Comments: The Moral Case Against Torture

So if I understand you correctly, torture should be illegal, no exceptions, but the government agent faced with a real-life ticking-time-bomb scenario should torture anyway, and trust the judge to give a lenient sentence?

well-meaning people end up saying things like "Torture does not work," unaware that such a line argues in favor of torture, not against it.

I'd say this is a pretty effective demonstration of the "torture does not work" argument - in cartoon form, no less! What do you think of it?

Posted by SteveB at July 22, 2009 01:06 PM

Incompleteness is built into any formal code of ethics, just as Godel demonstrated it is built into formal systems of mathematics.

You seem to be quixotically decreeing that any underivable "truths" involving torture in such an ethical system are simply inadmissable: to proceed you must "abandon" your universal ethics code and 'fess up' to your personal guilt.

But this is simply a 'meta'-ethical code, and for that matter, only a trivial extension of the original one, amended along the lines of: "In This Case Proceed At Your Own Discretion, But Be Prepared To Suffer For It, Even If What You Do Seems To Make Sense".

Does this really serve to better prevent torture, or even instill any genuine sense of guilt in its perpetrators?

Posted by SunMesa at July 22, 2009 02:23 PM

REMOVE JAY BYBEE FROM THE 9TH CIRCUIT BENCH, call Pelosi @1-202-225-0100. TORTURE IS A CRIME, people who torture are CRIMINALS. Whether it works or not, doesn't make a damn, its STILL A CRIME.

Posted by Mike Meyer at July 22, 2009 05:03 PM

As far as I am concerned the problem with torture is that it's barbaric, like cannibalism or something. Human civilization moved beyond it, it's in the past, end of story.

Posted by abb1 at July 22, 2009 05:11 PM

Personally, I've always thought morality and torture were intuitively compatible.

It's interesting to hear that there is some kind of "case" against this.

Posted by JR Boyd at July 22, 2009 06:24 PM

re: How to Argue Against Torture

Torture is wrongly used to make a silent person talk, and therefore runs counter to the Supreme Court finding in Miranda: "You have the right to remain silent." It's freedom of speech, in a reverse sense.

Of course alleged terrorists have no rights, even to silence, the thinking goes.

Posted by Don Bacon at July 22, 2009 07:02 PM

@SteveB: I am not quite saying that. First, the government agent should not trust the judge to give a lenient sentence; at best she can hope for that. I write that

>>It would seem wise to grant judges enough sentencing discretion to keep would-be torturers in the dark and induce them to proceed on worst-case assumptions.

Also, I am not saying the agent should torture. I am saying that if she chooses to do so she shouldn't blame anyone else but herself. The decision has to be entirely hers. I am not telling her what she should do, besides appealing to the law. That applies only to TBS. In all other cases, ethical codes should kick in, ie I'll tell her what to do and she should listen.

@SunMesa:

>>You seem to be quixotically decreeing that any underivable "truths" involving torture in such an ethical system are simply inadmissable.

The term quixotic is probably accurate (as anything existentialist) but my decree does not apply to underivable truths. I write that "I am not simply stating the impossibility or intractability of always reaching a decision via a universal code, something of which I cannot be sure. Rather, I am decreeing it." In other words, I override whatever the code might be telling me, ie its derivable truths.

You call that a meta-ethical code. Exactly. I wrote at the beginning: "The third principle is a point of meta-ethics."

>> Does this really serve to better prevent torture?

I don't need to care in ths essay. That's not my point. I could write another essay called "How to prevent torture" to address that, but that's not the purpose of my essay. My goal was to clarify the morality of an anti-torture stand. It would be dishonest to explain the immorality of torture in a way specifically tailored to achieve the desired goal of preventing torture. That's precisely the kind of dishonesty liberals are so guilty of. I think we all agree that the wrongness of rape should not be defined in a way that makes rape less likely: it should be defined in a way that makes it true. Same with torture.

Very interesting point about Goedel. I have definite views about that but I'll have to leave that for another post.


Posted by Bernard Chazelle at July 22, 2009 07:33 PM

@Mike: Exactly. Torture is a crime. Has been for decades. No exceptions. So much for "a nation of laws."

