Thursday, May 17, 2012

Torture - A Summary

Torture - A Summary

In the last two weeks, I took a discussion on torture and turned it into a discussion on comparative moral theory.

It is not the most interesting subject on the planet for many, but I think it has some unappreciated significance.

One of the most common objections atheists have against religion is that it is provides such a poor foundation for morality. It takes the prejudices, superstitions, and ignorance of a bunch of primitive tribesmen and claims that it is the perfect wisdom of an all-knowing and perfectly moral god. I assure you, the people who invented scripture were neither all-knowing, nor were they perfectly benevolent.

The flaw in this, as I pointed out, is even worse than taking the work of Hippocrates and declaring it the work of an all-knowing physician, never to be contradicted by any future findings in the science of medicine. The results in terms of community health would be catastrophic.

The problem with directing one's life by a poor moral theory is that a lot if evil is called good and a lot of good is called evil. - the same way that directing one's life by an ancient set of medical beliefs would result in treatable diseases going untreated or mistreated. You end up with a group of people slapping themselves in the back and sleeping quite fitfully while they, at best, fail to prevent misery and death that could have been prevented and, at worse, contribute to that misery and suffering.

However, the problem I am writing about is not religion. The problem us 'having a poor moral theory' - being unable to determine the difference between right and wrong as a matter of fact.

Religion represents a subset of bad moral theories. It does not exhaust the list.

Sam Harris has a bad moral theory - act-consequentialism. His application of that theory embraces torture. A consequence of widespread acceptance of tht theory would be a lot of people being tortured or suffering other forms of abuse who, under a better theory, would have been spared that agony.

Why would it have these consequences?

Because Harris' mistakes weaken an aversion to the types of cruelty that would make it impossible for people to engage in torture, and weakens the kindness that people in desperate need depend upon.

I suspect that the world would not benefit from more cruelty and less kindness.

Harris' argument implies telling our neighbors (which is anybody we and those we care about might meet) to be the type of person who can be comfortable with or even celebrate acts of torture. We are telling them not to be moved by even the imagined the screams of agony that one might hear from the victims of torture - to be the type of person who can shrug their shoulders in indifference at the thought and the reality of these agonies.

Is this the type of person we have reason to want as our neighbors?

One response to this is to say that we only want people to be indifferent or to celebrate the agony of a terrorist with information to share. However, this raises two questions: (1) Can our desires actually be categorized this finely? And (2) Even if such fine tuning is possible, can it be reliably and efficiently taught?

Our desires and aversions clearly have some measure of persistence. The desires we have in one situation carry through to another. It would seem difficult at best - and probably impossible - to teach everybody to love chocolate during ever even-numbered hours in the day and loathe it during odd-numbered hours. A person cannot turn on and off her fear of flying or fear of spiders, or her love for her child or her spouse, like flipping a switch. A desire, once it exists, will remain for a long time through any number of circumstances.

Clearly we can, in fact, modify the scope of some desires. A desire for sex can be accompanied by an aversion to non-consentual sex. An aversion to lying can be overridden when one is lying to the slave catchers about the run-away slaves hiding in the barn. However, there are clear limits to this capacity as well. A moral theory to be used in the real world must respect these real-world limitations.

It is not unreasonable to expect that promoting a culture of indifference to the agony of terrorist prisoners will "leak out". We might find it making itself present in the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and other detention facilities. It will likely affect some soldiers in the field rounding up suspencts who convince themselves that a villager is guilty, and thus the aversion to cruelty no longer applies. It will likely affect the racist soldier (and it is absurd to assume that there will be no racists in the military) who holds that "all Arabs are terrorists" and the aversion to cruelty never applies.

We gave some of these prisoners over to countries that were practiced in the art of torture. Who were they practicing on? And why? And how might our use of their skills have affected their disposition to continue those practices, or to end them?

On the questions of whether we can teach a particular fine-tuned aversion reliably, we need to look at the possibility of failure in some instances. People will learn different lessons from this message that they should be confortable with - and even celebrate - torture.

