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Morality Isn’t Free

May 4th, 2009 · 22 Comments

I had a number of thoughts over the weekend about the ongoing torture debate—and in particular the historical turn it seems to have taken recently—but in lieu of one of my usual insanely bloated 3,000-word posts, perhaps it makes sense to spread them out over a few posts and focus on one or two main ideas at a time.  So consider this the first in a series.

One thing I find striking about both the arguments over torture and the recent revival of the old Hiroshima dispute is that it sometimes seems as though the defense of necessity is regarded as  purely empirical one: We can argue whether bombing Hiroshima or waterboarding detainees saved American lives, but if it did, then that settles any question of justification.  And we seem to end up with these awfully binary framings—”would you agree it was justified if it saved lives?”—where the options are “saved lives” or “didn’t save lives,” as opposed to “saved X lives with probability A, saved Y lives with probability B, saved no net lives with probability C, cost Z net lives with probability D.”  This tendency isn’t unique to defenders of torture, mind you: Whether the same information could’ve been obtained by other means, or whether some particular attack would have occurred in the absence of that information, can only honestly be answered in probabilistic terms.

After the fact, though, we tend toward not only extremes of certainty, but extreme estimates of consequences. In the case of Hiroshima, several historians have argued that Harry Truman and War Secretary Henry Stimson’s post hoc estimates of American lives that would have been lost in an invasion—”half a million” gets bandied about a lot—are substantially higher than many of the prior estimates.  And those estimates of consequences are seldom probability adjusted. The heart of most debates over Hiroshima is the dispute over whether—as Dwight Eisenhower and many other U.S. military commanders believed—an invasion could have been averted without the use of the bomb. I’ll revisit that argument briefly in a later post, but suppose you think there’s only a 20 percent chance this could have been avoided. If that’s the case, then at the very least you need to adjust your casualty estimate to allow for the non-zero possiblity of ending the war without either invasion or nuclear bombing. Given that any invasion would have come in November at the earliest, it also seems inappropriate to just compare the death toll at Hirsoshima and Nagasaki with your best guess at the cost of invasion. You also need to factor in alternatives like “wait for the Soviets to declare war and see what happens”—they did so right after Hiroshima, and we tend to downplay the significance of that development on the Japanese military leadership—or “moderate the demand for unconditional surrender and seek a negotiated peace.” Again, bracket for the moment how likely these options were to bring a prompt end to the war on acceptable terms. Unless you think there’s no chance whatever these would have brought about that result, you have to weigh the costs of those alternatives as well, and ask whether it was obligatory to at least try first. Don’t tell Mike Goldfarb, but it was Republican Dwight Eisenhower who said the dropping of the bomb would not merely be a crime, but a “double crime,” compounded by the failure to first attempt negotiations for conditional surrender.

I suppose, in a way, this is the inverse of the familiar Scooby Snacks Defense of brutality: “Would you waterboard to save ten lives? How about a thousand? How about a million?” The corrolary question is: What kinds of risks are we willing to accept to avoid complicity in moral horror?  We tend toward these stark extremes, I want to suggest, in part because we’re quite bad at thinking about this fuzzy territory marked by uncertain estimates of the consequences of our actions.

Still, if you think of the United States as being defined, in part, by a certain set of moral ideals—if you don’t merely want your side to win international conflicts, but think that in virtue of these ideals we deserve to win—it seems very odd to then think of conduct in war as a question of pure expediency. Practicing torture or bombing civilians because it would “save lives” is, one supposes, better than doing it for the sheer sadistic pleasure of it, but sets the bar too low. I don’t mean to take the position at the opposite extreme—fiat justitia, ruat caelum—but surely “saving lives” is the beginning of what a justification of these actions might sound like, a minimum, a necessary-but-not-sufficient condition. If defenders of torture could establish that it’s effective, that it uniquely able to extract vital, reliable information that prevents more deaths than are caused by the swelling of terrorist ranks, the loss of international cooperation, the waste of resources chasing false leads—if all that were well established—that would be step one, the basis for opening a discussion of whether it might be justified.

Since recent polling suggests that regular churchgoers are more likely to believe torture is justifiable, perhaps it’s appropriate to paraphrase a certain late rabbi: If you refrain from savage acts in wartime only when brutality would gain you nothing, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do the same. Vague talk about “saving lives” obscures a vital question: What kinds of costs are you willing to bear, what risks will you accept,  in order to avoid doing evil? If you’re prepared to discard a principle as soon as there’s some significant benefit to be gotten by doing so, then it’s a principle of expediency, not morality. If you’re ready to resort to torture, or to targeting civilians, as soon as there’s some chance it would “save American lives,” then you’re declaring a commitment to abide by moral constraints, so long as observing them is free.

We are required, it seems to me, to choose: We can accept that we’re one more country like any other, guided by pure rational self interest, in which case “if it might save even one American life…” is as much justification as we can ask for any policy, and the only question (though still, of course, a difficult and complex question) is how we go about it.  If, on the other hand, we think there’s something exceptional about the United States—that we’re defined by a particular moral vision beyond the universal desire for comfort and safety—we need to accept that hewing to a moral vision sometimes comes with costs, and then ask how much ours is worth to us.

Tags: Moral Philosophy · War


       

 

22 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Hugh Jass // May 4, 2009 at 2:41 pm

    I like how you’ve turned “American Exceptionalism” around to mean what it should mean, rather than what it’s actually meant the past 20-or-so years.