@abb1: I agree with you but cannibalism is a poor example to choose. Cannibalism is NOT immoral. It's repugnant for us. But certainly it's a cultural thing. There is no a priori argument for the wrongness of cannibalism. In that sense, torture is categorically different.
People should make it very clear there should be no cultural exception for torture.

@JR Boyd: You always learn something new at ATR. That's the magic of the place.

@Don: Violation of the 5th amendment... Now you're being technical.

Posted by Bernard Chazelle at July 22, 2009 08:02 PM

The fact that torture doesn't work, just adds to the egregiousness wrongness of it. To ignore the fact that it doesn't work or to suggest it does, or might work, is simply enabling the bastards. Why on earth do you think they are arguing so hard that it has worked? Sure, I understand from a moral ethical standpoint that doesn't matter, but the reason Bush and company should be hung from the nearest tree, after a fair trial, of course, is that it doesn't work and has put our own troops in further jeopardy and turned the civilized world against us. You can talk all the high moral ethical, philosophical "stuff" you want but at the end of the day this is the truth that trumps all others with the American public.

Posted by knowdoubt at July 22, 2009 08:39 PM

"What if you are ordered to torture? Assuming a moral choice is possible, ie, disobedience is not punishable by death, you should refuse to torture..."

Maybe I'm missing something, but it seems to me that if torture is wrong and I believe it to be wrong, whether I die for refusing to obey the order is irrelevant - I must refuse anyhow. The morality of my choice isn't based on my personal safety. If the individuals convicted at Nuremburg had refused to follow orders, it would have resulted in their deaths - does that mean that they were justified to follow orders after all?

Posted by Greg Shields at July 22, 2009 08:44 PM

"What if you are ordered to torture? Assuming a moral choice is possible, ie, disobedience is not punishable by death, you should refuse to torture..."

Maybe I'm missing something, but it seems to me that if torture is wrong and I believe it to be wrong, whether I die for refusing to obey the order is irrelevant - I must refuse anyhow. The morality of my choice isn't based on my personal safety. If the individuals convicted at Nuremburg had refused to follow orders, it would have resulted in their deaths - does that mean that they were justified to follow orders after all?

Posted by Greg Shields at July 22, 2009 08:45 PM

@knowdoubt: I see your point and, even though I cannot entirely refute it, I disagree with it.

Historically I cannot think of any case where torture went away (in practice) because people realized it didn't work. The French example is probably the most public in recent history, and what won the day was entirely the philosophical argument (What kind of people are we?). Same with the death penalty. The argument that the death penalty did not work in reducing crime played virtually no role in its ban.

Practically, it's a very dangerous debate to have because you have to prove a negative (which is impossible) whereas all Dersh has to do is come up with 1 example where it worked.

I think that, practically, politically, historically, philosophically the "efficacy" of torture should be banned from the public discourse.


Posted by Bernard Chazelle at July 22, 2009 09:36 PM

Greg: Yes, absolutely, self-defense trumps torture. Now you'll be a hero and a martyr if you die to avoid torturing and I hope you'll feel like shit if you choose to torture, but no one can criticize your ethical decision if you torture in order to save your own life at that moment when it is beyond any reasonable doubt that you will die otherwise and the victim is a culpable bystander and you are innocent (prior to that moment).

That's why I said in the essay that torture is not the worst moral wrong. It quite clearly is not. For example, what I just said would not be true if, in order to save your own life, you needed to kill 10 innocent children. That's immoral and unacceptable in view of the alternative. But I don't believe that torture that does not result in death trumps your own personal life as an innocent person, who say was drafted into the army and forced to interrogate someone knowing that the last 2 people who refused that order were shot on the spot.

Posted by Bernard Chazelle at July 22, 2009 09:49 PM

I need to take issue with this statement.

>> You can talk all the high moral ethical, philosophical "stuff" you want but at the end of the day this is the truth that trumps all others with the American public.

Philosophical "stuff" and high moral ethics can be caught up in complicated logical reasoning, etc, and not everyone has a taste for it. Some people will say that "it doesn't work" is something the average joe can understand but all that philosophical mumbo-jumbo is just for academic nerds.

I completely disagree. The "it doesn't work" argument requires historians, facts, records, interpretations, an ability to factor the spin, etc. That's fancy stuff!

