Torture

Saturday, May 16, 2009 -- 5:00 PM

Although we have not had, and don’t have scheduled in the near future, a program on torture, that’s the topic of this blog.   There are two reasons for this.  The first is a thoughtful email from one of our listeners, Gregory Slater, who is pretty disgusted with us for not having a program on torture already.  The second is that as we were discussing Lincoln today with Al Gini, we came to the question of whether Lincoln and George W. Bush should be thought to be equally culpable for their violations of the constitution in time of war.  This discussion also reminded me of an earlier program with Alan Dershowitz, who has written rather thoughtfully on the topic of torture; we did discuss the subject a bit on that program.

Lincoln suspended habeus corpus, shut down newspapers, and did various other things that were clearly unconstitutional.  I don’t know of any evidence that he authorized torture, but then I’m not a civil war scholar.  But at any rate on the issue of violating the constitution, the conclusion we seemed to reach went like this. Bush and Lincoln both performed unconstitutional acts.  If we confine ourselves to things that happened shortly after September 11, 2001, and give the Bush administration the benefit of the doubt, it seems that both did so on the grounds that the nation was in grave and immanent peril.  The Bush administration, remember, in the days after September 11, also had the Anthrax episode.  One can imagine that they were sincerely frightened that the 9-ll attacks and the anthrax episodes were simply the first in a series of planned attacks by Al Queda.  Lincoln, as Al Gini pointed out, was faced early in the War with the possibility that Maryland would secede, and Washington D.C. would be surrounded, and the war would be lost.  So both administrations violated the constitution under the fear of incredible immanent danger.  In retrospect, we may think that Lincoln’s worries were more justified than Bush’s.  If so, that’s one important difference.

The other is that Lincoln was upfront about what he was doing, whereas the Bush administration was not, but tried to claim its actions were really constitutional, putting forward various lies about what it was doing, and self-serving legal analyses of the situation.  This is the difference that reminded me of Dershowitz’s position on torture.  But before getting to that, a brief digression.

One of the most depressing things about the current discussion of torture is the idea, seemingly accepted by such sober analysts as the New York Time’s  David Brooks, that a key question is the issue of balance.  That is, in assessing the Bush administration’s use of torture, we need to know whether it worked.  The is a terrible idea, for just the reasons that the comedienne Wanda Sykes pointed out at the recent dinner for correspondents.  A bank robber couldn’t very well justify robbing banks on the basis of all bills he paid with the stolen money.  Bank robbing is wrong; an individual episode can’t be justified by the good the robber does with the money he gets. 

Here is a perhaps more apt analogy.  A person has a right to a fair jury trial, where the jurors make their decision on the basis of evidence presented in the courtroom.  I’m sure many juries have felt that it would clearly be a good thing for society to have the accused put in jail, but didn’t feel they had the right to do so, on the basis of evidence presented.  The government is held to the same standards.  The issue isn’t whether, in a given case, the powers that be are certain that more good will come from imprisoning a defendant than letting him go.  You don’t’ say, ``Well, on the one hand, we don’t have the evidence to convict him, but on the other hand, we’re pretty sure that imprisoning him will do a lot of  good, so on balance it’s OK to do so.” Some things are a matter of cost-benefit analyses; some things are a matter of principles of fair play, human rights, and human dignity.

Suppose we found that in fact innocent people were more reluctant to admit guilt in the face of torture than guilty ones.  To make it simple, and graphic, suppose that we somehow discover that if fingers on one’s hands are progressively chopped off, a guilty person will, nine times out of ten, confess after two fingers have been chopped off, while and innocent person will only do so after three fingers are chopped off.  We might become convinced that this was at least as reliable as the system of presenting evidence, having a trial, and the like.  So, why not, at least for serious crimes, which are expensive to prosecute, start chopping off fingers?  Anyone who resists after two fingers is deemed innocent, and compensated generously for the loss of fingers.  The whole thing might be more reliable, and far cheaper, than the jury system.  But I think most of us would way that it would nevertheless be wrong.  It’s not a matter of balance.  This is a wrong way for a government to deal with people accused of serious crimes.

