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 . . .”