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.)