A member of the studio audience has asked me to address the subject of torture.
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.
I am going to do this in two parts.
For the first part, I am going to address the moral foundations on which Harris built his defense of torture. Harris uses an act-consequentialist moral theory. An act-consequentialist theory says that the right act - the act one ought to perform - is the act that produces the best overall consequences. Torturing a suspect to prevent a bomb from going off is legitimate when it produces the best consequences - which, when the suffering of the person tortured is stood up against the killing and maiming that will be prevented, is almost always the case. In this post, I will raise objections to that foundation. Most of my objections will apply to all forms of act-consequentialist morality.
One thing that an act-consequentialist needs is an account of what counts as good consequences. Harris has proposed that good consequences can be cashed out in terms of the well-being of conscious creatures. The act that produces the best consequences is the act that produces the most well-being for conscious creatures.
What Is Goodness?
The first problem we have here is that Harris’ concept of good is empty. The term “well-being” is, itself, a value-laden term. It does not answer the question of what goodness is because now we are burdened with the task of unpacking "well-being" to try to get at the value contained within.
The second problem with Harris' theory applies to all theories that postulate some sort of intrinsic value. Harris' theory is a member of a large family of theories in which the theorist claims that value is intrinsic to some state - that certain organizations of matter are simply inherently good. Other members of this family identify happiness, pleasure, eudaimonia, the absence of pain, life, existence, preference satisfaction, desire fulfillment, self-realization, autonomy, health, wealth, power, or various combinations of these as the organizations of matter having this property of intrinsic worth.
I reject all of these proposals on the grounds that intrinsic value does not exist.
If intrinsic value did exist, how would it work? What would it require for a state of affairs such as happiness or "the well-being of conscious creatures" to have this intrinsic property of goodness? Is there some sub-atomic particle – some sort of “goodon” – that matter emits when matter organizes itself into the form of a happy creature or a conscious creature with well-being? How are we detecting this "goodon radiation?" Do we have some sort of goodon detector built into the brain? Is it reliable? How is it that being a goodon emitter implies that all intentional creatures are obligated to maximize goodon emissions? How do goodon emissions generate duties and obligations?
Any argument that value resides entirely in some state and our duty us to maximize realizations of that state needs to tell us how that state acquired this property. If it is not through goodon emissions, then what is it?
Ultimately, I hold that there is no answer to this question. Furthermore, when a theory that requires some sort of intrinsic value is held up against one that does not, we should go with the simpler theory. Intrinsic values do not exist. A person who attempts to build a theory grounded on intrinsic value is in no better shape than a person who attempts to build a theory grounded on God. Both myths only produce moral fictions.
Note that my list of things that do not have intrinsic value includes "desire fulfillment". One objection I often hear to my own account of value is that I am assigning intrinsic value to desire fulfillment - and intrinsic value does not exist. That is not the case. Desirism says is that a desire that P provides an agent with a motivating reason to act so as to realize a state of affairs S when P is true in S. Desire fulfillment has no intrinsic value - desire fulfillment is not the goal of intentional action. A state of affairs S where P is true in S is the goal of intentional action – for an agent with a desire that P.
This "state of affairs S" might not contain any desire fulfillment at all. An agent might desire that a particular planet – containing only plant life (no animals, no intentional agents of any kind) continue to exist long after the agent is dead. This would motivate the agent to realize a state of affairs in which that planet continues to exist. However, a state of affairs in which that planet continues to exist is not a state of affairs in which desire fulfillment has been maximized. In fact, it is a state of affairs where no desire fulfillment exists at all. Desire fulfillment has no value. A state of affairs S where P is true in S that has value to agents with a desire that P.
A third problem with Harris' account of value applies to all theories that make action the primary object if moral evaluation. They ignore important facts about how intentional agents work.
Intentional agents seek to fulfill the most and strongest of their own desires, and choose that action that would have fulfilled the most and strongest of their own desires in a world in which their beliefs were true and complete. (Note that this does not imply "selfishness" as some people argue. The desires that an agent seeks to fulfill can and often does include desires for the well-being of other people and aversions to the harm or suffering of other people.)
This means that the only way that an agent can always and only act so as to realize a state of affairs that maximizes some "intrinsic good", be it pleasure or happiness or the well-being of conscious creatures, is if the agent has only one desire. An agent must have a desire to maximize happiness, or pleasure, or whatever it is that the act-consequentialist claims to be the holder of ultimate value - and no other. If the agent has any other desire – an aversion to pain, a love for his own children, a desire for sex, a preference for chocolate over vanilla, then this desire will, under some circumstances, motivate an agent to perform something other than the act-consequentialist best act.
And we are all awash with these other desires and interests. If we have a desire to perform the act-consequentialist best act, it is one weak voice in a massive chorus of concerns and interests.
Taking seriously the charge that we must also perform the act-utilitarian best act would mean deciding what to buy at the grocery store according to which purchases produce the best consequences, planning the family vacation around what would produce the best consequences, having sex when and only when and only because) having sex at that time and in that manner produces better consequences than anything else one can be doing at that time.
Insisting that everybody have only one desire - the desire to produce the best consequences - isn't even a possibility.
In this post, I have provided offered criticism of the underlying theory that Harris used in his analysis of torture. The post is getting a bit long, so I will save the next part for tomorrow. I will look at the issue of torture specifically, at the problems that arise from Harris' moral theory, and present an alternative that avoids those problems.