Friday, May 11, 2012

Torture - Part 3: Versus Collateral Damage

In the last two posts I have been addressing Sam Harris' view on torture in an attempt to answer the following question:

I was wondering what your thoughts about Sam Harris' arguments for torture were. He seems to proffer the view that, by accepting collateral damage from war as inescapable yet demonizing the collateral damage from torture, we are holding to a very irrational double standard. I find his defense of torture emotionally disturbing, but I can't seem to produce a logical argument that counteracts his thesis.

In the first post, I looked at act-consequentialist moral theories - which appear to be the type of moral theory that Sam Harris uses in his moral discussions - and identified problems with those types of theories.

In the second post I compared act-consequentialist theories to desire-consequentialist theories and illustrated some of the differences between the two. Namely, I showed how a desire-based theory can condemn a person for being so constituted as to enjoy torturing somebody under conditions where the act-consequentialist would praise him for cheerfully performing the right act.

In this post I would like to apply this difference to the two types of cases that Harris mentions - torturing a guilty person versus torturing an innocent person in an act of war.

Again, which is worse, water-boarding a terrorist or killing/maiming him? Which is worse, water-boarding an innocent person or killing/maiming him? There are journalists who have volunteered to be water-boarded. Where are the journalists who have volunteered to have a 5000 lb bomb dropped on their homes with their families inside?

(See Sam Harris: Response to Controversy)

There is going to be a strong sense in which I agree with Harris in this analogy. There is an inconsistency in being strongly opposed to one action while having casual indifference to the other. However, I would take this in the opposite direction. While Harris argues that we have reason to be more tolerant and accepting of torture, I would argue that we should have a stronger aversion to killing and maiming children and chalking it up as collateral damage in war.

Or, to put the case more bluntly, "If you want me to tell you that it is OK to sit there and shrug with indifference when your government blows up a house with 12 kids inside to get at a terrorist leader, when you would be outraged if the government would torture those 12 kids to get the terrorist leader to reveal some information, you are going to have a long wait."

I have, in fact, argued for outrage in these cases - but I recognize that I have limited power to change public attitudes without a bit of help from others.

Still, there are moral differences between being so constituted that one can intentionally inflict pain on or to kill an innocent person and being so constituted so that one can perform an act while knowing that some other action will prevent the deaths of several innocent people.

I can honestly report that I have never intentionally maimed or killed any child. Nor do I intend to. I would be quite happy to finish out my life having never committed such an act.

However, at the same time, even as I sit here writing this post, I must report that I am knowingly performing an action when some other action may well prevent innocent people from suffering or death. In a sense, I am responsible for those deaths that I fail to prevent. However, at the same time, I am not as opposed to writing this post with the knowledge that some other action may have saved a life as I would be to intentionally killing or maiming a child myself.

We, as a society, can get away with promoting a very strong widespread aversion to intentionally causing harm (the type of aversion that would make torturing a child a very difficult act). And we have many and strong reasons to promote this type of aversion.

However, we cannot get away with promoting the same level of aversion to performing an act while knowing that an innocent life will be lost (the type of aversion that would prevent a person from dropping a bomb on a terrorist in a house that also contains a group of children). Such an aversion would destroy the mental health of the people who had it.

This does not imply that we cannot promote some level of aversion to actions in which others are knowingly harmed. In fact, this type of motivation is one of the reasons I write this blog, and why I continue to contribute to it, and why I cannot leave it for long without feeling guilty. I have convinced myself - perhaps foolishly - that I am making some contribution to preventing harms that people elsewhere would otherwise have suffered. Clearly, I could do more. However, at least I am doing something.

These facts explain the difference found in torturing a child versus allowing a child to die in a bomb blast aimed at a terrorist leader. It is a difference found in the ability to promote in those around us (and ourselves) an aversion to intentionally inflicting harm, as opposed to an aversion to performing actions while harm is suffered as a side effect.

In fact, perhaps one of the best ways we can prevent people from suffering harms and death is by promoting the aversions to intentionally causing harm that would make it impossible for them to participate in an act of torture. While, at the same time, allowing or encouraging people to be indifferent to intentionally inflicting harm may have the result of creating more death and suffering for us to be indifferent towards.

It does not explain - nor does it justify - the casual ease with which many people react to actions where innocent people suffer. It is consistent with believing that some people are far more comfortable with the suffering of innocent people than a person with good desires would be. (And I may be - I almost certainly am - one of them.)


Kristopher said...

Another thing that is important to note between creating an aversion to directly causing/intending harm and the accidental or collateral harm is that creating a strong aversion to the former is almost always going to reduce the occurance of thwarted desire and the latter has alot more leeway in whether or not that is the case.

for example:
when driving a car we should obviously try to minimize desires to intentionaly run people over. creating a strong aversion to this is important and easy. it solves the problems of purposeful killing while driving, and in this instance you pretty much know what the outcome will be. your will hit him going 80 mph and he will die.

however owning and using a car creates a risk for society. car accicdents are one of the leading cuases of unnatural death in america. as a society this large death toll is collateral damage to our desire for quick and convenient transportation. furthermore in these instances of accidental collateral damage you don't know what the consequences of every action will be. there is alot of probability and chance involved in whether or not your actions will result in collateral harm.

if we create an aversion to all colateral damage we would be twarting many other desires, such as transportation desires or risky medical procedures, life saving medication whoes side effects could rarely end in death etc etc.

when it comes to an aversion to directly inflicting intended harm we can more easily create a strong aversion because it is simpler mroe straight forward issue.

colateral accidental harm requires a balance. we need an aversion to colateral damage but it doesn't need to be a total aversion and it might need to be stronger or weaker in different circumstances.

for example we tend to have a stronger aversion to risk of collateral death with medicine or food causing then we do for traffic accidents.

when you totture somebody for information that should directly confilict with a strong aversion to directly harm someone. you know what your doing and you know how it will harm. (though you don't knoe if he has any information and studies show that torture victims often give false information...)

however when we talk about the collateral damage of war many factors come into play. now your wieghing a percent chance of collateral death with the chance of hitting your target along with how much colateral damage and how many targeted damage. these are risks that must be minimized with an aversion to colateral damage but cannot be eliminated.

peronally i think our current aversion to colateral damage during war is not high enough. we are not being as careful as we should be. our drone program is abysmal. But i agree with alonzo that harris' statement that because we have a 99.99% aversion to torture we must therefore have a > or = aversion to colateral damage is non-sequitor.

mojo.rhythm said...

But even if the general public had an aversion to torture, would it still be immoral to deliberately train that aversion out of a tiny minority of that same public, then get that tiny minority to then perform information-extracting torture techniques?

Take an analogy: it is considered legitimate for police officers to have a desire to arrest people who have an arrest warrant out on their heads. But we would rightly castigate the common citizen for having this desire. Such a desire would cause that citizen to be labelled a no-good vigilante.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


In order for a person to tolerate somebody else lacking an aversion to torture, they must have at least a weakened aversion to torture. It is the only thing that would allow them to shrug their shoulders with indifference - or even celebrate - the news that other people are engaging in torture.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

On the other hand, it seems reasoable to believe that an announcement that we will no longer be arreating people would be catestrophic. Avoiding such a desire-thearting state of affairs requiressome reduction in the aversion to capture and confinement.

This weakened aversion will be society-wide. And there will be instances where a stronger aversion would have produced better results. But desires cannot be fine-tuned that specifically.

We will do some fine-tuning. Confinement is a prima-facie wrong requiring evidence of its necessity put before an impartial tribunal. We have reason to adopt a presumption against confinement. But some level of siciety-wide tolerance of confinement seems necessary.