This all gets to the issue of what makes things right and wrong.  And here is where Dershowitz comes in.  Whenever one makes a claim, like I just did, that a certain procedure is wrong, because it violates human rights, human dignity, and such things, someone will come with a case where the costs of not using the procedure are so extreme, and thus possible benefits of using it are so high, that almost anyone will admit that, if those really were the facts, they would use the procedure: a so-called Doomsday Scenario.  Suppose the accused is thought to possess a nuclear weapon set to go off in the middle of San Francisco in an hour.  We have no way of stopping it except by cutting off fingers until he breaks.  Wouldn’t we do it then?  No?  Well than what if he were in a possession of a device that was going to end life on earth?  Or create a black hole in which the earth and every other part of the solar system would be sucked up, eliminating the possibility of life anywhere in the solar system forever?  Wouldn’t you start chopping off fingers in that case?

Well, we all know Kiefer Sutherland would, and I guess I would too, unless it was one of those days when I was particularly depressed about the value of life and of the solar system. 

There are two ways for one who thinks that certain things like torture, are best absolutely prohibited by laws and moral codes, and yet at the same time admits that in certain extreme circumstances particular acts of torture might be the best thing to do, because we are in a Doomsday situation --- in the limiting case, the very institutional fabric that supports the law and morality of which the absolute prohibitions are a part will be destroyed.
Dershowitz’s idea is that the exceptional should be thought through and codified ahead of time, and then the Chief of State should have to determine that those circumstances applied and sign off on them personally, admitting up front that he is suspending laws and violating rights in an extreme situation.  The other approach is simply to rely on leaders to do what Lincoln did; admit that he is breaking the law, a law of which he approves, because he thinks such an extreme case applies.  Both of these seem preferable to trying to build it into the basic moral codes as a matter of ``balance.’’ 

So, that’s my view of torture.  It’s wrong, and should be absolutely prohibited, as far as morality and  national and international law goes.  If some leader sees things as so extreme that things that should be absolutely prohibited in our legal and moral codes need to be done to preserve the very existence of the fabric of law and morality on which the prohibitions depend, then he’s on the hook to admit that is what he is doing, and say why, and take the consequences, whether meted out by a free press, the electorate, or a prosecutor in the next administration, if his judgment and reasoning are unconvincing.

There are some other points to be made about torture.  The big issue of the day is waterboarding.  It’s clearly a pretty gruesome procedure, and as I understand it the U.S. is on record, prior to the Bush administration, of deeming it to be torture, and has prosecuted enemies for using it.  The whole idea of arguing that it is really not torture is just so much clap-trap, as far as I can see.

On the other hand, we here confront that fact that language forces us to think digitally although we live in an analog world (or something like that).  There are clearly a range of treatments of prisoners that involve creating discomfort of various sorts: from putting them in unpleasant room; shouting at them; repeating questions ad nauseum; and insulting them, at one end of the scale, to pulling out fingernails, chopping off fingers, putting them in thumbscrews, and the like, at the other.  At some point a line is drawn; what falls on one side is torture, is illegal, is immoral, and so forth; what falls on the other side of the line is not.  Our legal laws and moral principles are by and large not based on the values a function takes on a continuous domain, but on words that are written into the laws and principles applying or not applying to a particular situation.  There is bound to be a murky area.  And then there are going to be areas adjacent to the murky area, and so on.  This is where lawyers and philosophers earn their living.

But waterboarding, as I understand it, doesn’t seem all that murky, although it does seem less extreme than pulling out fingernails.  Still, a full philosophical theory of torture will have to get beyond the distinction between either being or not being torture, and consider the range of methods, the range of damages caused, and many other things.

Mr. Slater thinks we should try to have Condi Rice on Philosophy Talk to talk about torture, and he is critical of the Stanford University faculties and the University of California faculties for saying nothing about the complicity of Condi Rice (Stanford Political Science) and John Yoo (Berkeley Law School) in the Bush torture program.  John Yoo seems a pretty clear case, and I think (speaking as a member of the broader UC faculty) he should be investigated by Berkeley to see if he has violated the faculty code of conduct.

I’ve known Condi Rice for quite a while, not all that well, but as a colleague working on various faculty committees, and then while she was Provost.  I don’t know how intelligent people like she and Colin Powell got involved in such a disaster as the Bush administration, and I think philosophers ought to leave it to historians to figure out what their role was.  Nothing I have seen persuades me that Condi Rice was an advocate of torture; she has expressed the view that those who criticize the Bush administration for its policy after 9-11 are not putting themselves in the shoes of the decision makers at that time.  (This makes of sense, although it doesn’t speak to the situation a bit later in the game, when one of the motivations for torture seems to have been building a case for invading Iraq.)  The remarks of hers I have seen are consistent with her having opposed torture at the time in the inner councils, and that’s what I will take as most plausible scenario, given her intelligence and character, until shown otherwise.  So although I think a number of people in the Bush administration are legally and morally culpable for self-serving dishonesty on the issue, likely including John Yoo, I haven’t signed any petitions about this with respect to Condi Rice.

