Monday, April 27, 2009

Morality, Universality, and Torture

When former vice-President Dick Cheney, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly and the rest of the Fox News crowd, and the like defend torture as a legitimate practice, they are defending the practice of torturing American servicemen, American citizens taken captive in foreign countries, and everybody else on the planet.

If torture is a legitimate act and condemning those who engage in torture is not legitimate, then the torture of an American soldier is a legitimate act and the condemnation of those who torture American soldiers is not legitimate.

One of the defining qualities of moral claims is that they are meant to be universal. If it is wrong for a person to perform an act in a particular situation, then it is wrong for anybody to perform a relevantly similar act in a relevantly similar situation.

We still need to work out the details of a “relevantly similar act” and “relevantly similar situation.” However, one of the things that we know about this principle of universality is that there is no room for proper names.

In other words, it is not a appropriately universal to say that, “All people who might have information about a probable attack against America or American interests abroad may be tortured.” A claim that those who might have information on attacks against America may be tortured, but not those who might have information on attacks against any other country may not be would be an example of moral hypocrisy.

And hypocrites, whether they be hypocritical vice-Presidents, talk-show hosts, or nation states, are not moral leaders. They are, in fact, immoral.

If it is legitimate for Americans to torture those who might have information on attacks against the United States, then it is legitimate for any country to torture people who might have information on attacks against that government. Where American soldiers or American citizens might have information about such an attack, torture would then be legitimate.

At follows as a matter of straight-forward moral reasoning that Cheney and others are authorizing the torture of American soldiers and citizens abroad who might have information on an attack against a foreign country.

It is all relevant to note that every one of us might have information on attacks against another country. Every tourist, every reporter, every American business representative who travels abroad might have information relating to an attack on a foreign government. Thanks to Cheney and others who ally with him, foreign governments now have moral permission to torture those individuals.

Furthermore, we cannot use torture as a way of distinguishing between the good guys and the bad guys any more – not if torture is (said to be) a legitimate practice. If we accept Cheney’s argument, we cannot point to other countries and say, “They torture people,” as a reason to say they are worthy of condemnation.

Cheney and his kind have made torture a legitimate state practice.

Finally, it is wholly selfish and, itself, morally unjustified to be concerned with the welfare of Americans. To say that certain human rights belong only to Americans (such as a right not to be tortured or to be subject to cruel and unusual punishment) is to say that non-Americans are sub-human.

Besides, as I argued in the past – in a manner consistent with the arguments written into the Declaration of Independence – true moral rights can neither be legitimately granted or taken away by the state. If the U.S. government can legitimately take away a right from any human being, then it can legitimately take that same right away from any other human being – including American citizens.

We need to decide whether the right to a fair and speedy trial, and a right against cruel and unusual punishments, is a moral right, or if it is a mere gift of the state. If it is the latter, then the state may legitimately take away that right even from you and me without just cause for complaint. If it is the former, then the government cannot legitimately take away that right even from those who are not American citizens without committing a moral crime.

Trying to have it both ways is, itself, to commit a moral crime. Neither nation states that behave in such a manner, nor the people who defend these hypocritical practices, can be sensibly thought of as moral leaders. They are advocates and proponents instead of immorality.

Do you accept that there is a universal permission for nation states to torture those who might have information on an attack? Then you support the torture of American military personnel and citizens travelling or working abroad.


Anonymous said...

I agree with your overall point: if you condone the torturing of non-Americans for its supposed pragmatic purpose of intel-gathering, then you must, to be consistent, support the torturing of Americans for the same purpose. But that is only because I do not believe in American exceptionalism, the real root of the problem here.

Cheney et al. DO believe in American exceptionalism. The same way that many, many people of Country X believe in X exceptionalism. Therefore, people like this will surely not agree with your claim that "One of the defining qualities of moral claims is that they are meant to be universal." They would surely reject this. It is the essence of believing in X exceptionalism.

Therefore, for them to be pro-torture of non-Americans and anti-torture of Americans is not, as you say, "an example of moral hypocrisy." For it to be hypocrisy, they would have to claim that they are anti-torture in general AND anti-torture of Americans and then go and torture some non-Americans. For it to be hypocrisy, they would have to DO something contrary to what they claim to believe. For these reasons, it is NOT the case that "Cheney and others are authorizing the torture of American soldiers and citizens abroad." Far from it.

I also disagree with your claim that "foreign governments now have moral permission to torture those individuals." Who believes that America has "moral permission" to dispense? Every government/society has to follow its own moral compass, not take its lead from America. To claim otherwise is to fall into the trap of thinking of the US as a moral beacon, something it is not and something that you clearly believe it is not. The same way that America chooses either to torture or not torture, every country, organization and person must also decide this. "He/they did it first" is never an acceptable moral argument (on this, I'm sure you'll agree).

Also, I disagree that "true moral rights can neither be legitimately granted or taken away by the state." Rights do not exist in any real sense. They are only respected by people, governments, organizations that choose to respect them. Sadly, and contrary to what I would wish, any right that we enjoy really is "a mere gift of the state." A right on paper is not worth squat if someone violates it.

