Torture and Moral Laziness

alessandro_magnasco_-_interrogations_in_jail_-_wga13849I happened upon a terribly reasoned piece related to the upcoming election (tomorrow!), and felt compelled to respond to a portion of it. The piece is titled “The Moral Laziness of the #NeverTrumpers,” authored by D. C. McAllister. I do not, however, want to go directly at her central premise. Instead, I’d like to focus on an excerpt that she uses to bolster her argument. Here is an excerpt of her excerpt from “Reflection on the Problem of ‘Dirty Hands'” by Jean Bethke Elshtain:

“Elshtain brings her realism and humane heart to the discussion on the problem of ‘dirty hands’ as it relates to torture, making the case that when lives are to be saved—and can be saved—then at least some lesser forms of torture (such as waterboarding and sleep deprivation, as opposed to cutting off limbs, etc.) should be used. In this extreme circumstance, torture should never be sanctioned or seen as a ‘good.’ Raw utilitarianism must be rejected. Torture is not and never can be a good. It’s an evil, often used by brutal regimes to subjugate not only external but internal enemies.

“Nevertheless, ‘torture-lite’ or ‘Torture 2,’ as Elshtain called it, should be used with great caution if the goal is saving lives. When one is acting with ‘concrete responsibility’ within history for the sake of what is to come, for the sake of saving lives, then these lesser forms of torture should not be rejected.

“’To condemn outright Torture 2, or coercive interrogation,’ Elshtain writes, ‘is to lapse into a legalistic version of pietistic rigorism in which one’s own moral purity is ranked above other goods.’”

This could be an interesting discussion of the purely philosophical sort regarding whether good and evil are defined by the end-state, or whether attempting to morally justify an evil act to achieve good ends renders impacts the goodness of the ends achieved. Certainly there is an argument that saying some form of torture is ok in some situations opens the door for our adversaries to make the same claim, thus undermining our moral and legal authority with regard to human rights and war crimes. I think a more practical argument is in order here, though.

First, and most importantly, there is not a single example that anyone can point to of torture – no matter how “lite” – saving lives. It is a pretty high bar for establishing a direct effect from any single piece of information, regardless of how it was gathered. Those that work in the intelligence world understand the need for skepticism and corroboration. It is highly unlikely that any information from any single interrogation would be taken at face value, regardless of how the information was obtained. To say that information from a coercive interrogation or by use of torture saved lives it must be clearly demonstrable that the information gathered singularly led to the prevention of a specific event that would have taken lives.

If you can meet the first bar – which is unlikely – the next bar is to prove that the information could not have been obtained another way. That’s even more unlikely. Why are these bars so high? Because torture – or even the euphemistic “coercive interrogation” – is both illegal and morally reprehensible. Elshtain called it “evil.” Shouldn’t the bar for justifying an act of evil be higher than employing standard techniques? Of course, given the need for skepticism and corroboration no single piece of information is likely to be used to make decisions of critical actions that might save lives, making meeting the first bar all but impossible. And, the need for skepticism and corroboration is significantly higher when employing highly coercive techniques.

Merriam Webster defines coercive as “using force or threats to make someone do something.” Threatening someone – physically, mentally, or emotionally – has the effect of making the person desire that the discomfort be removed. Waterboarding is most unpleasant, no matter how much some may wish to sell it as no big deal. If you are being drowned you will become highly motivated to make it stop. If someone is asking you questions, and starts pouring water over your mouth and nose when you give answer A, you will most certainly start looking for an answer B. While people certainly can and do lie when being questioned in an non-coercive manner, any information obtained through coercive means is highly suspect due to the much stronger incentive to provide the interrogator with the answer he or she wants to hear. (And, if the information is corroborated by other means then that undermines the argument that the torture was ever necessary.)

Another problematic aspect is that an interrogator never truly knows the limitations of the detainee’s knowledge. A 100% cooperative detainee will more likely than not find themselves exposed to coercive interrogation or torture if such techniques are allowed, solely so that the interrogator can feel certain that he or she has gotten everything out of the detainee. This leads to an ever greater probability of misinformation, which will then lead to mistrust of the detainee when the information is found to be untrue, leading to more torture, and so on. The point being, there are significant practical arguments against using torture in addition to moral and legalistic arguments.

McAllister’s piece wasn’t really about torture. But, if one has to reference such tortured logic (hehe) to reinforce the main point then the main point probably isn’t valid in the first place. She and I don’t agree politically so debating her specific arguments aside from torture would probably just look like (and possibly be, in reality) partisan bickering. My point here is that torture is not just legally, morally, and ethically problematic, but it is also ineffective from a practical standpoint. Good interrogators do not need to resort to such unartful methods.


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