Comments (22)


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Guest

Saturday, May 16, 2009 -- 5:00 PM

It's very disappointing that you don't believe in

It's very disappointing that you don't believe in the right of secession.
"When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them... it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness." - Declaration of Independence

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Monday, May 18, 2009 -- 5:00 PM

You are clearly advocating some kind of intrinsic

You are clearly advocating some kind of intrinsic goodness to laws, rights, etc. Something like a Kantian picture emerges, where these rights or codes are analogous to laws of nature. Which is where your treatment of the doomsday scenario is really intriguing. You say: "in the limiting case, the very institutional fabric that supports the law and morality of which the absolute prohibitions are a part will be destroyed." I wonder if this could be formalized in a way that would pin the consequentialist of focusing solely on limiting cases. It seems that there remains an issue about what basis we find for our values: are they valuable simply because of their nature, or are they valuable because they are so beneficial for society?

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Monday, May 18, 2009 -- 5:00 PM

A fine article -- and thanks for using "torture" i

A fine article -- and thanks for using "torture" instead of one of the familiar euphemisms for it. But I quibble over one point: John assumes that, like Lincoln, Bush/Cheney acted "under the fear of incredible immanent [sic] danger." It's becoming increasingly clear that the real purpose of the torture regime was to extract "evidence" that Iraq had ties to Al Qaida and/or was building WMD's. The reliability of that evidence was seemingly of no concern as long as it supported the case for an invasion that was already planned.

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Tuesday, May 19, 2009 -- 5:00 PM

"It's very disappointing that you don't believe in

"It's very disappointing that you don't believe in the right of secession."
The writer of this comment to the torture topic has taken the Declaration of Independence out of context. The Declaration was written by Jefferson (and edited by Franklin and Adams) as a letter to the King of England to justify their desire to break from the English Crown. You could not apply the Declaration literally to the right of people to separate from the government. Just like you can't take the statements in the constitution of Free Speech, The Right To Bear Arms etc literally. There are exceptions to the rule.
I enjoyed the blog about torture. First, however, I take exception to the end where the author is confused as to why "Smart" people like Rice and Powell were involved in a "Disastrous" Bush administration. This is a personal attack and it it bias. Since there is no way (at least I can think of) of measuring "Disastrous" it is purely a subjective word. That maybe your opinion but it is hardly a demonsratable fact. For every disaster a person could think of; another could find a positive.
Now, that brings me to this point. I don't support Torture but I am a believer in the Iraq War and the war on Terror. We have been in a state of war with Saddam Hussein since the end of the first Gulf War. We have been enforcing a no-fly zone and have had periodic flare ups with his military...including the attempted assassination of President George Bush during his visit to Kuwait during the Clinton administration. I could go into several other reasons why I believe the war was justified and the removal of Saddam Hussein (who?s 30 years reign as dictator has TRULY been a DISASTER for the Iraqi, Kurdish, Iranian and Kuwaiti people!) Saddam Hussein, by the very definition of the United Nations, committed acts of Genocide against the Kurdish people. Maybe not on the scale of Hitler or Pol Pot; but he was right up there. Also, for the past 30 years he wage an internal war against his neighbors and his own people that involved TORTURE. So, if I am not a hypocrite, then I can't justify our use of torture but not Saddam's. I don't consider myself an expert; however, from what I know, Torture is not an effective interrogation tool. There will always be anecdotes to when it was used successfully; but overall it does not have the same consistency as other methods. We should, however, be careful in how we define torture. Is waterboarding torture, well, yeah! Is making someone stand for a long time to weaken their resistance to interrogation? Well, maybe not. We need to include that in the debate as well.

