Friday, January 23, 2009

Moral Rights and the Issue of Torture

In my last post I compared two conceptions of rights.

One conception holds that rights represent moral facts of some sort and are independent of the whim of the state. On this conception, states can violate rights, which means that states can be identified as morally just or unjust.

The other conception holds that rights are contrivances of the state. A person has only those rights that the state gives them, so the state cannot actually violate anybody’s rights. If the state sanctions the slaughter of a whole group of people then those people simply do not have a right not to be slaughtered.

I showed that Representative Young of Florida defends the second conception of rights, while both Desire Utilitarianism (the theory I use in this blog) and America’s founding documents – the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights are consistent with the first conception.

I made these claims in the context of the debate over the rights of the Guantanamo Bay prisoners. The question is whether those prisoners have moral rights and can thus be treated unjustly, or if their rights are mere government contrivances making unjust treatment impossible.

I suggested that a right, in desire utilitarian terms, is something towards which people generally have many and strong reasons to promote an aversion. Rights to freedom of the speech and the press exist insofar as people generally have many and strong reasons to promote an overall aversion to responding to words with violence.

The claim that the only legitimate response to words are words and private actions is the claim that a good person (the person with desires that people generally have reason to promote) would be averse to responding to words with violence.

People generally have many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to torture as well, and to secret trials, and to lengthy imprisonments without a trial, and various other evils that the Bush Administration visited on people (making this one of the most morally bankrupt administrations in American history).

The problem with allowing torture – with being a country that condones or even praises the use of torture – is that it weakens the aversion to torture. In weakening the aversion to torture, the attitude creates a social climate in which torture will be more common.

I am not speaking just about state torture but private torture – including private crimes in which a guardian tortures a child or a citizen acts in a particularly cruel way towards another citizen.

One way to reduce the incidents of these types of situations is to promote a general aversion to these types of situations – to seed the moral conscience of all people with a distaste for such activities that is so strong that it overrules other desires that people might have.

We do this, in turn, by condemning any and all instances of torture. The stronger our interest in reducing the incidents of cruelty of one person towards another, the stronger should be our condemnation of torture.

The Bush Administration pats itself on the back for saying that, because of its practice of torture, it has kept us safe. However, even to the degree that torture helped rather than harmed that goal, it still put innocent people around the world at risk of being tortured.

Bush gave would-be dictators and tyrants around the world moral permission to apprehend anybody that they conceived of as a threat to the state, arrest them, and torture them for information. Where some mob of people are trying to gain power, Bush gave them moral permission to capture and torture as well.

Bush did not make people around the world generally safe from torture. He did the opposite. He destroyed decades of work in securing innocent people from such a fate by promoting and encouraging what people generally have many and strong reasons to discourage.

President Obama, in reversing Bush’s policies, is creating a world in which innocent people around the world are less likely to be subject to torture and other forms of abuse.

By taking a stand against torture, he is setting a moral example for others to follow. He makes it easier to condemn the dictator or tyrant or warlord or tribal leader who practices torture. He makes it harder for those who practice torture to find friends and allies, and thus weakens those who would engage in such acts.

There is, then, a moral right not to be tortured – because there are many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to torture regardless of what any given state allows or prohibits.

Obama’s orders respect those rights, thus making America a morally better country than it was under the Bush Administration. Recognizing that a state has no power to create or destroy rights – only to respect or abridge rights – he has turned the country away from the practice of abridging certain rights, and towards respecting those rights.

At least in this one instance.


Anonymous said...

Your two choices - (1) rights as moral facts, (2) rights as state-created - misses a third option. Perhaps there are no objective moral facts. So, until you direct me towards a good argument in favor of moral facts, there remains a third option:

If there aren't moral facts, then we must make a choice - one of obvious choices to the structure of society I can think off the top of my head is Plato's Closed Society. It's a society that values collectivism, historicism, and totalitarianism.

One of the less-obvious choices is the Open Society: a society that values individualism, democracy, equalitarian justice, and the freedom to give and receive as one sees fit.

So, the choice of the Open Society has been one taken gradually, slowly, over the past few hundred years. No state 'created' our rights; with the advent of trade, our rights have reflected trading as a foundation of rights.

At least, that's another plausible option that doesn't assume that a true system of ethics can be discovered somehow in nature.

Anonymous said...

If there aren't moral facts, then we must make a choice

Hello Janus. You are correct in this statement. However the whole point of this blog is to demonstrate that there actually ARE moral facts, and they can be discovered.

Anonymous said...


Oh, I agree with your sentiment and with the purpose of this blog, but I think the all the arguments I've heard in favor of objective moral facts are - how would I put this? - pretty bad.

I'd love to be shown wrong; I'd love for there to be objective moral facts. Do you have any resources that give a good argument in favor of objective moral facts?

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Stay tuned. A relevant blog post should show up on January 27.