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When Good People Do Bad Things

November 2nd, 2007 · 9 Comments

Looking over the comments to the essay linked in the previous post, I’m reminded of one of the rhetorical problems facing opponents of torture. If you point out that some interrogation method we’ve used at some point is a cruel, abhorrent tactic better suited to Kim Jong Il’s North Korea than the United States, someone will invariably take umbrage on behalf of our interrogators: Are saying American troops are sadists and torturers? Comparing them to PDRK thugs?

But this gets things backwards. Being a soldier means, to a large extent, shutting down your ordinary moral reactions to witnessing or inflicting serious harm on people. We hope there are limits to this, obviously, but a large part of the point of military training is to overcome our natural resistance to causing suffering or death, to prepare them to carry out orders they would ordinarily find repugnant or disturbing without the luxury of agonizing over the morality of what they’re doing on a case-by-case basis. That’s not something that reflects poorly on their characters; it’s part of the terrible price of service. In order to make themselves effective soldiers, they pass much of that responsibility to their superiors, who they trust to issue morally sound orders. In effect, they make a bargain: We will disengage the moral safety mechanisms that apply in civilian life, and expect that you will not take advantage of this by asking us to do anything morally abhorrent. Someone who imagines himself to be “defending” the troops against critics of waterboarding, then, is really just passing the buck, and abusing that trust.

This sort of “defense,” incidentally, looks an awful lot like one of the well-understood mechanisms by which basically good individuals or groups can be induced to do awful things. Precisely because people have a self-image as a basically decent person, if you can get someone to participate in a morally questionable activity—maybe by getting them to move from benign to harmful actions by tiny increments, or by obscuring how harmful it really is, or by requiring only passive or minor complicity at the outset—they will tend, after the fact, to look for reasons why what they did was justified, making their behavior consistent with their self image. This, in turn, makes it easier to commit more extreme and harmful forms of the same action, creating a feedback loop of escalation and justification.

It’s easy to imagine a collective version of the same vicious cycle operating in interrogation policy: The citizen thinks that our good soldiers can’t be guilty of torture, so waterboarding must be Hoyle. The soldiers (of various ranks, at each level of the process from policy to implementation) have faith that America would not have them do anything immoral, so they go ahead and carry out their interrogations without raising doubts about the waterboarding, or to the next slightly-more-severe method of interrogation. And slowly, good people come to do awful things together, precisely because they’re all convinced—correctly!—of each other’s goodness.

Tags: Obedience and Insubordination



9 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Paulinho // Nov 19, 2015 at 6:18 pm

    If you are an ethical utalitariin, you may accept the idea that the rightness of torture depends on who is doing the torturing, and why, and whether the end justifies the means. If you fall into this group, you probably have a deep need for some kind of assurance that we got good intelligence when we tortured prisoners. Good intelligence would justify beating a man, shackling him in a stress position so long as we gained information so that we could try to prevent some sort of attack that might have happened otherwise. Never mind that we have defined the very same things as war crimes when others do it. If it was expedient for us, then some would say it was right. Is there really, in our national character, a persistent willingness to commit violence to establish our nation’s dominance? If, on the other hand, you believe that a thing can be inherently right or wrong, it is perhaps enough to say that violating any other human is wrong, or torture un-American, or we are better than that. Indeed, many would say that this moral high ground is precisely what makes Us different from Them. (For many of us, it is the only position that is consistent with our most deeply held world view.) Still, I admit that this is ultimately based more on my subjective sense of moral right than on an effort to apply logic to ethics. Worse, my position probably breaks down in certain extreme situations. If a kidnapper said, brutalize that man, or else I will shoot this child, then perhaps refusing to commit violence could be the ethically inferior choice. Even there, though, I say perhaps and this is difficult because participating in the violence in such a sordid scene might ultimately at some level justify the violence, rather than letting it stand as judged unacceptable. I can not control that thug’s choices, no matter what he may promise. I can only control whether I commit violence or not.

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