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The Spectre of Pacifism

January 4th, 2010 · 27 Comments

There’s a running conversation over at the Corner about the parallels between opposition to torture and pacifism, which is really just a thinly-veiled version of one of those tendentious hypotheticals about the nuclear bomb in Manhattan whose location (you know with apodictic certainty) can only be uncovered through the judicious application of thumbscrews. As such, the analogy suffers from the same two defects: One empirical, one conceptual.

The empirical problem is this popular but stunningly stupid version of cost-benefit analysis that fails to seriously consider costs.  Which, I guess, makes it “benefit analysis.”  In other words, if it seems as though torture ever yields important and actionable intelligence more quickly than alternative methods, we’re supposed to take it for granted that this completes the necessary utilitarian analysis.  And this is just absurd. How does torture affect the willingness of enemy combatants to surrender? How much does it complicate our relations with allies? How many people does it help to radicalize against the United States? How many non-radicals does it leave sufficiently disgusted that they’re less motivated to assist the U.S. in fighting radicalism in their communities?  You’ll notice that torture-fans never really attempt to deal remotely seriously with any of these questions; they just babble inanities about how Fanatics Will Hate Us No Matter What. Which, of course, some will—but that’s hardly to the point, is it?

The conceptual mistake is to suppose that we’re faced with a binary choice between a pure consequentialism that just mechanically adds up all the yums and ouches or a kind of absolutist deontology that hews to a principled rule, and damn the consequences.  The point of invoking pacifism is to imply that if you want to consider any non-consequentialist moral properties of certain kinds of acts, you’re compelled by relentless logic to the most extreme possible position.  The thing is, pretty much nobody really thinks this way. Most people—the vast majority—will say it’s immoral to secretly chop up a healthy vagrant for organs to save five other people. We’re not just interchangeable tokens in some great social calculus, but individuals with individual rights that must be respected—rights that trump maximization of social welfare.  Except that if suddenly we’re sure we could save a thousand or ten thousand or ten million people by killing one innocent, most of us will at some point say, reluctantly, that it ought to be done after all.

This is supposed to be theoretically unsatisfying because it seems inconsistent—if the weight of the numbers can outweigh those supposed rights after all, what’s so special about ten thousand or whatever other number? Why not five? But the demand for consistency here is misplaced.  Our seemingly incoherent intuition here is grounded in the sense, which I think is correct, that consequentialist and deontic approaches both capture some sort of important moral truth, but that the two frameworks are (or have thus far seemed) incommensurable or incompatible in some deep way.  The best we can do is to say that sometimes one will seem more appropriate, sometimes another. But it’s pure question-begging to insist that the internal standards of one framework or the other be used to determine where that transition point between approaches lies.  That’s just tantamount to saying that the standard-setting framework is really paramount after all.  I prefer the position that’s less theoretically tidy if it has the advantage of not being obviously wrong: At some point the consequences are so extreme that you ditch rights talk and just count noses—but it’s not a point we often encounter, even in counterterror policy.

Tags: Moral Philosophy



27 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Tybalt // Jan 4, 2010 at 3:51 pm

    Well put. I’d add another comment.

    From the practical point of view of designing/evaulating legal and political and cultural frameworks, which is what we’re usually talking about when we talk torture (few of us being in a position where the question is of practical moral use), the ticking-b0mb scenario offers no practical guidance whatsoever because its presupposition of a massively horrific consequence will make all the legal, political and cultural structures irrelevant in determining action. The operative in the ticking bomb scenario is just going to damn well follow the consequentialist path – we all understand this, I believe, instinctively.

    This means there is no need at all to build a consequentialist analysis or exception into a rights-respecting deontological framework (whether that be legal, political or cultural)… where counting noses _really_ matters, it’s just going to happen.

    I’m not being clear here but I don’t have more time. Sorry. Will try to come back later and make this clearer.

  • 2 y81 // Jan 4, 2010 at 5:23 pm

    On the flip side, it seems like opponents of enhanced interrogation techniques engage in (i) sometimes, pure deontological reasoning, as if consequences never matter, (ii) sometimes, unmoored consequentialism, by positing various consequences, such increased American unpopularity, without even an attempt to measure such items, and (iii) almost always, a complete unwillingness to draw distinctions, so that wrapping someone in the Israeli flag equals sleep deprivation equals slapping equals waterboarding equals the rack.

  • 3 Mike // Jan 4, 2010 at 5:27 pm

    This is probably horrible from a proper moral argument standpoint, I’ve always looked at my solution to this problem as a delineation between individual moral behavior and laws governing a society.

    It could, in my view, be considered reasonable for an individual to torture someone for information that they were 100% sure would save others. However, that person would still be responsible for their actions, and should turn themselves in honorably after the fact and be punished. That doesn’t mean that it is a good social policy in any way to be torturing people.