The philosophical intuition against torture is immediate for everybody who has a soul. And that's the real issue. In the end, what moves people is not "what works or not" but deep issues that have occupied philosophers for centuries.

What is dignity?

What is freedom?

What is respect?

What is compassion?

What is decency?

What is honor?

I think everyone relates to these notions directly, viscerally, intuitively. They may not have the language to express all the subtleties behind them but they know exactly what those things mean in their own lives. And that's in those terms that the the public discourse on torture should be framed.

My wife teaches philosophy in a max security prison for young offenders. They "did" Plato and Aquinas last semester, and her only problem was to keep them from talking all at once. She showed me this essay by this guy who dropped out of school as a young kid and has been in and out of jail ever since. It was on poverty and dignity. I'll tell you in all honesty that there was more philosophical insight packed in there than I've seen coming from college grads schooled in Locke, Hume, Rousseau and Kant.

I think refusing to engage Americans on a philosophical plane is a bad mistake.


Posted by Bernard Chazelle at July 22, 2009 10:20 PM

Bernard,

Freedom of speech (and its contra, of non-speech) is in the First Amendment, not the Fifth. I'm not an intellectual like you, and to me torture is a simple case of illegally trying to make a silent person speak, counter to Miranda. You call it technical, I call it common sense, no philosophy required.

Also, I was clearly addressing your essay title "How to Argue Against Torture " and not your blog title "The Moral Case Against Torture."

Posted by Don Bacon at July 23, 2009 12:15 AM

Any chance we could read that essay by the inmate, Bernard?

Posted by Marcus at July 23, 2009 01:58 AM

A small correction to the piece: I have personally experienced two painless, though boring, root canals.

Posted by Erik at July 23, 2009 02:31 AM

Professor: Thanks for the response, I think we are more in agreement than disagreement and I tend to agree with your statement that "The efficacy of torture should be banned from public discourse," but that horse is already out of the barn and consequently needs to be dealt with. Certainly, a society with any moral/ethical pretensions would not be dealing with that debate, unfortunately, the right wings nuttery of the Bush/Cheney gang of infamy refuse to give us that option so, without changing the constitution banning free speech we are forced to deal with alot of unpleasantness, to put it mildly, that they have left us as a legacy.

Despite their best efforts to game the system, the past administration has been unable to offer any evidence that torture actually worked, the evidence is quite the contrary. It is refreshing to see a member of academia willing to concede even a little bit. One of my most unpleasant memories of undergraduate study was a course on Latin American Geography or maybe it was culture where I offered an opposing view to the professor concerning the efficacy and/or ethical rightness of our policies in Chile in the early 70's I received a "D" in the class despite having the highest grade point average with the explanation that it was because, I was a "bearded revolutionary." My best efforts to have that dispute that grade were ignored by the administration because as today once one becomes a member of a privileged class or "professional" accountability gets thrown out the window with a "circle the wagons" mentality that appears to trump all other values or concerns. Just look at the efforts to hold any of the perpetrators accountable for a war based on fraud or torture and other despicable crimes. John Yoo appears to be firmly entrenched in his "Ivory Tower" along with Henry Kissinger as shining beacon of the unaccountability of those in power and with influence and that everyman with such attributes is "above the law."

P.S. I would love to see the essay, referenced above, myself.

Posted by knowdoubt at July 23, 2009 07:27 AM

The philosophical intuition against torture is immediate for everybody who has a soul.

Ah, now we've pinpointed the problem.

Posted by SteveB at July 23, 2009 09:30 AM

The term quixotic is probably accurate (as anything existentialist) but my decree does not apply to underivable truths.

Agreed. My comment exhibits a presumption that any well-formed ethical code would not admit torture as a 'derivable truth' (i.e., a justifiable course of action), but indeed, that is not entirely clear, which obviously motivates your third principle.

The question is then whether you can 'decree away' such irritating results. In a purely abstract formalism, perhaps you can. In a more empirical venue, e.g., the physical sciences, you certainly cannot. I may find space-time singularities philosophically abhorrent, but both theory and observation indicate their existence. To 'outlaw' them in principle is, literally, meta-physical, to the same extent that it is meta-ethical to disregard your ethical code when it justifies torture.