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Guest

Sunday, May 24, 2009 -- 5:00 PM

It's not self-evident that Dubya violated the Cons

It's not self-evident that Dubya violated the Constitution. Yoo's position was that Dubya was empowered as commander-in-chief---obliged---to do what he must outside the boundaries of the United States. Further, it argued that as the al-Qaeders were un-uniformed "illegal combatants," Geneva didn't apply, and that it is the president whom the constitution empowers to interpret treaties.
Perhaps Geneva does apply anyway---or the Supreme Court will rule in a split decision that it does---but regardless, this will not make for a self-evident or philosophical truth.
The Bush Administration's losses in federal court have been few [Hamdi v. Rumsfeld having domestic ramifications as Hamdi is a US citizen---that Bush lost was on an unclear point of law, and is sui generis].
Now the Obama Administration asks Congress for legislative authorization to hold the Gitmo detainees in a similar "preventive detention" on US soil instead of Gitmo. However, this fig leaf of law will not speak to the underlying constitutionality and indeed, may be less defensible constitutionally than Gitmo with the US soil angle.
As for waterboarding being a war crime that the US itself has prosecuted, a poke through the books will show that large quantities of water were poured down the throats of the prisoners in those cases---not the same thing.
Your final argument, that the chief executive should [must] announce he's suspending the Constitution in times of emergency, well, the president is authorized to do that, but I believe only on American soil. The Yoo position was that the C-in-C is not bound by the same restrictions in war, or in a foreign theater. This is why the military codes of justice have been and are being invoked, and not the much stricter domestic ones.
Indeed this is the nexus of the muddle of the popular discussion---whether this is a C-in-C issue or a law enforcement one, as the rules are different.
As for torture as a philosophical question, it will come down to values; even if values aren't subjective in nature, they are certainly subjective in a practical sense in a democracy such as ours. As much as one side or the other tries to obviate the other side's arguments [that torture doesn't work will never be proved to the sincere satisfaction of all], there exists a genuine moral dilemma, weighing the infliction of suffering on one hand and the possible or probable deaths on the other [unprovable to the satisfaction of all either].
And while I appreciate the arguments on all sides---many of them valid---the denial of the existence of a genuine moral dilemma has been the greatest casualty of the search for truth in all this.
I did like the observation that we digitize truth these days---and law is a digitalization of truth---although truth will always remain in the analog realm. Digitalization yields only ones and zeroes, black and white, as it were. It is wise for us to remember that.

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Guest

Friday, June 5, 2009 -- 5:00 PM

The strange thing about torture is that by it you

The strange thing about torture is that by it you can force people to say things that may turn out to be false.
It is not even a reliable method.
We should also reflect on psychological torture that is imposed on people within the family or the working environment.

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Saturday, June 6, 2009 -- 5:00 PM

I would challenge John Perry's statement that bank

I would challenge John Perry's statement that bank robbery is wrong. Although "wrong" is often used in the context of crimes, it is inaccurate or at least vague. Bank robbery is certainly against the law,i.e., illegal, but in order to call it "wrong," one would have to first put the situation in the context of their ethical framework. Ethical frameworks are a function of one's culture, which are highly variable. But let's assume there are universal laws of how human beings should behave toward each other. Then we have to ask which one (or ones) of these ethical laws have been violated in the act of bank robbery? On the other hand, perhaps John Perry just forgot to put the adverb "illegally" before "wrong."

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Sunday, June 7, 2009 -- 5:00 PM

Ethical, schethical. Here's an ethical framework:

Ethical, schethical. Here's an ethical framework: "A species survives based upon how much future usefulness it creates vs. how many resources it consumes." I call this "Net Usefulness" or "Net Creativity".
Human behavior can be classified in two types: Utilitarian (basic needs and future needs) vs. Imaginary (societal mores, individual rights vs. societal agreements (laws and whether or not we obey them), and perceived realities/fears/emotions (lizard brain actions)).
What separates humans from other animals is our imagination. Everything else (toolmaking, talking, etc) comes out of the imagination generator of our nervous system responding to circumstances).
Torture is a social construct which violates another social construct. Individuals in particular circumstances may decide to ignore or obey those constructs as they respond to their senses in the Now.
Prison itself is a death sentence in a social species: an individual is removed from 'life' either temporarily or permanently. Once you put someone in prison, they don't exist and so, it doesn't matter what is done to them (from a societal standpoint). War is an expanded social construct version of prison, where another group is 'taken out' of the aggressor group's social circle by technical and/or propaganda means.
Human actions are a lot less intentional than most of us are convinced of. The typical action is taken based on local sensibilities and is a stimulus-response. If we could actually read the mind's activity, we would find that the 'spike' in thinking comes after we act most of the time, not before. We do stuff. We come up with reasons for doing stuff. In that order.
Instead of discussing torture, we should be discussing the waste of resources on prisons. Just give everyone a gun and let them shoot whomever pisses them off. Everyone would either be a better neighbor or a better shot. Social Progress is overrated and usually more consumptive than useful.

