power over a young foreign female, rational thought and sympathy go right out the window. It would be nice if rape were such a thing that could be cured and eliminated in the same way that polio was. Has society disintegrated? Is it even necessary? I doubt it. I think it's enough when you start to see others as less than human, then anything's allowable. It's exactly the moral climate necessary for a second Holocaust.

Warning, photos on this site are somewhat graphic:

Rape and torture often come in the same bundle, along with slavery. It can be futile in two ways to argue with defenders of any of the three.

First, they are standard cases of evil, and those who actually fail to see them as such are defective. They are like Anglophones who think they have learned French but also think "Oui" translates "No." Aristotle says in the Topics that people who deny that we should honor our parents and the gods need not argument but punishment. Condoners, defenders, and enablers of rape, torture and slavery need therapy.

As Aristotle says in Nicomachean Ethics I, you can't become good by listening to speeches -- you need upbringing and practice in the concrete. And so undertaking to persuade them rationally is a waste of time, unless you are really addressing a public who are in danger of supporting the torture, rapes and enslavement by demagogues and bullies. Silence in a public controversy can be dereliction of durty, but participation in it risks letting the depraved party look reasonable. Why not "teach the controversy," or have a "reasonable discussion" with the likes of Michelle Malin about interning Arab-Americans?

We begin with the presumption that those who defend these benchmark depravities are sincere, honest with us as well as themselves. But more often, I think, they are trying to matter, to deny their own insignificance by offending us, getting a rise out of people they like to despise but whose recognition they crave. Or how better to the insignifcant and hurting from it to vaunt their TERRIBLE BRAVE INDEPENDENCE OF MIND!!! than to spit on the pieties of the weak and thereby stand tall? Again, more than argument, therapy is called for -- and again, public argument with them may be obligatory, though it risks making them look respectable.

This second class, the morally contemptible who, like Machiavelli's prince, would rather be just feared if they can't also be loved, may be more amenable to arguments of expediency -- torture doesn't work -- if they can be cajoled into getting the feeling of strength they hurt for. We could say, You like to look at things with your eyes open, because you are so much better than the common run who are afraid to; so look at these facts coldly and agree that, as a simple problem of engineering, torture doesn't work. But that can flatter their depravity, and leaves out of account the rights and wrongs of the matter that we ought to insist on.

Thank you Terry Karney! I remember you on the Making Light blog. It's great to have people like you reminding us how appalling the fact we are *having* this debate really is.

Pecunium, thanks so much for offering a professional perspective on this debate.

Pecunium, thanks so much for offering a professional perspective on this debate.

What Lindsay said. Also, your point about what isn't debated is well-taken.

were the arguments in favour of torture not predicated almost entirely on its utility. - Demosthenes

They are ostensibly predicated on utility, but there is a "those evil people deserve to be tortured" element not too far underneath the surface.

Which is why many in the pro-torture camp would reject the comparison to rape: in the case of rape, the victim doesn't deserve what happened. In the case of torture, the assumption (I don't think I have to tell y'all how terribly flawed is this assumption) is that, even if the victim isn't a terrorist per se, he wouldn't have been in a place where the military or whomever would have apprehended him if he weren't doing something wrong -- hence he "deserves" what happened to him.

FWIW -- the attitude of "he's guilty therefore he deserves it" goes against the moral teachings of just about every religion, but for whatever reason, fundies of all stripes seem to be especially susceptible to this kind of thinking.

I think arguments against the effectiveness of torture are useful if they'll convince policy-makers who implement policies that require or allow torture. They may be suffering under 'nescessary evil', 'dirty-job-but-someone's-gotta-do-it' fallacies. You won't convince torture advocates, practitioners and other sadists, but they should be prosecuted or marginalized, not debated. If a policy-maker genuinely abhors torture, but somehow thinks that it must be done to protect the populace, they might reverse that position if torture is shown to be a net liability.

All this falls down, of course, when applied to the Bush misadministration. Cheney's just evil, and Bush too ignorant and stubborn to admit error. But hypothetically, debate on the effectiveness of torture could be of more value than just decrying it as evil, as true as that is.

I point out the recent blatherings of Malkin, and her slice of the right, who are up in arms at the conviction, after trial, of people for terrorism.

Beams and motes; they want to allow us to torture, to use coerced evidence, refuse the accused the right to reply to that evidence (because the methods by which it was obtained would make it secret, and secred evidence isn't to be shown to the accused). That's all well and good.

But having a trial and convicted people is beyond the pale?


Because they are Christian.

Which goes to my points above, about how the use of torture corrputs the system; it manufactures a tiered system of justice.

It's meant, not to gain information, but to create a kabuki of action, and to terrorise those who are in opposition.

"Which is why many in the pro-torture camp would reject the comparison to rape: in the case of rape, the victim doesn't deserve what happened."

I wonder if normal citizen vs. citizen rape is thought of in the same regard as solider vs. enemy foreign citizen rape? Do the victimizers really believe the person(s) doesn't deserve it, as well as their sympathizers? Or do they? I'd say that when it's the local rapist, local citizenry would be against it. However, my feeling that when it's the women/men of the "enemy", it's somehow legitimized as deserved or punishment.

