Comments: Duty Calls

The Socratic method is a dangerous thing in the hands of those without moral boundaries.

At the link, Anderson describes being asked a hypothetical by a "serious lawyer" who presented him with a "devilish intellectual challenge":

"Let's take your hypothesis a bit further. We have captured a terrorist, but he is a hardened character. We cannot be certain that he will crack in time. We have also captured his wife and children".

Anticipating the question, Anderson faced the truth about himself (probably more easily than he claimed):

"After much agonising, I have come to the conclusion that there is only one answer to Sydney's question. Torture the wife and children."

Using this method, all one need do to justify anything is imagine that something more horrible will happen unless the necessary deed is done. Assassinations, coups, torture, human experimentation, killing children, annihilating whole cities, genocide--there is nothing that cannot be rationalized in this way. In fact, there is nothing that has not been rationalized in exactly this way.

How then should one approach these questions?

When asked if the ends ever justify the means, Ghandi answered:

"The means are the ends in the making."

Posted by N E at February 17, 2010 11:57 AM

Sorry about that misplaced 'h' Mahatma.

Posted by N E at February 17, 2010 11:59 AM

Anderson starts at the infamous "ticking bomb" scenario; how is it that we always know that the suspect knows where it is and how to stop it? How about we have a suspect and we know that he was sold to us by someone that owed him money? That one actually happens, I think, and actually involves a real moral dilemma.

Posted by Murfyn at February 17, 2010 12:13 PM

Funny how these junior-league sadists never consider it a "moral duty" to do anything that would actually work.

When Anderson can't find his car keys in the morning he probably considers it a Moral Duty to torture the newspaper delivery kid until he admits to stealing them.

Posted by dan at February 17, 2010 12:34 PM

Anderson uses a pragmatically justified obligation to act immorally in a specific last-resort scenario to argue for a principled fully general right to act immorally? Does this guy know the meaning of the words he writes? His argument is refuted by simply noting that last-resort scenarios assume as given the immorality of the action in question. At best they identify situations in which competing rights/moral obligations are at play.

Posted by scudbucket at February 17, 2010 03:17 PM

Here's a relevant post on George Bush, GB Shaw, and duty:

Posted by Tony C. at February 18, 2010 08:44 AM

Bruce Anderson

Perhaps we should have offered the Pakistanis some advice on interrogation techniques which do not involve knife-work on suspects' genitals.


There is a threat not only to individual lives, which is of minor importance, but to our way of life and our civilisation.

The whole thing is so repugnant that I just don't believe it. Literally. I mean, on an intellectual level I figure that there probably have to be people like this, in order to have holocausts and inquisitions, but it still seems absurd to me that there could be people out there so nakedly, cartoonishly evil.

Posted by Christopher at February 18, 2010 07:49 PM

I believe something like 58% of the American public supports torture under some circumstances. That idiot elected to the senate in Massachusetts advocates it.

Posted by Ron Prentice at February 19, 2010 01:22 PM