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Guest

Sunday, June 7, 2009 -- 5:00 PM

???

??? ???? ?????Now, that brings me to this point. I don't support Torture but I am a believer in the Iraq War and the war on Terror. We have been in a state of war with Saddam Hussein since the end of the first Gulf War. We have been enforcing a no-fly zone and have had periodic flare ups with his military...including the attempted assassination of President George Bush during his visit to Kuwait during the Clinton

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Tuesday, June 9, 2009 -- 5:00 PM

philosophical writing blog

philosophical writing blog

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Guest

Wednesday, June 17, 2009 -- 5:00 PM

Great post, it's nice to see a strong philosophica

Great post, it's nice to see a strong philosophical justification for the condemnation of torture.

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Guest

Sunday, June 21, 2009 -- 5:00 PM

I would challenge John Perry's statement that bank

I would challenge John Perry's statement that bank robbery is wrong. Although "wrong" is often used in the context of crimes, it is inaccurate or at least vague. Bank robbery is certainly against the law,i.e., illegal, but in order to call it "wrong," one would have to first put the situation in the context of their ethical framework. Ethical frameworks are a function of one's culture, which are highly variable. But let's assume there are universal laws of how human beings should behave toward each other. Then we have to ask which one (or ones) of these ethical laws have been violated in the act of bank robbery? On the other hand, perhaps John Perry just forgot to put the adverb "illegally" before "wrong."
It's wrong to steal other peoples money. It's wrong to stick a gun in someones face and demand money or they will be killed.

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Thursday, June 25, 2009 -- 5:00 PM

"Bank robbery" is a poor analogy to "torture." The

"Bank robbery" is a poor analogy to "torture." The former is done solely to one's own benefit in stark contrast to the latter. Stealing money to get an operation for your child is not an exception; so, too, are "Robin Hood" arguments -- our society has agreed upon methods for redistributing wealth. Moreover, what makes bank robbery wrong is that it absolutely violates the fundamental principle of modern society -- the property rights of the citizenry (the bank, its shareholders, and its depositors) are violated for no reason against them.
Torture, and here I use this only in the context of attempting to extract information from someone who is uncooperative and strongly suspected to possess critical information, certainly violates the individual's rights. But that person has committed an egregious act and refused to cooperate.
Certainly, some people who are innocent or truly do not have information could be tortured. My point above is merely that on several levels, bank robbery and torture are radically different.
As to whether water-boarding is torture or not, consider that water-boarding does not cause permanent physical harm unlike other techniques. Medical ethics distinguish between passively and actively causing death -- between withdrawing life support or not using heroic measures, and administering a lethal dose of drugs. The former is letting Nature take its course, unlike the latter. What makes water-boarding difficult is that, unlike sleep deprivation (letting Nature take its course) or chopping fingers (actively causing permanent harm), water-boarding is active but temporary. As an aside, another key difference regarding the use of water-boarding in the Bush administration, a doctor was nearby at the ready.
That said, consider the following analogy: a police officer is walking by a house when he hears a gunshot from within. Under normal circumstances, the officer cannot enter the house without a warrant or without the permission of the home owner. Upon hearing a gunshot, exigent circumstances REQUIRE that the officer enter the house (a violation of 4th amendment in normal circumstances) rather than obtain a warrant. The onus falls on the officer ex post to verify that he had "probable cause."
Why can't we treat torture the same way? Let it be wrong all but epsilon percent of the time. When an interrogator uses torture, he will face severe penalties himself unless he demonstrates: (i) circumstances required immediate action; (ii) there was strong suspicion that the suspect had information; and (iii) other methods to obtain that information either had been tried or would not succeed in time to act on the information obtained.
Finally, it is imperative to keep in mind that any system operates within a larger framework. Having a set of policies as I just described or a set of policies as John Perry delineated each: (i) impact the moral authority (soft power) of the U.S.; (ii) they can deter or incite others to attack; and (iii) they change the behavior of those who are detained (prisoners who merely believe that they may be tortured may more readily divulge their private information than prisoners who know that they cannot be tortured).

