Matt Zeitlin finds something incongruous about (what used to be?) our special horror over torture. After all, he points out, any war we embark on—even the most just war you could imagine—involves the suffering and death of many innocent civilians. But the same rules don’t seem to apply there: If the generals determine that bombing such-and-such location will inevitably wipe out some occupied civilian homes, but save dozens of lives on net by eliminating an insurgent cell, we may find this sobering and tragic, but most of us won’t be outraged in quite the same way many are by torture.
The simple answer is just that, as the research of folks like Joshua Greene and Jonathan Haidt shows, we have a set of evolved moral intuitions that are especially keyed to harm to others that is both intentional and proximate. This (they suggest) is why many of us, in the classic ethics thought experiment, seem to think it would be acceptable—even obligatory—to switch a speeding trolley that is headed toward five people onto an alternate track where it will hit just one, but balk at saving the five by pushing an obese man into the path of the trolley. On this account, the discrepancy is just a side effect of the fact that our ancestors on the woodland savannah did not engage in many aerial bombing raids.
But we don’t have to stop there, of course: The fact that we can offer a highly contingent evolutionary account of the intution doesn’t preclude us from seeing what else we can say on its behalf. To the extent that we’re just more exercised by the thought of a single individual being worked over by hand in close quarters than by the suffering of abstract “civilan casualties” on a satellite image, the distinction is going to be hard to defend. The intentionality angle seems a bit more promising, though it naturally brings us in range of our old (and controversial) friend the doctrine of double effect. Without wading too far into that particular morass, there’s at least a fair case to be made that there’s some important moral difference, and not just for purposes of punishment and incentive, between what foreseeably results from our actions and what we aim at. It may sound pedantic—no doubt these nice distinctions are of limited interest to those civilian casualties—but there’s a fairly straightforward parallel to the common distinction between what we do and what we allow to happen, though plenty of philosophers find that equally spurious, or otherwise justifiable only on the pragmatic grounds that we can set rules for what not to do more easily than we can determine an optimal course of action. I’m admittedly a bit rusty here, but I’m not persuaded this is just some sort of ethical atavism myself. In war, we sometimes (and sometimes wrongly) accept the suffering that results from our actions because we cannot avoid it: suffering will be a side effect of actions aimed at concluding the war, but also of inaction that prolongs it, so we grimly tolerate its presence. When we torture, suffering is the point; we cease to tolerate it and instead aim at it, make it our ally, hope to increase it beyond what the subject can endure. Bracketing a thousand other sound institutional and practical reasons not to make a policy of torture—and everyone should read Paul Campos’ summary of Rawls’ crucial insight on this score—I find myself thinking that’s a difference that makes a difference. The first type of calculus might be tragic-but-right, or it might be horribly (if misguidedly) wrong. The second is evil.
While I tend to think that assessment probably can be cashed out in a satisfactory way, I realize there are plenty of smart philosophers who think otherwise. In which case, as Zeitlin seems to want to say, you nevertheless go to war with the moral sentiments you have, not the ones a perfectly rational ethicist might wish you had. His point, riffing on Slavoj Zizek, is that we should preserve our visceral horror at the mistreatment of others, even if the pattern of our concern is not strictly rational or consistent.
I think there’s something to that, but want to offer a slightly different spin. In lots of informal ethical deliberation, but especially when we face the kinds of questions that arise in war, we tend to find ourselves torn between what we might very crudely class as two basic ways of thinking: a deontological mode and a consequentialist mode. Each broad category, of course, encompasses innumerable more specific, often quite sophisticated doctrines, but the basic and unavoidable dilemma is whether to think of people as fungible repositories of an aggregate “human good” to be maximized, or as having some sort of inviolable dignity that limits how we may treat one person, however much others might benefit. Each way of thinking is coherent, defensible, internally consistent, and—in its pure form—completely unacceptable. If killing an innocent person would somehow prevent the deaths of X others, there’s some X for which almost all of us would sadly agree that it was right to do it. But that doesn’t mean, as the old joke has it, that we’re just haggling price: Very few of us are prepared to embrace the idea that we may do anything to anyone, so long as when the smoke clears, the bottom line of the utility ledger is black. Much of ethics consists of attempts to find some theoretically satisfying way to resolve that tension. I doubt anyone’s quite managed it yet. While we await that marvelous unified field theory, we need to make do with what boundary lines we can converge on, whether or not they have a full theoretical defense. We’re not sure exactly how to square the circle, but we’re pretty confident that most of the kludgy compromises come closer to getting it right than the theoretically tidy poles.
Civilian life affords us the luxury of a good deal of deontology—better to let ten guilty men go free, and so on. In wartime, there’s almost overwhelming pressure to shift to consequentialist thinking… and that’s if you’re lucky enough to have leaders who remember to factor the other side’s population into the calculus. And so we might think of the horror at torture as serving a kind of second-order function, quite apart from its intrinsic badness relative to other acts of war. It’s the marker we drop to say that even now, when the end is self-preservation, not all means are permitted. It’s the boundary we treat as uncrossable not because we’re certain it traces the faultline between right and wrong, but because it’s our own defining border; because if we survived by erasing it, whatever survived would be a stranger in the mirror. Which, in his own way, is what Shep Smith was getting at. Probably Khalid Sheik Mohammed deserves to be waterboarded and worse. We do not deserve to become the country that does it to him.