Lindsay, take this with a grain of salt because my entire ethical position is non-cognitivist; but arguing with one's interlocutor on a matter of their deeply held values and positions is almost always a failure is one's goal is to persuade the interlocutor. I actually do not engage people whose views are irreconsilable to mine without an audience. I think the goal of debate is to deprive one's opponents of supporters, by showing their values to be inconsistent with the values of those they seek to pursuade. (For example, my greatest accomplishments in debate have been times when I get my interlocutor to express open neo-confederate sympathies, religious fundamentalism or other fringe ideology: after that, nobody who does not already agree with them will be persuaded by them.)

I think the goal of debating torture is to show that its proponents are, in fact, simply motivated by an atavistic desire to commit atrocities to vent their fear, anger and frustration. There is a core group that, put just that way, will sign on for atrocities. These people cannot be changed; like a contagion, they must be isolated.


I call that the " target =blank>dead cat school of debate."

I was out, at a restaurant/bar in Seattle and was, because I allowed myself to get involved in a debate I was almost given the bum's rush.

Which led me to explain to the fellow I was later chatting with (whose discussion led to my involvement) the rules I've found useful in such things.

1: The person with whom you are debating is almost certainly not suadable, so the case is being made to the audience and one can only hope a reasoned argument will act as a seed crystal in an intelligent opponent.

2: Stay on topic, don't allow tangents to prevent the issue from being ducked.

3: Be reasonable. If you come across as a loud-mouthed fanatic no-one who doesn't already agree will be persuaded, no matter how right you are.

4: Look for what I call the dead cat. This is from one of the classic examples of poor reasoning.

a: All cats die
b: Socrates is dead
c: Socrates was a cat

The unasked question is, "are cats the only things which die,"?

The example in last night's debate was on why marriage needed to be limited to a man and a woman.

The affirmative side was using the term, "accepted definition," which seemed to preclude same-sex marriage (sort of like the requirement that one's grandparents had voted in local elections being a pre-requisite for one to vote).

Of course I wanted to point out that social norms can (and do) change. The dead cat I used was interracial marriage. He didn't accept that the change there mattered, because the participants were still of mixed gender, but the point was made (to the audience) that what was once unthinkable, is now not beyond the pale.

To close, the most important thing to remember is that you aren't trying to change the mind of the man who is certain you are wrong, but rather to convince the person who has yet to finalise his position.

viz. the "reasonable people can disagree about torture" line of argument -

I think that the grounds for discussion should be "can a reasonable person advocate for torture."

pecunium- if you have proven that an individual has engaged in torture, then regardless of their avowed beliefs, does that not also prove that they cannot truly be Christian?

Hawise: See the discussion>here where a related question of defnitions like that came up.

The short answer: no, I can't prove that assertion.

Of all people who should be willing to think simply in pragmatic terms about torture, and to find it a matter of debate, Lindsay has got to be the prime case. Lindsey's a utilitarian. She thinks that the wrongness of any act is due to its consequences for human welfare. So there is no reason in principle why torture might not be okay, if the social science turned out to support it. The confidence that the social science will not turn out to support it sounds like bravado rather than the result of following the facts wherever they lead.

Skeptical, you're absolutely right. On the other hand, rhetoric has utility consequences. If I thought that I was making torture more acceptable rather than less, I would just shut up. No insights I will ever have on this subject would ever outweigh the utility cost of one person being tortured for one minute longer than they otherwise would have been.

It's hard to explain all the utility consequences that contribute to my overall rejection of torture: Suffering of innocents, corruption of intelligence, erosion of the rule of law through a tiered justice system, destruction of the psyches of both the tortured and the torturers (and the likely consequences when each is reabsorbed into mainstream society), the costs of legitimizing and celebrating practices like rape (e.g. Abu Ghraib), etc, etc.

I decided to post on this subject because I felt really weird about arguing a position that I should be obvious to all decent human beings. (In fact, the only reason the ticking bomb argument ever caught on was because it seemed like a compelling rebuke to consequentialists. The argument was: Imagine doing the worst thing that you possibly can imagine for plausible instrumental reasons. Would that be right? Would that be required? No?! Then fuck you, you consequentialist torture-pikers! The rejoinder is "yes I would rape a busload of nuns to save the world from destruction," but so what? This has nothing to do with policy. None of the torture we do today is for the sake of ticking bombs. If it were, we wouldn't need a policy because all bets are off in a preventing-9/11 scenario. Remember that a consequentialist has no overriding concerns about punishing the innocent. The worst that could happen in a non-torturing scenario would be that someone would get disciplined for torturing someone. But really, so what?)

From a consequentialist standpoint, and from common sense, the worst civil penalty for torture pales compared to being tortured.

Imagine that every torturer had to stake his or her future on the conviction that their act of torture was morally essential. That's how it should be. Yeah, you might lose a pay grade in a ticking time bomb scenario, but so what? What is your pay grade, or your one month in prison compared to the lives of everyone in the twin towers? What's your one pay grade, on consequentialist grounds, compared to making everyone in the world live under the perpetual threat of US kidnapping and torture outside the rule of law?

Philosophers aren't generally ashamed of arguing indefensible positions. I've had loud public arguments about whether tables and chairs really exist, and not felt self-conscious about advocating "crazy" views, even just for the hell of it. But in those cases, I have no fear that my table/chair skepticism will lead to any bad consequences. Neither I, nor anyone else will be hesitant to use furniture because I made some abstract argument about mereology.

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