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Guest

Sunday, July 12, 2009 -- 5:00 PM

Strict deductive logic involves a set of premises

Strict deductive logic involves a set of premises or postulates and deriving conclusions from same. The conclusions are in effect the necessary outcome of the premises taken together. The sticky part is invariably what are to be premises for the argument. Essentially by definitiion the premises cannot themselves be proven, certainly not from each other. Moral or ethical arguments, which presumably include the subject of torture, are best presented by explicitly stating the foundational premises and going from there. The conclusions tend to often be immediately evident at that point, especially if quantities and numbers can be introduced.
There is the common tendency however to fuzzy the line between deduction and premise and attempt to "prove the premise".
One way to help sort it all out may be to note the character of the premises: in particular distinguishing between pragmatism which is a matter of empirical data, and "principle" which is invariably ARBITRARY, unless one resorts to quoting preternatural authorities.
I suggest the following: Pragmatically, empirical statistics indicate that chopping 3 fingers has an 80% chance of deriving truth. The truth in quesion will absolutely affect eradication of 1000 innocent children. Principle: Greater than 695 children's lives are more valuable than 2 choped fingers but not more than 4 chopped fingers, provided likelihood of certainty of truth exceeds 55.8%.
It's possible these postulates can themselves be broken down into other ones, but eventually the premise buck has to stop.

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Sunday, July 12, 2009 -- 5:00 PM

It no doubt i agree that the conclusions are in ef

It no doubt i agree that the conclusions are in effect the necessary outcome of the premises taken together. You have a very informative blog.
florence

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Guest

Tuesday, July 21, 2009 -- 5:00 PM

Reading through all of these interesting posts reg

Reading through all of these interesting posts regarding Torture, not once have I read about reciprocal treatment to our own soldiers. One basic ethical view that I personally adhere to, is treating other's as I would prefer to be treated (not because I am an extreme religious fanatic). If we condone this type of treatment by our own government, then in turn, we are basically agreeing that this same treatment is acceptable for other countries to use when they capture our soldiers (under the guise of wartime necessity).
Personally, I spent 9 years of my youth being tortured in various ways, not for information, but as an attempt to manipulate and control my thoughts and behavior. It did not make me more cooperative, but instead developed a strong stubborn streak, that no matter what I was put through, I would never give in, even if it meant death.
The people we are dealing with in this war, welcome death, our soldiers do not. It is difficult enough on their families, having them coming home in caskets, how much worse would it be for them, if they knew that their loved ones had been tortured for months or held in captivity for years, before or if, their remains were brought back.
Is this the message we want to send, "If you need information that could save lives, do whatever it takes to our service men and women, because we certainly will be doing so to yours." Do we justify inhumane acts with perceived benefits? Is this how we want to be perceived by the rest of the world?
The United States has stood strong and proud for generations, with good reason. Dare we begin to look at the reason's we are losing the respect of so many countries that once stood by us?
Personally, I think we could learn a lot from the dreams of our ancestors (who built this country), looking openly at the present issues we face as individuals, a nation, and the world.
Torture is normally viewed with criticism, even when it pertains to animals, and is illegal and punishable by law. When I see the ravaged areas of Africa and how the woman and children have been tortured in the name of "War," my stomach turns. The roads to brutality, immorality, and lawlessness begin with one step, as with any other path. What path are we on?

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Wednesday, July 22, 2009 -- 5:00 PM

Perhaps it's the 'cast-iron' rule: "Do unto others

Perhaps it's the 'cast-iron' rule: "Do unto others as they have done unto you". It's certainly pragmatically clear that the likelihood of retaliation will increase with prisoner maltreatment.
One should decide principles around the consideration that absolute power over a human being, for whatever reason obtained, either implies restrictions on the exercise of that power or it does not.
Speaking of numbers, it's like the Drake factor for other life in the universe: One must estimate not only the likelihood of torture to elicit infomation, but also speculate about someone actually knowing enough to justify attempting to ream even a fully "doomsday" revelation out of them.