    The rules should always follow the more general case – it is not good to torture people – and provide a mechanism for punishment when that is broken. An individual moral person should then decide whether breaking the rule and submitting himself to punishment is more or less important than whatever good he believes can be obtained from the action.

    In short, I actually have somewhat less trouble with the Bush administration torturing people than I do in their trying to say that it wasn’t illegal and generally getting away with that assertion.

  • 4 Jephalopod // Jan 4, 2010 at 6:21 pm

    I largely agree with Mike. I will not restate his opinion, but only add my own comments. First, when people break laws for a greater good, there are provisions for that in the legal system, up to and including executive pardon. Second, and somewhat related: it seems to me that arguing that torture should be legal because of the possibility of some future ticking-time-bomb scenario is a lot like arguing that we should legalize stealing because sometimes people might do it to feed their kids.

  • 5 Mike Farmer // Jan 4, 2010 at 8:23 pm

    I take the position that torture is never warranted, and there is always a better way, and your post is one of the only ones I’ve read which intelligently address the issue.

  • 6 Pithlord // Jan 4, 2010 at 9:04 pm

    No one wants to torture terrorists because it has a good CBA ratio. We want to torture terrorists because we hate them.

  • 7 Derek Scruggs // Jan 4, 2010 at 10:42 pm

    @y81 – Torture is illegal and the entire Western world has accepted that fact for a long time. Over sixy years ago we successfully fought two simultanous horricic wars without resorting to torture even as our enemies did.

    While some on the left may have stars in their eyes, it’s nevertheless incumbent on the pro-torture advocates to make a very compelling case — to wit, why it’s so necessary now when we defeated Japan and Germany without it — not just scream “pacifist!”

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  • 10 E.D. Kain // Jan 5, 2010 at 3:29 pm

    What Mike Farmer said. Great post, Julian.

  • 11 Pithlord // Jan 5, 2010 at 4:45 pm

    By the way, Julian, I hope you aren’t too polite to Pilon at Cato@Liberty. He just called for suspending the constitution he purports to be an expert on. It seems to me that Cato is verging on mail fraud to pay him with libertarian donors’ money.

  • 12 LarryM // Jan 5, 2010 at 6:07 pm

    “No one wants to torture terrorists because it has a good CBA ratio. We want to torture terrorists because we hate them.”

    This. But the pundits and politicians – even the most bloodthirsty – know that they can’t SAY that. So we see laughably poor attempts to justify it on CBA or moral grounds. Poor because there simply is no case to be made for torture – there is no good faith argument for it. It’s not one of the close questions. It’s not even comperable to the decision to invade Iraq, an obviously wrong decision in retrospect, and obviously immoral even at the time, but one in which people of good faith could have (and did) come to a different conclusion at the time. It’s all bloody vengence, and nothing more.

    Of course it never would have become an issue but for a number of war criminals in the prior administration. That’s why a little Nurenburg justice is in order – not that it will happen.

    Do I really want to see Bush, Cheney – and yes, Clinton – hanged by the neck until dead (after trial and conviction, of course)? Yes, yes I do.

  • 13 Kilgore Trout // Jan 5, 2010 at 7:10 pm

    Then Abraham drew nearer to him and said: “Will you sweep away the innocent with the guilty?
    Suppose there were fifty innocent people in the city; would you wipe out the place, rather than spare it for the sake of the fifty innocent people within it?
    Far be it from you to do such a thing, to make the innocent die with the guilty, so that the innocent and the guilty would be treated alike! Should not the judge of all the world act with justice?”
    The LORD replied, “If I find fifty innocent people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”
    Abraham spoke up again: “See how I am presuming to speak to my Lord, though I am but dust and ashes!
    What if there are five less than fifty innocent people? Will you destroy the whole city because of those five?” “I will not destroy it,” he answered, “if I find forty-five there.”
    But Abraham persisted, saying, “What if only forty are found there?” He replied, “I will forebear doing it for the sake of the forty.”…

  • 14 Jordan // Jan 5, 2010 at 7:25 pm

    One could say the difference between consequentialist and categorical moral systems is the perspective from which the moral content/value of an act is measured. Consequential morality is usually measured from the vantage point of the actor–the morality of the act is predicated on the actor’s subjective utilitarian calculus/value system. If others agree with his calculus, so much the better, but if not, their views do not factor in, nor do the views of those affected by his acts. This makes it a particularly useful system for those who seek to impose their own values on unconsenting 3rd parties.

    Categorical morality is always described as principally being a function of how an act impacts the affected i.e. killing 1 to save 5 is always wrong because from the perspective of the person killed, the act is the ultimate offense, which is not mitigated by attaching a compensatory numerical value to “the good”. If quantity has any moral content, it is inferred from the quality of an act, not vice versa.

