Category Archives: Morality

Bad Framing

This strikes me as a bad way to go about arguing against torture:

There’s something intuitive about torture. Hurt something until it breaks. The phrasing of the the 24 scenario plays implicitly on that intuition: Do you do the thing that works and saves lives? Or do you let abstract principle ensure the deaths of thousands? Framed thus, it’s an easy argument to win. When applied to policy, though, it directly ensures the deaths of thousands and fails to capture the worst of the terrorists.

I’m perfectly willing to concede that torture is ineffective under most circumstances, though I suspect that Reuel Marc Gerecht, for all his ideological posturing, knows quite a bit more about the efficacy of coercive interrogation than the American Prospect’s resident health care blogger. Regardless, it’s actually quite easy to imagine a scenario in which traditional interrogation methods are rendered inoperative. Perhaps an interrogator is faced with certain time constraints. Or perhaps a particularly hardened suspect simply refuses to break. In 2005, Charles Krauthammer summarized our dilemma thusly:

Sure, the (nuclear) scale is hypothetical, but in the age of the car-and suicide-bomber, terrorists are often captured who have just set a car bomb to go off or sent a suicide bomber out to a coffee shop, and you only have minutes to find out where the attack is to take place. This “hypothetical” is common enough that the Israelis have a term for precisely that situation: the ticking time bomb problem.

And even if the example I gave were entirely hypothetical, the conclusion–yes, in this case even torture is permissible–is telling because it establishes the principle: Torture is not always impermissible. However rare the cases, there are circumstances in which, by any rational moral calculus, torture not only would be permissible but would be required (to acquire life-saving information). And once you’ve established the principle, to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, all that’s left to haggle about is the price. In the case of torture, that means that the argument is not whether torture is ever permissible, but when–i.e., under what obviously stringent circumstances: how big, how imminent, how preventable the ticking time bomb.

Moreover, there are empirical examples that prove his point. Consider the following excerpt from a Washington Post article in 2005:

Sometimes interrogators went beyond the guidelines. In October 1994, after militants abducted a 19-year-old Israeli army corporal, Nachshon Waxman, Yitzhak Rabin, then the prime minister, acknowledged that the suspected driver of the kidnap car had been tortured.

“If we’d been so careful to follow the Landau Commission, we would never have found out where Waxman was being held,” Rabin said, referring to the 1987 guidelines.

My larger point isn’t that torture is appropriate or morally justified; simply that objecting to the practice on purely pragmatic grounds cedes too much to advocates of  coercive interrogation. There will always be instances where torturing a suspect is more expedient or effective than the available alternatives. But the case against detainee mistreatment was never a tactical one. It has always been grounded in an important moral insight: human dignity should not depend on the whim of circumstance. I think it’s foolish and morally dishonest to suggest that a blanket prohibition on torture will never hamper our intelligence-gathering capabilities. But some things are simply more important.



Filed under Morality, Terrorism

The Ick Factor

To continue an earlier conversation, here’s a sobering paper from Professor Nancy Scheper-Hughes on the implications of the global organ trade. And here’s a particularly frightening excerpt from her testimony before the House Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights in 2001:

Markets are by nature indiscriminate and inclined to reduce everything — including human beings, their labor and their reproductive capacity — to the status of commodities, things that can be bought, sold, traded, and stolen. Again, nowhere is this more dramatically illustrated than in the current markets for human organs and tissues to supply a medical business driven by “supply and demand.” The rapid and recent transfer of organ transplant technologies to countries in the East (China, Taiwan, Philippines), to India , and to the South (especially Argentina, Chile, and Brazil) has created a global scarcity of viable organs that has initiated a movement of sick bodies in one direction and of “healthy” organs and tissues — some transported by commercial airlines in Styrofoam picnic coolers — in the opposite direction. Some organs travel “inside their package”, a phrase some transplant specialists use to describe those kidney sellers who travel in special chartered flights to meet with pre-matched kidney patients and their surgeons in the host country. Sometimes both kidney buyers and sellers, each from different countries, arrive in a third country for an illicit transplant, making this a very difficult business to track. In all these transactions, a new profession of organized “body Mafia” or independent “organs brokers” — like the notorious , but not terribly successful, Jim Cohan who operates by fax, telephone, and e-mail out of a home office in southern California — are the essential actors. In these new transplant contexts the human body, as we knew it, is radically transformed. Notions of bodily holism and integrity have given way to notions of a divisible body in which individual organs and tissues can be detached, alienated, bartered, and sold. This points to the demise of classical humanism and to the rise of what my Organs watch colleague, Lawrence Cohen, refers to as “an ethics of parts”– divisible bodies from which detached organs emerge as market commodities, and as fetishized objects of desire and of consumption. I refer to this as neo – or postmodern cannibalism.