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Wednesday, July 29, 2009 -- 5:00 PM

Excellent points by rlh. When I wrote that any pol

Excellent points by rlh. When I wrote that any policy that we put into effect sits in the broader framework, the inciting of others to seek vengeance against the US is one possible consequent effect. The policies also affect the moral authority (also mentioned).
This or any policy needs to be clearly stated and should be agreed upon internationally -- a new round of Geneva Conventions. There is a gaping hole in the Geneva Conventions, what is often termed in economics an incomplete contract. The policy would not apply to soldiers and so could not legitimately be used by "the other side" to commit the same acts upon US soldiers.
The last round of Geneva Conventions was agreed upon at a time when non-state combatants had limited capabilities and rarely, if ever, acted against civilians of another state. The attacks in London, Madrid, Bali, Jakarta, Istanbul, and elsewhere are not by domestic terrorists (such as the IRA, ETA, ...) against their government in an internal grievance; rather, they are inherently transnational -- perpetrated by people often with little nationalist identity against civilians of another nation to effect change of a foreign policy.
The Geneva Conventions cover these people in the same way that an insurance policy covers a person in the "acts of God" clause. It is a catch-all because it was a situation that either leaders felt was too unlikely or too difficult to conceive of or rendered the entire document too complex. These are the causes of incomplete contracts -- at what point do the negotiators cease determining rules of conduct and allocations of resources and reparations for low probability events?
It is morally repugnant to commit torture; it is also morally repugnant, and even irresponsible, for a state to refrain from judiciously using its power to protect its citizenry. A true moral dilemma.

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Saturday, August 1, 2009 -- 5:00 PM

A comment on the opinion on Mr. Slater (as quoted

A comment on the opinion on Mr. Slater (as quoted by John Perry) who writes:
"we should try to have Condi Rice on Philosophy Talk to talk about torture"
Yes, this is a very good idea, but only on condition that Ms. Rice speaks as a scholar, not as a former active policy-maker. I do not think that Philosophy Talk is an appropriate forum for politicians (failed or otherise) to defend their achievements. An objective discussion on torture with a distinguished scholar like Ms. Rice is worth taking the risk, but this requires some discipline from the callers, who should refrain from any intentions they might otherwise have of taunting Ms Rise with epithets like "torturer" or some equally polite appellations. Equally Ms Rice must not be too defensive about her political role and preferably make no reference to it at all.
Fortunately, we have our fantastic moderators, Taylor and Perry, who can handle such matters very well. The discussion with Derszowitz was a good model for such discussion. Remember the caller who said that Harvard should be ashamed to have a torture advocate among its staff. He was not given much airtime. His comment might be perfectly appropriate on a talk show, but not on a radio philosophy symposium. In fact, his comment might in fact be right, but once a controversial thinker is invited to a philosophy radio, his views must be treated sine ira et studio. Well done Ken and John.
Squabbling is not always the best method of philosophising. In Plato's Symposium Socrates and Aristophanes (supposedly not very friendly with each other) did not join the same table to squable, but discover the essence of love
Marek Witkowski
Warsaw
Sorry for my bad English

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Sunday, May 9, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

When I consider whether waterboarding, for example

When I consider whether waterboarding, for example, Khalid Sheik Mohammad was morally permissible, it seems more than obvious that it was.
I understand that this is a blog from a talk show, albeit a philosophy talk show, but are we really going to gloss over every important distinction? For example, let's separate the legal question from the moral question. Let's separate the waterboarding question from the torture question...at least until someone argues compellingly that waterboarding is torture. But it's a little more than odd that those who say waterboarding KSM was immoral can't even offer an argument without invoking 'torture'. I am unfamiliar with the magical powers of the concept of torture such that merely invoking it in one's bad argument turns it into a good one.
Given what we know now, after the publication of Courting Disaster by Mark Thiessen, after all the attacks after Obama took office, how does hindsight not tell you that Bush was prescient about the danger that awaited us? Waterboarding works. That's a stubborn empirical fact. We saved hundreds, if not thousands of people, because we waterboarded KSM and others.
How does waterboarding a known terrorist that is party to yet another terrorist plot -- a plot, mind you, already underway -- violate human rights or dignity? How does it undermine the fabric of democracy? How does it corrupt the dignity of the invidual? People make such show of vacuous notions when they lack arguments. Tell me, in the case where peoples' actual lives are at stake, what precious philosophical notion counts for more than their innocent lives? The Bush Administration did exactly what should have been done. And there is nothing Condi Rice needs to apologize for regarding waterboarding. We owe Bush and his entire Adminstration our gratitude, not our vapid ruminations on torture.

 

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