A Direct Answer About Torture

A commenter on Ed Brayton’s “Dispatches from the Culture Wars” asked what I can only assume was meant to be poser question about the use of torture. I responded there, but figure I should also note that here.

It is clear, from all the investigations done to date, that information was gained which saved many lives. So even knowing that, would you all prefer it had not been done?

Yes, so long as “it” is referring to torture.

If we were conducting a moral war, a war on terror, we lost when we failed to conduct ourselves morally.

Taking a moral stance against torture may involve loss of innocent life. Taking moral stances in the past has definitely cost us in terms of lives lost. That hasn’t prevented us from taking such stances. Have we gotten so cowardly recently?

The argument from beneficial results of torture as an intelligence-gathering method has an unstated assumption, that we have adopted a pragmatic or utilitarian stance, where it is merely the cost/benefit ratio of torture use that controls whether we rationally should use torture ourselves. It should be noted that by this standard, the users of torture who stand opposed to us can also justify their use of torture against our citizens. And all that is needed to make that equation tip in favor of torture is that there be no value attached to the life of the “other”, whether them by us, or us by them.

Even if one accepts the implied pragmatic or utilitarian view that can countenance torture, the relation between cost and benefit isn’t as simple as some would have it. Taking an immoral stance, as our leaders have done for us, doesn’t mean that the intelligence gathered that way did preserve the life of some of our citizens. Is there any documented instance where only torture was productive, and no other intelligence methods contributed to our knowledge and response? In any such instance, did the use of torture preclude other methods of intelligence gathering that might have been productive? It is only if torture is cost-free that one may ignore these sorts of considerations. Again, that’s the case when no value is attached to the lives of the others. (I did not say “innocent” in the second instance above, because we can no longer claim innocence for ourselves, thanks to the actions ordered on our behalf.)

If we want to claim the moral high ground for ourselves, we have to give up on pragmatics or utilitarianism on torture. The most effective policy change that could make that clear to the world that I can think of would be treating everyone with the same care, rights, and privileges that we offer our own citizens. Given what a rough deal some of our own citizens get, that’s a low enough ante to show some minimum level of commitment.

Wesley R. Elsberry

Falconer. Interdisciplinary researcher: biology and computer science. Data scientist in real estate and econometrics. Blogger. Speaker. Photographer. Husband. Christian. Activist.

2 thoughts on “A Direct Answer About Torture

  • 2009/05/17 at 8:01 pm

    Excellent post! Thanks for that.

  • 2009/05/18 at 5:30 am

    There are some problems that arise when a purely utilitarian approach to morality is assumed.

    Here is one that occurs to me when this justification is raised for torture.

    Suppose that one says that torture is justified to save innocent lives.

    What about then prosecuting those who tortured, albeit justifiably? Is it not also justified to prosecute the torturers? After all, this is also part of the process needed to obtain the information to save innocent lives. The torturer should be willing, in order to save innocent lives, to be prosecuted for whatever he finds necessary to do.

    It cannot be argued that prosecution for torture would be a deterrent to people who would otherwise be torturers. For that would suggest that the would-be torturers find their own well-being more valuable than innocent lives. The certainty of prosecution is thus a means of ensuring that only those who are acting morally will engage in torture. And it is the only way to ensure that we are acting morally when we tolerate torture. Of course, that means that we who tolerate torture should also be willing to be prosecuted.

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