Thursday, April 23, 2009

Re: Torture

Paul Hogan adds his two cents on the torture discussion:
I think you and Judge Smails are overlooking an important distinction in the torture debate that helps explain why so many people are not bothered by it. The distinction I have in mind is the difference between (i) torture intended as punishment and (ii) torture for the purpose of obtaining potentially life-saving information--i.e. Jack Bauer torturing the guy who knows where the nukes are. The immorality of the second type is not necessarily clear-cut; there is an obvious and non-trivial utilitarian argument in favor of torturing people to obtain information in certain cases. So unless you're a pure Kantian who rejects all ends-justifying-the-means arguments (I have never met such a person), then you can't just dismiss anyone who is okay with "utilitarian torture" as a barbarian. I'm not an expert on Enlightenment liberalism, but I don't think that Enlightenment liberals would necessarily have been categorically opposed to utilitarian torture either.

Of course, even if utilitarian torture is acceptable in certain cases, there are many questions that need to be answered to determine when it is acceptable, such as:
- What type of information might the torturee have?
- How useful will the information be if it is obtained?
- How sure are you that the torturee actually has the information that you are seeking?

Tthe acceptable thresholds for those questions are certainly arguable. I think most Americans are not bother by torture because (a) they overestimate the likelihood of the Jack Bauer scenario, (b) they trust the government's intentions, and (c) they trust that the government will abide by acceptable thresholds before torturing. You have to realize that a substantial portion of the country are not as inherently distrustful of Bush, Cheney, et. al. as perhaps you and Judge Smails are. Therefore, I think that most people are not concerned about torture because they trust the government to torture in a limited and moral way, not because they simply do not care about the morality of torture. Though there is probably a sizable percentage of the population that just doesn't give a shit because the people in question are Arabs.

I am personally opposed to government sponsored torture because I don't trust any government, American or foreign, Republican or Democrat, to implement torture in a limited and morally acceptable fashion. But if I had Osama Bin Laden in front of me and he told me that he knew about an upcoming terrorist attack, I would have no moral qualms against torturing him. I see torture as very similar to the death penaly--I am not opposed to it in theory, but I don't think the criminal justice system is acceptably accurate enough (100% in my opinion) to justify it in practice.

I think this is a good clarification of the issue, particularly on the two types of torture. I think at least part of the apathy of the American people (in addition to the race or those being tortured) is the feeling of "well, they're bad people anyway." Mix that in with the fear that there's a chance, however small, of a ticking bomb. What I find particularly disturbing from conservative commentators, though (and you see this in death penalty debates too) is not a sad resignation that we needed to torture but rather a sense of almost-excitement at the prospect of it, suggesting that, at least for them, the punitive aspect of it is driving their pro-torture views as much as anything.