Props to Scott, my former debate partner, for dredging this up from one of our old files. The value of taboo, I think, is that it deters practices that entail non-obvious costs. The benefits of commodifying human organs are fairly obvious to anyone who wants to increase the availability of transplants;  the drawbacks only become apparent once we’re already bartering human body parts.

Leave a comment

Filed under Culture, Economics, Morality

The Benefit of the Doubt

Andrew Sullivan fisks Kristol’s latest on torture and presidential pardons. Obviously, I don’t want to see anyone implicated in torture get away scot free, but focusing on lower-level implementers – rather than the policymakers who implicitly or explicitly authorized their actions – strikes me as a bad idea. CIA agents who participated in waterboarding were probably operating under the assumption that what they were doing was both legal and necessary. The same goes for the NSA analysts who wiretapped phone calls without prior judicial authorization. Given the climate of political urgency immediately following 9/11, I think most low-level implementers should benefit from some legal latitude.

So in one sense, at least, Kristol is right. A public witch-hunt that hones in on a few hapless CIA agents misses the larger issue of the Administration’s complicity. As a matter of pragmatic politics, I also think going after a few big fish would be less divisive than the alternative. Low level bureaucrats following orders in the wake of an unprecedented national tragedy are actually pretty sympathetic figures. Bush Administration flacks who had access to the requisite legal background and were responsible for implementing an abusive interrogation policy, on the other hand, are not only more guilty, they’re also easier targets. Going after low level scapegoats is usually the path of least resistance, but Bush’s legacy of incompetence has laid the groundwork for holding people accountable. After eight years of disastrous mismanagement, an unforgiving public is a lot less likely to extend the benefit of the doubt to Administration higher ups.

1 Comment

Filed under Morality, Terrorism, The Courts


JL Wall and Mark were kind enough to respond to my original post on torture (read the comments section – Mark offers a few thought-provoking scenarios). The discussion at John Schwenkler’s place has also been excellent. My thinking on this subject isn’t particularly systematic, so I’ll restrain myself to two additional points:

  1. I think the War on Terror framework is silly and counter-productive, but the recent tragedy in India demonstrates the omnipresent risk of extremist violence in any open society. Opponents of torture should be forthright in acknowledging this risk, even to the point of conceding that certain restrictions on intelligence gathering are likely to hamper our efforts to reduce terrorism. Too frequently, the debate over interrogation methods revolves around whether a particular technique is effective or not. As I’ve said earlier, one can easily imagine scenarios where torture is the only pragmatic method of interrogation. In some other cases, it may be ineffective, but a purely utilitarian calculus will always allow for a few narrow exceptions. The case against torture, however, was never a pragmatic one; some practices are morally wrong, regardless of circumstance, and we should not be ashamed to make this point.
  2. I liked the framing in JL Wall’s original post. All people should be entitled to a certain standard of humane treatment. If basic human decency is entirely dependent on the whim of circumstance, I’m not sure there’s much point to codifying “inalienable” rights.

Leave a comment

Filed under Morality, Terrorism

It’s Just Wrong

Does it make sense to work your way back to first principles with a preferred outcome in mind? For example, I agree entirely with JL Wall when he writes:

Basic status as human beings: this is distinct from the concept of universal human rights. It is not a statement that there is a basic natural right held by all humanity to have counsel, or see evidence against them, or receive halal meals if they want them. It is a statement that there is a basic standard expect of us—you and me—in how we treat our fellow human beings; that so long as we acknowledge their mere humanity, we are morally—so much more morally than legally—obligated to treat them as more than animals. At its core, this is what the torture debate is about, has always been about, and will always be about.

But I’m not sure if a liberal, rights-based framework recognizes a universal standard of humane treatment. A purely utilitarian calculus includes all sorts of pragmatic objections to torture – it’s unreliable, it demoralizes military personnel, it has a tendency to bleed into other areas of society – but I’m less confident that it accounts for a hard-and-fast prohibition against certain techniques. And from a purely utilitarian standpoint, I think that torture is probably justified under certain carefully prescribed circumstances. If a terrorist suspect possessed critical information about an imminent, large-scale attack, and there was no time to develop alternative sources of intelligence, would liberals really object to torturing someone to extract valuable information?

I find this deeply troubling because until very recently, I would have placed myself squarely on the liberal end of the political spectrum. My views on economics have drifted rightward in recent years, but I always assumed that an open, tolerant society that does its best to nurture a happy, prosperous citizenry is the most desirable form of social organization. I’m still not entirely convinced that this is not true, but I do think that torture reveals something of a moral blind spot within liberalism’s broader ethical framework. When things go bad, we inevitably carve out exceptions to our rights-based approach, justifying it all under the rubric of “extenuating circumstances.” Once again, Koestler said it best:

“There are only two conceptions of human ethics, and they are at opposite poles. One of them is Christian and humane, declares the individual to be sacrosanct. and asserts that the rules of arithmetic are not to be applied to human units. The other starts from the basic principle that a collective aim justifies all means, and not only allows, but demands, that the individual should in every way be subordinated and sacrificed to the community – which may dispose of it as an experimentation rabbit or a sacrificial lamb.”

