Thursday, May 28, 2009

Torture, Imprisonments, and Moral Universalizability

In recent posts I have argued that every political speech describing what the American government may do to foreign captives should be viewed as a speech on what the speaker would allow foreign governments to do to Americans.

This is nothing less than a straight-forward application of the moral principle of universalizability, as captured in, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," or "Act on that maxim that you can, at the same time, will to e a universal law." Or, in desire-utilitarian terms, "Act as a person whose malleable desires are those that people generally have reason to promote as universal desires would act.”

It should also be viewed as a speech about what the speaker thinks the government may legitimately do to its own citizens.

This, too, is a straight-forward application of the principle of universalizability.

Whatever a politician claims the government may legitimately do to any human being, that politician is claiming that there is no prohibition against doing such a thing to a human being. If there is no moral prohibition against that action, then the government may do the same thing to its own citizens without being subject to moral criticism.

For example, assume that a politician says that a foreigner may be captured and held indefinitely without a trial. If he says such a thing, then he is saying that the arrest and permanent imprisonment of a person without a trial is a morally legitimate action. If it is a morally legitimate action, it is something that a government may permissibly do to its own citizens.

The citizens of a country may adopt a legal prohibition on the government arresting citizens and imprisoning them for life without a trial. However, if they allow the government to do this to foreigners, then they cannot claim that this prohibition is a matter of protecting a moral right against that behavior. What they are saying instead is that this is merely a matter of political convenience – and it can be revoked at any time (also as a matter of political convenience).

So, if it is morally permissible for a government to torture a person for information? Then it is permissible for a government to torture its own citizens for information?

If we may hold suspected terrorists in prison for life without a trial, then what moral prohibition can exist against holding suspected drug dealers or child pornographers indefinitely without a trial?

Note that the purpose of a trial is to distinguish actual terrorists, drug traffickers, and child pornographers from the real thing. This is not an argument against punishing those who have been convicted of these crimes, but an argument against those who are are merely suspected of being guilty – which could be any one of us.

Then we have to ask what safeguards exist against the President rounding up its political rivals – the most powerful and influential leaders of the opposing political parties, declaring that he thinks they are 'dangerous', and imprisoning them indefinitely without a trial. There can be no moral prohibition against such an act if we are willing to do such things to foreign nationals. The only reasons against such an act can be reasons of political expedience.

Which means that the instant it is politically expedient to arrest and imprison political opponents, it is morally legitimate for him to do so.

These are the logical implications to saying that the government is morally permitted to do such things to foreigners. If we reject these implications of that original statement, then we have reason to reject the original statement. It is NOT the case that governments are morally free to treat foreign nationals in this way.

Their right to freedom from abuse, and to a trial where the government must demonstrate that it is punishing people who are actually guilty, is a moral right and, as such, a limitation to what governments may legitimately do to any human being.

So, the next time you hear a political speech in which the speaker talks about what the government may legitimately do to a foreign national, what you are hearing is what that speaker thinks the government may legitimately do to you. With this perspective, you can evaluate whether you agree with that speaker or not.


Baconsbud said...

I wonder how many people avoid thinking about these types of things. This is one of several reasons that all of those that were involved in the actual torture and any that said it was ok should be tried for crimes against humanity.

Anonymous said...

Hello, My Fyfe.
I'm currently reading your online book, and figuring out what I think of it, but in the meantime I came across some material that you or your readers might have interest in, so I thought I'd point you toward the link.

It's audio of the John Locke lectures from Oxford, with Thomas Scanlon discussing "Being Realistic about Reasons". Anyway, I'm enjoying your book, and I'll probably contribute here once I've gotten a grasp of it.