I ask a similar question in the case of capital punishment. We might very well be able to teach people generally that the celebration of killing specifically applies to a celebration of killing convicted murderers. However, let us assume (for the sake of illustration) that our methods for teaching people this aversion is merely 99.9% successful. Instead of learning indifference to killing murderers, the other 0.01% of the population learns a more general indifference to killing. In the United States, this would mean creating 300,000 potential murders.

Even if our techniques for teaching the celebration of torturing known terrorists are 99.9% successful, we end up teaching 0.1% of the population to embrace a more general love of cruelty.

Can we assure ourselves that nobody watching the series "24", with its depictions of cruelty, learned to enjoy cruelty itself a little bit more? Can we assure ourselves that it did not effect the way they treated other other students at school, co-workers, or others they might encounter?

In fact, people are going to mix their lessons on the permissibility of torture with their other beliefs. No doubt, world dictators from North Korea to Libya, as well as warlords and their soldiers and organized crime members took the Bush Administration's defense of torture to heart.

At the same time, humans have a very strong disposition to see themselves as heros - even when they are not. Hitler thought he was a great man - doing great things. Hitler and the SS thought that torture was justified because those that they tortured had important information about criminal and terrorist organizations operating in their countries that were getting in the way of their great and noble plans.

In these ways, even a 99.9% success rate at teaching people that torture is only legitimate against criminals and terrorists is going to manifest itself in ways that are harmful to a great many innocent people. These facts may not be relevant to evaluating a specific act of torture (the way an act-consequentialist such as Harris would evaluate it). However, it is very much relevant on the question of teaching the types of affections that make torture possible and to see it as tolerable.

Harris compares torture with dropping bombs on people. We freely drop bombs on people, causing them all sorts of agony to bring about a good effect. Why not torture them when it brings about a good effect?

Please notice, first, the act-consequentialist nature of this argument. The acts produce similar consequences; therefore, they should share the same moral evaluation.

This comparison has some merits. However, insofar as the comparison has merit, I would like to ask whether this is an argument for more torture, or for less bomb-dropping. I think that a case can be made that we are all two willing to maim and kill people - even innocent people - and a stronger aversion would likely do us some good. However, this is a different subject.

Harris' argument makes sense IF we accept the premise that morality is primarily concerned with comparing an act of torture with an act of bomb-dropping. However, if we reject this assumption and focus our evaluations elsewhere, we get a different result - and one that is more applicable in the real world.

We can see an important difference between the two cases by asking whether the consequences of an announcement to the effect that we will never drop another bomb or shoot another bullet in defense of this country, and we compare that to the announcement that we will never again use torture. If it were the case that bomb dropping and bullet shooting were morally comparable to torture, then we should expect the same consequence from both of these announcements. Yet, almost certainly, each announcement has quite different conseqeunces. Those differences give us reason to oppose the announcement against the use of bombs and bullets to defend the country that are not applicable to the announcement against the use of torture.

We must - reluctantly - accept that a weakened aversion to the use of bombs and bullets in defense of the country is necessary.

Harris' act-consequentialism is a bad moral theory. As a result, embracing it causes people to see bad things as good, and good things as bad.

It is not the worst moral theory out there. Many religious theories are deplorable (and some are more deplorable than others). At the same time, there are also several secular theories that are also much worse. Ayn Rand's Objectivism, Marxism, common moral subjectivism, and evolutionary theories are, I would argue, as flawed as many religious theories.

I have to admit that the theory that I defend - desirism - might also be seriously flawed. However, if it is, then this would still support these conclusions. A person does not have to believe in a god to have a bad moral theory. The claim that religion is the problem, as opposed to having a bad moral theory, defines the problem far too narrowly.

1 comment:

mojo.rhythm said...


I just want to thank you for taking the time to write this comprehensive series of posts on torture. It has really helped me understand the whole issue from a desirist perspective.