While commendable on its face, it's not clear how invoking such a principle can serve to "clarify the morality of an anti-torture stand", other than to highlight your own assessment that torture uniquely transcends the spectrum of human moral ills. I am open to being convinced, but I have not yet seen that case made compellingly.

Posted by SunMesa at July 23, 2009 02:30 PM

SM: You're right. Maybe it does not clarify anything. But I would grant myself a freedom in metaethics I would not in metaphysics, in view of the existentialist position I take, which puts free will at the very center of the action, ie, I don't choose to torture or not because I am free. I am free because I choose to torture or not. It's an extemely appealing approach to freedom, and it's a shame it's never made much headway into analytical philosophy.

Posted by Bernard Chazelle at July 23, 2009 03:04 PM

@Erik: Everyone on this blog needs the name of your dentist.

@Marcus/KD.

Unfortunately I am not allowed to post the essays, but here's a short excerpt. It's about Plato's allegory of the cave. The writer has been in and out of juvenile detention and then adult prison since he was 12. The text is verbatim.



I really enjoyed the allegory of a cave by Plato. His wisdom and insight are uncanny and extremely ethereal. I bare witness to his explanation of a person drawing closer to the light of wisdom and understanding.

I liked how he compared finding wisdom to coming closer to the sun. When you descend it becomes difficult to adjust your eyes (understanding) to whatever situation you were in before you were exposed to so much light. This is how my journey of life has also been. The more and more I learn and come into knowledge of truth, it makes it difficult for my understanding to adjust to the way I used to see life and the world. I like to compare it to a baby being born….

A baby who didn’t use his his hands and feet [in the womb] would soon need them in the light… He would need his mouth to eat and communicate [unlike in the womb], his nose to breathe, etc. He experiences this as he journeys into another world. So it is for a person who journeys into the light of truth. You begin to use your capabilities – capabilities that you already possessed naturally. {..]

These are things I have experienced during incarceration. Though it can be difficult at times, it’s exactly the travail I needed to push me out of the darkness of ignorance and into the light of truth. I am discovering gifts that God created me with from the beginning, that I didn’t realize I possessed. [..]

To use another analogy, in Plato’s ‘Allegory of the cave’ he spoke of the mind’s eye, and the eyes being of two kinds, arising from two causes. It brings me to think of a blind man’s vision. Physically incapable of seeing objects or the visible world, the loss of one sense (vision) enhances another (mental vision), and the vision of his mind, called the ‘Mind’s Eye’, can interpret reality from his own idea, through his conception of truth, seeing light in a different way. He can envision the shape of the world through his imagination whereas those who have vision are limited to what they see as universal. A blind man can form a utopia of his own and set that as a background to his reality, whereas the sight of the sickly demise of an AIDS infected child burdens another.

The point is, if we elevate our minds to achieving light, and that which is beautiful from being enlightened, we would [will] have transitioned from the limits of visual perception

Posted by Bernard Chazelle at July 23, 2009 03:10 PM

Thanks for the excerpt, Bernard. I've known girls who grew up in trailer parks, friends' living rooms, juvenile detention centers, went to 30 different schools before dropping out, were molested by their dad and others, addicted to pills, and wrote absolutely brilliant poetry and essays, at age sixteen.

I'd be very interested to know what your thoughts are on incarceration. What acts can a person commit that justify him/her being locked in a cage, if any? And if there are such circumstances, do you consider imprisonment to be for prevention of future crimes, punishment for committed crimes, deterrence of others from crimes, or more than one of these (or something else.)

Also I'd love to hear your thoughts on the Lesser Evil Theory of voting and political support, specifically, if you believe in it, how far you would take it. Say, if the election were Hitler against someone slightly more evil than Hitler, do you punch Hitler's chad? I've been throwing this question around to Lesser Evilists and have thus far been called a dumbass, cocksucker, idealist, etc., and not gotten an answer. Of course I know you will not have to resort to turning into a frothing pile of gibberish to defend your position. But I'm craving some coherency on the issue, if you get the chance.

Posted by Marcus at July 24, 2009 04:57 AM

Nice essay professor. A little dry, like fine wine, but it's philosophy after all, and it seemed to me to have risen above semi-cogent.