“In times of need – and politics are chronically in a time of need – the rulers were always able to invoke “exceptional circumstances,” which demanded exceptional measures of defense. Since the existence of nations and classes, they live in a permanent state of mutual self-defense, which forces them to defer to another time the putting into practice of humanism . . . .”

And while I understand the logic of “exceptional circumstances,” I’ve always found Rubashov’s gut reaction more compelling:

“Admit,” he said, “that humanism and politics, respect for the individual and social progress, are incompatible . . . But look where the other alternative has led us . . .”


Filed under Conservatism, Liberalism, Morality

Darkness at Noon

William Brafford points me to this excellent essay on Alasdair MacIntyre’s political philosophy. MacIntyre, a former Marxist, underwent something of an ideological conversion later in life:

And yet, MacIntyre’s journey from Marxism to Thomism is instructive in our moral chaos, for his sympathy for Marx gave him the initial radicality toward liberalism that grounded all his later analyses. Take, for example, those Marxists who felt a moral revulsion toward the Moscow Show Trials of the thirties or the Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. “A Communist who broke with his Party on account of such actions,” writes MacIntyre, “and who did so not merely because he felt such actions to be imprudent from the Communist standpoint, but because he believed them to be wrong, was and is peculiarly vulnerable to the question: ‘What do you mean by “wrong”?’“

It is one thing to laud Marxists who had not been too corrupted to object to Stalin’s crimes. But it is another thing to claim that contemporary alternatives are any better, and we can see here the importance of MacIntyre’s journey from Marxism. The revulsion felt by an ex-Communist must have its roots in an innate sense of right and wrong, that is, in conscience. But “the ex-Communist is bound to ask in what way contemporary liberalism has offered any moral alternative to the morality of communism.” Not many ex-Communists in fact posed this question, because to do so would be to undermine the presupposition that binds Marxism with all modern forms of moral calculation; “the utilitarian attention to consequences rather than to actions themselves is liable to lead to a continuous evaluation of the present only as it leads on to some future.” This is what Marxists and liberals share in their system of moral evaluation, and this is why for MacIntyre the rejection of the one entails the rejection of the other.

After reading this, I was irresistibly reminded of a passage from Koestler’s Darkness at Noon:

“I don’t approve of mixing ideologies,” Ivanov continued. “There are only two conceptions of human ethics, and they are at opposite poles. One of them is Christian and human, declares the individual to be sacrosanct. and asserts that the rules of arithmetic are not to be applied to human units. The other starts from the basic principle that a collective aim justifies all means, and not only allows, but demands, that the individual should in every way be subordinated and sacrificed to the community – which may dispose of it as an experimentation rabbit or a sacrificial lamb. The first conception could be called anti-vivisection morality, the second, vivisection morality. Humbugs and dilettantes have always tried to mix the two conceptions; in practice, it is impossible.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Morality, Political Philosophy

Has pacifism dulled my senses?

Cliff May kindly excerpts his review of The Dark Side (the rest is stuck behind a subscription firewall). Here’s the key bit:

For Mayer, it is axiomatic that the aftermath of September 11, and what it revealed about the flaws in the American security apparatus that made the jihadist attack possible, did not necessitate any new framework for thinking about the protection of the United States from a new form of foreign aggression. She is outraged that Bush and Cheney would even presume to ask their legal advisers to study the latitude available to them in fighting the terrorists—to determine which practices would be permissible and which would fall into a gray area requiring new laws and policies.

I happen to agree with May that this reveals a fundamental difference of opinion between the Weekly Standard – John McCain – Bush Administration axis of overheated rhetoric and the rest of us. If you think 9/11 represents the upper level of Al Qaida’s capabilities, you’re probably less inclined to accept invasive surveillance, the rationale for invading Iraq, or torture. If, on the other hand, you think that 9/11 is a prelude to a much longer struggle between Islam and the West, you’re undoubtedly more persuaded by the Republicans’ “better safe than sorry” formulation. The trouble with this approach is that security hawks never bother to defend their premises – they just take it as a given that we’re in the midst of some existential struggle against stateless terror organizations. So here’s a suggestion for May: if you want to convince me that loosening our restrictions on detainee mistreatment is a good idea, you should find a way to coherently defend your apocalyptic vision of American foreign policy. Otherwise I’m just not buying it.

Leave a comment

Filed under Foreign Policy, Morality