Monday, December 12, 2005

More on Torture & Jonah

Jonah Goldberg has been kind enough to link to me, and so I shall try to do his later comments justice. He writes:
I think torture is a very bad thing among a whole host of very bad things. Some -- Sullivan, Young, et al-- claim that it is uniquely evil and terrible. I claim that their arguments against torture in fact demonstrate that torture is not uniquely evil. Their arguments would apply in significant ways to many other things, including killing and imprisonment. Indeed, in some circumstances I'd pick imprisonment over torture (which was my only point about taking fifty lashes over life in prison). Which is to say, in my own scheme of things torture doesn't strike me as so transcendantly horrible that I wouldn't choose it over a range of other terrible options in the right circumstances.

...for the terrorist who knows that innocent men, women and children are about to be murdered and chooses to stay silent, I simply haven't read a principled argument that makes the moral case against coercing this accomplice to murder that I personally find convincing. Contrary to what a lot of people think, that alone doesn't make me "pro-torture." It makes me unpersuaded by some of the more high-minded arguments of the anti-torture crowd.
I should say that, taking Jonah at his word, I shouldn't have implied that Mr. Goldberg favours torture, but rather that he is skeptical of the arguments against it. Jonah clarifies himself- rather than arguing (as he appeared to do) that there is some sort of consent, he argues that torture is not "transcendently horrible". Establishing that a given action is intrinsically evil is not easy- we lean heavily on our intuition and (oftentimes) religious guidance. I should note that the circumstances in which we consider torture are a moral solvent- faced with the hypothetical of having innocent people die, we are led towards a creeping utilitarianism. Does adultery (think James Bond) appear any easier to uphold as an intrinsic evil under such circumstances?

A common benchmark for ethics is that we are to treat people as ends rather than means. Under this understanding, I find it easy to think of penal measures (imprisonment, even the lash) as giving merited punishment. I find it a great deal more difficult to think of torture (waterboarding, fingernail extraction, the rack) as being merited. The connection of merited punishment to the person appears to me self-evident; the connection of torture appears to me to be purely to the information thereby gleaned.

Jonah writes that he sees no problem with coercion of information- well, neither do I. No one disputes the ethics of plea bargain agreements, which are essentially exchanges of punishment for information (information which the criminal would rather not divulge). I've even argued that the use of corporal punishment in interrogations may be justified under such a rule. The question is by what means a criminal may be coerced, not whether coercion is forbidden entirely.


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