"No other moral issue matches torture in the shoddy thinking it elicits."

--hmmm, i would always be skeptical of a statement like that, and having just read David Foster Wallace's much more than semi-cogent essay "Consider the Lobster, I'm especially skeptical. Shoddy thinking, including by me (and, I dare say, by you too) is so common that i suspect that it's hard-wired. I think it's inescapable, even by the brilliant when they aren't on their game.

"Nowhere in the blogosphere have I seen the case against torture argued even semi-cogently."

--I've already snarked the semi-cogent statement twice, so enough said. Humility will get you nowhere.


"Well-meaning people end up saying things like "Torture does not work," unaware that such a line argues in favor of torture, not against it."

--Perhaps the statement argues in favor of torture as a philosophical matter, but not otherwise. I remain unconvinced, semi-cogently (ok, three times), that there is an inescapable logical inconcistency between opposing torture on moral and ethical grounds AND opposing it as ineffective. (I also think torture can work, depending on the circumstances and goal. It's certainly an effective part of state terror, though that's of course not the PR version that goes on TV.)

"Wittgenstein was on to something when he wrote, 'Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.'"

--I think there are multiple levels of irony in this citation, but i have to admit that I have never been incarcerated in a maximum security prison and am only semi-cogent, so understandably a dimwit about this stuff. Thank God for the internets, so i could read all about Wittgenstein and the Tractatus, the concluding sentence of which you have quoted.

Here are the ironies I see. First, I think Wittgenstein was talking about the limits of language, not just saying "shut up if you don't know what you're talking about, you semi-cogent numbskulls out there!" If so, somebody might argue that the impulse to torture is a vestige of some pre-lingual urges, the sort of urges that make a cat "torture" a mouse. And under that view, perhaps a reading of Wittgensteinn's conclusion would be that torture is beyond the reach of language, including dry philosophical essays on its morality.

Another irony is that Wittgenstein's conclusion of the Tractatus is part of that work, no more intended to be a broad, freestsanding statement than, for example, Goedel's theorem about the completeneses and consistency of formal systems, as you explained in a later post. In any other context, Wittgenstein's remark is only an analogy. But an analogy meaning what?
It could be read to suggest that those who have direct experience of something that gives their speech authenticity can speak, but others should not. Or, as I said, it could read to suggest that some subjects are beyond the reach of language. Hell if I know. I couldn't find the answer to that on Wikipedia, so there must not be one.

Thanks for the essay. Thanks for opposing torture. Thanks for sendinng a little Wittgenstein and Goedel our way. Sorry for being so semi-cogent! (ok, four, that's all)

Posted by N E at July 24, 2009 11:17 AM

...it seems to me that if torture is wrong and I believe it to be wrong, whether I die for refusing to obey the order is irrelevant - I must refuse anyhow.

Very true, but it doesn't leave open the lesser evil "24" escape clause. That's why we have to have the Homeric torturer who tortures, not because he's an incompetent thug or a moral cretin, but because he's a heroic hero who heroically sacrifices himself for, well, whatever. It's basically the same reason we need unicorns, bigfoot and "progressives."

Posted by AlanSmithee at July 24, 2009 11:28 AM

Alan Smithee: That's REGRESSIVES, if YOU please, Sir, I want to return to the "good ole dayz" when torture was wrong and ILLEGAL.

Posted by Mike Meyer at July 24, 2009 12:22 PM

I stand (well, sit) corrected.

Posted by AlanSmithee at July 24, 2009 12:30 PM

Ah! To RETURN to kinder, gentler times when HABEAS was a RIGHT and the 5th AMENDMENT still existed.
GUILTY 'til tortured innocent, the dawning of a new day.

Posted by Mike Meyer at July 24, 2009 12:35 PM

I thought that the reason for point out that torture doesn't work was that, in fact, it does not work. What's wrong with stating the plain truth? If you are trying to stop it, and the guy on the other side of the argument is not buying into your "it's not moral" arguments, perhaps he can be swayed on practical grounds. Perhaps it gives someone an out -- it is much easier to admit that you've been merely mistaken, as opposed to immoral. Are we trying to score debating points, or are we trying to get an evil thing to stop?

Posted by dr2chase at July 24, 2009 10:01 PM