So, I agree with your conclusion (there is no sound moral basis for saying "we can torture, you can't"), but I don't think that calling hypocrites those people who are of the we can torture, you can't" opinion is the way to go. It all boils down to their belief in American exceptionalism. That's the best way to argue the point, IMO.

P.S. Your comment about "is to say that non-Americans are sub-human" is making an (in my opinion) unjustified moral distinction between humans and non-humans in the same way that the people you decry make an unjustified distinction between American humans and non-American humans. But I won't belabor this point as I'm sure you're not interested in animal rights theory.

Eneasz said...

I believe the claim is that exceptionalism is, by itself, a form of hypocrisy. Especially for one who supposedly subscribes to the notion that "all men are created equal"

I also disagree with your claim that "foreign governments now have moral permission to torture those individuals."... "He/they did it first" is never an acceptable moral argument.

Technically, this is true. However, as humans, we take social cues from those around us. We, at least partially, base what is acceptable and what is not on the actions of others. Therefore any action one takes can be implicity viewed as an action that is morally permissible (if it was impermissible, then you wouldn't have done it, right?). Maybe not always true, but the way that human psychology works, it is effectively true that engaging in an action gives some moral position for others to engage in the same action (unless quickly reprimanded/punished).

Rights do not exist in any real sense. They are only respected by people, governments, organizations that choose to respect them.

I somewhat agree, if you are using an "intrinsic" definition of rights. There is no such thing as a natural law of rights that is self-enforcing. The only rights we have are those we take.

But, on the other hand, this is not how people generally use the term "rights", and it is not how DU uses the term "rights". Under DU, what people generally call rights are "Desires that have proven themselves to be so overwhelmingly good that everyone has many, strong reasons to always strongly promote such desires". Please see here.

Mike said...

I do not think it requires argument to say justifying torture while condemning it performed by others immoral. Isn't it always wrong for one to do something that they claim is wrong to do?

I think the larger issue is that warfare and related activities such as torture are completely amoral, since the primary consideration is survival. Dick Cheney is confusing the argument by pitting two incompatible desires: society's moral desire to be "good" against a citizen's amoral desire to survive- not be harmed or threatened with harm.

I am presenting survival choices as amoral because to apply standards to matters of survival will by extension diminish chances of survivability- the moral prescriptions will prevent one from taking certain actions, even if they should become the only way to survive. How can one even entertain this debate?

"I am not a Monster, I will not torture."
"Then you and many others, including innocent children will surly die."

Assuming that these truly are the only options, you must choose between performing evil yourself and allowing evil to be performed. How is this considered ethically with any efficacy?

Are we not operating in a world outside of morality and ethics in war? All your "oughts" are in the service of destroying opposing human threats while preventing those threats from causing harm to your interests. All rationales for action extend from that objective, including torture, and simultaneously condemning torture performed by your enemies. The fact that the US thinks it wields force morally is inconsequential- who is going to stop them if they aren't? And how, with more force?

Eneasz said...

Hi Mike. I disagree in almost every aspect.

Some wars are wars of survival, yes. Others are simply imperial expansionism. They are wars to take resources from others, and don't have the first thing to do with survival.

Also, war is not eternal. At some point the war will end and you will have to live with your former enemies (unless total genocide is achieved). What happened during the war will have major repercussions at this point.

And finally, you are making the assertion that there is nothing that is worth risking your life for (short of survival itself). Anyone who has ever risked death (or died for) freedom, equality, or loved ones will disagree with you. There are many people who would say that it is better to risk being the victim of a terrorist car-bomb than it is to become as evil as the terrorists themselves. I am one of them.

Mike said...

@ Eneasz

I define survival as acts to avoid loss of anything I think I need to live my life, which could include my children, my freedom, or my country. I'll use 'protecting children from harm' since it is a powerful example.

I am not suggesting that acts to win wars, such as torture, are 'right', I meant to suggest is that in a DU framework, there could a place where you have to choose between a desire to act morally and a desire to survive; to prevent the death of child in this example.

When considering ethical behavior, particularly in war, "oughts" of survival, and the "oughts" of being moral will at some point exclude each other. To convince a person that torture is absolutely wrong, they must concede they are willing to allow the death of their children to uphold that principle.

I agree with Alonzo that if we condone torture to extract intelligence information from foreign threats, than we must allow torture of Americans who meet the same criteria.

I also agree with you- I am willing to risk mine and my child's security and stand against the horrors the Pentagon has wrought upon the innocent people of Iraq and Afghanistan. Many people are not, and so condoning the torture of foreigners while being against it at home is not a moral hypocrisy, rather it is the abdication of their desire to be moral, for the desire to avoid harm: from both enemy threats and their own government.

Eneasz said...

Mike -

Ah, I see, I misunderstood you. Well said. Relevant to this discussion is this post. The comments are also insightful.

Argen said...

"One of the defining qualities of moral claims is that they are meant to be universal."

This thesis is waiting for justification as it is quite widely criticized.