I had been musing on Skipper’s comment on Bryan’s post about torture, trying to work out why I disagreed with Skipper when his argument seemed so coherent. Eventually I realised the answer and was going to post a reply but I had too much real-life flotsam and jetsam to clear in the meantime, so now I’m putting it here instead.
A key purpose of Bryan’s blog is to make generalist but non-obvious points. When you read his posts, therefore, you should hesitate before ascribing an obvious position to him. The obvious debate when it comes to state-sanctioned torture is the position torture is always absolutely wrong versus the position torture is regrettable but in some circumstances permissible.
Skipper’s argument – which, as always in his case, is logical and uncluttered – is for the latter position against the former. Skipper shows that it makes no sense to say that torture is absolutely wrong in all cases, because we can always construct hypotheticals (however outlandish and rare) in which the only moral conclusion is that torture is necessary (think 24*).
Skipper believes that he has thus shown Bryan’s argument to be, in his words, ‘piffle’. The first part of understanding why Skipper is wrong is to remember to look for the non-obvious in Appleyard. The second part can be found in Peter Burnet’s brilliantly insightful comment here in which he identifies commonalities between the American and the French philosophical approaches, in contrast to the English tradition, including: “The tendency to deduce from ideological opening premises in politics and law [and] the equation of government with "state" rather than "community"…”
In the American tradition, Skipper deduces policy from first principles. Since he has shown the principle “torture is always absolutely wrong” to be obviously flawed, he deduces policy from the opposite position; thus Goverments should act based on the principle that “torture is in some (rare) circumstances permissible”.
But from the British perspective, whereby policy and law are not deduced but emerge piecemeal and pragmatically from our liberal traditions (bottom up, not top down), then although Skipper’s framework is solid, he has built the scaffolding upside down. For Appleyard, the assumption that state-sanctioned torture is absolutely wrong is just part of what makes the Anglo Liberal West the Anglo Liberal West. It is not a naïve assumption because along with it is the grim acceptance that we will inevitably lapse (or as Bryan has it, ‘revert’ to our ‘fallen’ natures) and turn a blind eye to any torture which incumbent Governments have deemed necessary. But expecting that this will occur cannot itself represent a philosophical stance. Instead, torture must remain an absolute wrong regardless of efficacy, even though wrong things will inevitably happen, humans being what they are.
As well as being just the traditional British way, there are practical advantages to this approach. We resist both right-wing American and left-wing European calls to enshrine a British Constitution or Bill of Rights - even though it seems so obviously reasonable and good - because instinctively we are suspicious of moving away from a default where everything that is not explicitly forbidden is permitted, to one where everything that is not explicitly permitted is forbidden.
And in the torture debate, Bryan’s non-obvious argument for all torture being absolutely wrong avoids some big practical problems which Skipper’s more obvious argument has to deal with. If we start with a Government principle along the lines of “torture is forbidden unless exceptional circumstances demand it”, then the debates about what constitutes torture and what constitute exceptional circumstances open up and the slippery slopes await. Recognising this, Skipper comes up with some safeguards involving expert medical pronouncements for the former problem, and judgements on proportionality of the danger on the second. But the potential for abuse is glaring, because by enshrining a principle that torture is sometimes ok, torture becomes, in the right circumstances, not just respectable but a moral obligation on the state. (Torture's efficacy, note, is just assumed.)
Skipper’s argument seemed obviously right at first glance, but as ever, look for the non-obvious and even the most basic first principles wobble, bringing the whole scaffolding crashing down.
Anyway, the reason I couldn’t write this earlier is that I was putting books into boxes, and boxes into the attic. Mostly philosophical tomes which I haven’t opened since university and thus I’m no longer sure if they’re genuine reading matter or just props. Flicking through my Back Pages –Kant, Spinoza, Leibniz, Marx, even Dawkins – I realised that while I sort of remember reading this stuff, I have little connection with the person who read them. My ‘education’ in the decade since appears to have been a process of stripping away almost everything I once assumed, everything that was once obvious. But I was so much older then....
The books are going into the attic to make way (against the advice of my internet pals) for the nursery. The strange thing is that almost any idiot is allowed to bring up a baby – you don’t need a degree or even a license. In the place of the philosophical texts the shelves are to be filled with children’s books, many of which are coming down from various family attics. So it goes, so it goes, eh?
*Perhaps the biggest disservice that 24 has done to the torture debate is not so much to suggest that good people sometimes have to do it, but to suggest that it always works. The baddies who undergo torture always either resist to the point of death or crack and reveal the truth. Thus the question of efficacy is removed from the debate, and the only dilemma is whether it is morally acceptable to torture one (very very bad) person in order to save many innocents. Since 24 offers up an endless series of Skipper’s outlandish hypotheticals, it’s always a no-brainer. Staying in fiction, contrast Le Carre’s spy novels, in which agents are trained to spew out convincing disinformation when under duress, so that torture doesn’t work.