  • 2 Will // May 4, 2009 at 3:29 pm

    Interesting post. My only reservation is that if we self-consciously invoke an idealized version of the American past to hold public figures accountable for torture, we limit our ability to critically re-examine events like Hiroshima.

  • 3 Anderson // May 4, 2009 at 5:37 pm

    Julian,

    I agree that simply waving one’s hand and declaring that the Hiroshima bombing was justified on the grounds that it saved lives, without any attempt to quantify the benefit, isn’t good enough. But you could make the same argument about any type of government action that causes tangible harm. If “defenders of torture” and defenders of the Hiroshima bombing have the burden of producing a detailed cost-benefit analysis incorporating probability and magnitude estimates of lives saved in order to make the case those acts are/were justified, then defenders of criminal penalties (execution, life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, life imprisonment with parole, other lengthy prison sentences, etc.) who justify those penalties in terms of social benefits (lives saved through deterrence of crime by others, incapacitation of the criminal, etc.) have the same burden. So do defenders of more ordinary wartime actions that cause tangible harms, like aerial bombing in general. It wasn’t just the controversial stuff like Hiroshima and the firebombing of Dresden that killed innocent civilians. Routine Allied bombing of Germany and Japan during WWII killed hundreds of thousands of civilians in those countries. Where is the detailed cost-benefit analysis showing that the benefit of this bombing outweighed the loss of life? Another example is economic sanctions, such as the sanctions against Iraq during the 1990s that are estimated to have caused hundreds of thousands of deaths.

  • 4 Consumatopia // May 4, 2009 at 5:46 pm

    Still, if you think of the United States as being defined, in part, by a certain set of moral ideals—if you don’t merely want your side to win international conflicts, but think that in virtue of these ideals we deserve to win—it seems very odd to then think of conduct in war as a question of pure expediency.

    I think some people sympathetic to extreme methods tie these together–history rewards the good guys (thus America defeats Nazis and Soviets) therefore if we want to be the good guys, we have to win. The ticking bomb argument takes this lesson to modal logic–in order to be the good guys, we have to win in all possible worlds–an America that isn’t willing to “do what it takes” to win is an inferior America.

    Hopefully it will never occur to them that the vast majority of all possible worlds, all but an infinitesimal slice of the possible statistical mechanical microstates, are what we call the “heat death” of the universe. Then they might start to worship entropy. “Drill, baby, drill” indeed.

  • 5 Bill F. // May 4, 2009 at 7:25 pm

    Excellent post. David Foster Wallace sorta/kinda beat you to it with his mini-piece in the Atlantic from 2007. Brief and worth a read:

    http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200711/wallace-safety

  • 6 You Dropped The Bomb On Me « Around The Sphere // May 4, 2009 at 7:52 pm

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  • 7 Dr. Kenneth Noisewater // May 5, 2009 at 8:59 am

    Excellent job, Julian. This post is the longer version of the response I give to the torture defenders I come across: A country that needs to use torture to defend itself is a country not worth defending.

  • 8 M. Luksich // May 5, 2009 at 9:24 am

    . a Pachinko ball can teach us a lot, that first drop sets the path for everything that follows.
    Answer the question is it right or wrong according to your morals, the rest is just following the path to the natural conclusion also guided by your morals.

  • 9 paradoctor // May 5, 2009 at 1:03 pm

    I turn the argument around this way: what if extracting false confessions were vital to the ruling party’s political security? What if they had to torture innocents in order to fabricate convenient disinformation? What if would-be war criminals were working against time, and needed to take drastic action, _in_order_for_ bombs to explode?

    Note these reversals: national security – political security. Information – disinformation. Preventing explosions – causing them. A moral difference in each case; which is of course Sanchez’s point.

    Note also that my reverse scenario is historically realistic. Torture is efficacious, but only for evil.

  • 10 Derick Schilling // May 5, 2009 at 4:45 pm

    No contemporary account supports Eisenhower’s claim, first made in 1948 and in much stronger form in 1963, that he had opposed using nuclear weapons against the Japanese during a conversation with Henry Stimson in July 1945. In any case, Eisenhower had no command responsibility for the Pacific, and only a cursory knowledge of the ongoing war against Japan.

  • 11 richard monahan // May 5, 2009 at 9:48 pm

    american ideals, core values, what do we stand for, how torture diminishes us as a nation, a people. oh the hand wringing. how depraved we have become. we have lost our moral voice as a leader in the world. perhaps. there is quite abit of selective moral outrage going on here. if waterboarding is considered exhibit a of our decline into moral depravity what doe the following act define us as? ….”the doctor takes the scissors and punctures the fetus’s skull. he slowly rotates the scissors enlarging the hole until the brain can be suctioned out.” outrage that torture was committed in the name of national security? where is the outrage over this? which act diminishes our society more? that which is considered outside the law or that which we sanction yet refuse to examine?

  • 12 Amicus // May 6, 2009 at 6:37 am

    Julian, here is a poser, that may help you untangle the disgusting nonsense from the Krauthammerians, who view torture as merely a lesser-evil moral decisions.

    Taking their framework, which can be rejected, of course, we can argue that Truman knew he could end the war. We can argue whether he went about using the power he had in the best way (a non-lethal demonstration), but he had a decisive tool.

    Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld had NO similar rationale.

  • 13 paradoctor // May 6, 2009 at 2:06 pm

    Crimes unpunished have consequences to later generations. Eisenhower’s predictions of the evils of the military-industrial complex have come true. We as a nation have already lost much, in wallets, hearts and minds; with more still to lose until we leave the path of empire.

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