    One might hope that torture proponents could be honest with themselves and others, and actually attempt a thoughtful defense of torture as a function of justice, since any informed person already knows that as a practical matter it is a highly unreliable method for gathering accurate intelligence. Torture as retribution, while barbaric, is more emotionally and intellectually defensible than the ridiculous perversions of logic it’s supporters adopt in a misguided attempt to make it palatable.

  • 15 Mike Farmer // Jan 5, 2010 at 8:21 pm

    The question is whether the same people who understand how it’s wrong to sacrifice one to save 5 or 5000, will see the same principle when it comes to rights — that the greater good argument is bogus when it comes to justification for murder or the violation of rights.

  • 16 Mike Farmer // Jan 5, 2010 at 8:23 pm

    I meant torture, murder or other violation of rights.

  • 17 y81 // Jan 5, 2010 at 11:19 pm

    “Over sixy years ago we successfully fought two simultanous horricic wars without resorting to torture even as our enemies did. ”

    I might agree that our great Russian ally, Comrade Stalin, has been unfairly maligned in some respects, but only a man with a truly ethereal knowledge of history could claim that “we” didn’t resort to torture. In any case, I’m glad to know that firebombing and incinerating millions of Muslim women and children would be A-OK with you.

  • 18 sam // Jan 6, 2010 at 7:19 am

    “the greater good argument is bogus when it comes to justification for murder or the violation of rights”

    But, as Julian points out, if the consequences are extreme enough, where the deaths of millions could be saved by the sacrifice of one, most of us would agree to the sacrifice. But saying that an act that normally would revulse us is sanctioned by necessity and is thereby beyond normal moral evaluation is false.

    Aeschylus wrote of the moral issues here in Agamemnon. Agamemnon is condemned not for the sacrifice of Iphigenia, which he is compelled to do by God, but for his attitude towards the killing. Martha Nussbaum put it this way:

    “[T]he central theme in Chorus’s blame of Agamemnon [is that] he adopted an inappropriate attitude towards his conflict, killing a human child with no more agony, no more revulsion of feeling, than if she had…been an animal of a different species.” The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and ethics in Greek tragedy and philosophy, p.33.

    Agamemnon killed his daughter without remorse, without saying, “Though I do this under God’s necessity, I do so with aching heart.” Most of us are morally lucky in that we never have to confront these awful choices. But those who do cannot escape moral evaluation by claiming refuge in necessity.

  • 19 Mike Farmer // Jan 6, 2010 at 8:14 am

    But, what I’m saying, Sam, is that the slippery slope of the greater good argument puts rights in danger– out of context, it’s difficult to make these types of argument. Within the context of basic rights, though, to say we should violate the rights of some for the greater good, which is the current progressive position, is equivalent to the thumb-screw argument to save those people in Manhattan from the ticking bomb.

    I would kill one person to save many, then face the consequences, but to institutionalize the subjugation of law abiding individuals to the greater good is immoral, just as torture of individuals for the greater good is immoral.

    Judging current morality, I don’t think all those who oppose torture agree with the above argument, and this seems odd to me.

  • 20 Mike Farmer // Jan 6, 2010 at 8:22 am

    Clarification — I would kill one to save many, IF the one was a clear and imminent danger to the lives of many — I wouldn’t sacrifice one like a goat on the outside chance my delusion is a request from God.

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  • 22 dan // Jan 6, 2010 at 11:10 pm

    The basic problem I have with the whole ‘bomb in Manhattan’ problem is the total certainty it assumes. In fact, you never really know there is a bomb, you never really know what city it is in, you never know the person you are punching in the face knows damn all about this supposed bomb, and you never know when to stop punching because this time he told you the truth.

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  • 25 Anderson // Jan 9, 2010 at 2:46 am

    – As usual with Julian’s posts on torture, I find it hard to extract a clear argument or statement of position from his convoluted writing. I THINK he’s saying that he can imagine real-world cases in which torture would be justified, but I’m not sure.

    – This “torture fan,” “torture apologist” stuff is really tedious. What exactly are these terms supposed to mean? If I am not willing to absolutely rule out the use of torture, if I believe a ticking time bomb situation may arise in which torture is justified, does that make me a “torture fan?”

    – If “torture fans” do not seem interested in any kind of serious CBA, neither do their opponents. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard torture opponents give a litany of possible social and political costs of torture without making any effort to quantify these costs and weigh them against possible benefits.

    – To Dan @ 22, no, the ticking time bomb case does not require certainty for torture to be justified. There is no certainty, of course.

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  • 27 m65 // Mar 7, 2010 at 8:42 pm

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