Tuesday, November 01, 2005


It appears that an important job qualification within the Bush Administration for a position among the senior staff is a particular affection for torture. Our Attorney General Alberto Gonzales gave his name to the “torture memo” that set Bush’s policy on torture.
Now, Cheney has selected Robert Addington as his new Chief of Staff. Addington wrote the torture memo that Gonzales signed. According to the Washington Post, "[Addington] was a principal author of the White House memo justifying torture of terrorism suspects."
I would like to use this as an opportunity to say a few words about the ethics of torture.

Moral Absolutes

One of the criticisms often made of atheists is that we do not believe in moral absolutes. Yet, these same people enthusiastically endorse an administration that does not seem to believe in moral absolutes either, such as when it comes to torture.
I’ll be honest. If I had a person in front of me who had planted a device that will destroy all life on earth, and two weeks to get the information from him to turn it off, I would do everything in my power to extract that information from him.
I would hate it. At the same time, I would fear that my hatred of what I had to do may get in the way of success. I would have to struggle with it. I can't even witness a worm baking on a sidewalk without wanting to rescue it. However, in a case of this person's pain, versus the lost hopes and dreams of an entire civilization, I may have to do some unpleasant things.
I would probably be a psychological wreck after it was done, and I just might release all of that pent up emotion on anybody who would be so callous as to congratulate me or call me a hero.
There are, in fact, no moral absolutes - such as an absolute prohibition on torture. Any system that argues that there are is as problematic as a system that says that the Earth rides on the back of four elephants sitting on a turtle. It is just a fundamentally false statement uttered by people who have problems connecting with the real world.

Torture Is Bad

The Bush Administration, however, takes a much-too-casual attitude towards torture. They seem to think of it as just another policy option, like tax cuts or school vouchers, to be used when useful in advancing their agenda.
One would like to think that they would not use it against an American citizen. That would not be useful, if word of this ever got out. However, I am not comfortable with what this administration would do under circumstances where it felt that it could keep such an act comfortably safe.
This leads to an important moral principle. Morality does not depend on the nationality of the victim. If murder is wrong, then murdering a Mexican is just as wrong as murdering an American. If theft is wrong, it is just as wrong to steel as from a Chinaman as an American. Nationality is morally irrelevant.
Where torture may be necessary, nationality remains a morally irrelevant property. In the example that I gave above, I did not mention the nationality of the person who set the device, because it does not matter.
This means that, if we take a hard moral look at Bush’s policies, we can only do so by applying the principle of, "Do to other foreign nationals that which you would have foreign nationals do to American citizens." (Note: For those who think that this is a Christian principle, note that something similar exists in virtually every moral system, including the system that I use and apply in these posts, and may be considered necessary for any system to be sensibly called a moral system.)
When we look at a policy of going through a neighborhood, rounding up suspects, and "interrogating" them to find out what they are innocent or guilty, one has to ask, "How would we react if Saudi Arabia or China went through an American neighborhood and treated our citizens this way?” Unlike Americans in Iraq, these people would be doing this to Americans in their own country, yet we would certainly call them ‘evil’.
We should be doing nothing to the Iraqis in their country that we would not tolerate others doing to Americans in this country. These are fundamental [b]human[/b] rights, not fundamental [b]American[/b] rights. The fact that we are Americans gives us no moral permission to "do unto others that which we would violently protest if they were to do unto us."

The Aversion to Torture

It is reasonable to believe that the Bush Administration's casual attitude towards torture is one of the key contributing factors behind the abuse of prisoners in American controlled prisons. The Administration's tolerance of torture has sent a clear message out to the world that this is acceptable.
Where people had, for decades, been making progress against the cruel treatment of prisoners, the Bush Administration has now loosened the psychological binds that civilized society had spent decades trying to tighten. The only reasonable expectation to come from this is that, throughout the world, the abuse of prisoners is now more common than it would have otherwise been.
This argument runs parallel to a key argument that Republicans use in defense of their economic policies. Republicans have been saying that if you want to reduce a type of behavior, you punish those who engage in it, and a tax is a form of punishment – like a fine.
Consequently, they tell us that if you want to discourage wage-earning, you tax it. If you want to discourage investment, you tax it. If you want to discourage savings, you tax it, and the higher the tax, the more the activity is discouraged.
Moral condemnation, contempt, and punishment are a type of tax -- a disincentive to engage in the activity being condemned or punished. More than that, people absorb this attitude in a way that will make it difficult for them to engage in condemned actions even when nobody is watching -- when it would otherwise be profitable to do so. It is much like a person, made adverse to putting his hand in a hot fire, will not do so, even when nobody is looking, and even when it would otherwise be useful for him to do so.
The Bush Administration has apparently come to the opinion that, when it comes to torture, society needs a moral tax cut. This is the effect of the Administration saying that it is no longer going to take a harsh stand against torture.
As with any tax cut, this reduction in the moral taxation of torture can reasonably be expected to produce increased investment in torture, but at home and abroad. Apparently, the Bush Administration has reached the opinion that there is not enough torture going on in the world, and that a reduction in the torture tax – the condemnation and punishment of torture – is needed in order to restore some of the lost vigor to this industry.


Cheney's selection of David Addington as his Chief of Staff amounts to yet another “moral tax”-cut for torture. Cheney is saying that the endorsement of torture is not to be greeted with condemnation, but be rewarded with praise and political status. These are qualities that warrant promotion within this administration.
Another round of “moral tax cuts” for the practice of torture by rewarding its defenders will likely bring about another spurt of growth in the torture industry at home and abroad.
We need to be asking whether this is really something that we want to be doing.
I'm not denying that a person might be forced to engage in torture under extreme circumstances. A person might be forced into anything under extreme circumstances. However, the Bush Administration is talking about torture as a matter of policy and practice. Policy and practice is not "forced into under extraordinary circumstances." It is "something we will do under certain rather ordinary circumstances."
There is no reason to expect anything to come from this policy of lowering the moral tax against torture but to see people and governments increase their investment in torture. This is the type of world that the Bush Administration is creating for us.

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