Sunday, April 26, 2009

Torture and the Non-Obvious Appleyard

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.


elberry said...

Really good post, Brit. i was going to post on the Yard but my more elaborate thinking collapses when i try to approach things like torture; all i have left is the certainty that i wouldn't want to practice or assent to torture, that it sickens me too much to have a place in my world, even if it was just a little, almost unnoticeable place in the basement somewhere. i can't understand how decent people could allow it a place in their world; i just accept that they sometimes do.

i like this image of replacing philosophy books with kids. i do like philosophy but if it doesn't do good service to the living, well, what good is it at all? Maybe raising kids is just a different way of doing philosophy; i feel you'll be good at it!

monix said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Susan B. said...

Excellent post, and congrats on the baby. The best thing I ever did in my entire life was have (and then raise) two of them. We're having a party tonight and I shall hoist a glass of bubbly to your good fortune.

Sean said...

Good post Brit, but I find it a tad too idealistic.

I divide things up into, making good moral judgments (easy) living up to those judgments (hard)

The logical conclusion that torture is an absolute wrong is that war too is an absolute wrong?

Congratulations btw, Fun is much important than philosophy

Peter Burnet said...

Of course, none of this means the Americans are any more disposed to torture than others past and present, in fact I think the record is pretty clear the contrary is true. But they get themselves into horrible political knots when they demand of themselves (and let others demand of them) that everything they do be legally pristine and defensible. It's not so much what happened in those interrogations that is chilling people as it is the memos.

One difference between the French and Americans is that the Americans will allow themselves no hypocrisy about this kind of thing or any wiggle room for raisons d'état. It was they who insisted on trying the Nazis for war crimes when many Brits and French just wanted them shot summarily. Now that whole love affair with law and principle has come back to bite them and left them sitting in the dock with a lot of barbarians and enemies sitting on the jury, which is I think why Skipper is forced into parsing and analyzing and rationalizing at length to try to equate the moral and legal. He's a bit like a philosophy student who is so troubled by that old moral conundrum about whether it's permissible to throw a defenseless person out of a leaky boat to ensure the survival of the others that he sets out to try and re-define legal murder to exclude such a morally ambiguous case. Can't be done and shouldn't be tried.

Gaw said...

I agree Brit that witnessing the contest of theoretical vs empirical approaches was a fascinating part of this debate. I too am left with a heightened appreciation of the empirical (British) approach.

But I think its efficacy goes further than your post indicates. By treating torture as a practical legal problem rather than the subject of a debate between consistent theoretical absolutes it allows for the circle we were debating to be squared, i.e. torture can remain absolutely illegal whilst the arraigned torturer - if justified - goes unpunished.

Hypothetically, where torture might be the lesser of two evils (I'm sure we can all imagine such a situation), a jury could ignore the application of the law (the legally recognised 'perverse verdict'). Alternatively if a conviction is achieved a judge could give such a light sentence that a defendent could effectively escape punishment.

The caveat I suppose is that these outcomes are highly contingent. But then the wisdom of 12 citizens may be more reliable than that of any number of philosophers or legislators...

Such an approach would be scorned by the proverbial Frenchman, who wouldn't be able to tolerate something that worked in practice but not in theory. Moreover, it would probably illustrate his belief that the British are hypocrites.

Thanks to Mr A for setting this hare running.

Re nursery, having put away childish things for a while it's great to have an excuse to get them back out again. I recommend the old ladybird story books.

Brit said...

Idealistic? You mean pessimistic and pragmatic, surely.

Peter Burnet said...

Brit, I was just thinking that the point we're discussing can perhaps be illustrated by comparing American and British spy thrillers. The Americans love ripping good reads about lone renegade heroes terminating domestic and foreign enemies one after the other, but I've never read one where Washington quietly gave out a license to kill.

Hey Skipper said...


I am too short of time at the moment to put together a complete response.

So, in the meantime, see if you can find the screamingly obvious problem in Mr. Appleyard's argument:

But the ultimate question is, of course: is torture absolutely wrong beyond all considerations of efficacy? The answer in western liberal democracies has to be yes.It is hiding in plain sight.

Unfortunately, without defining what one is talking about -- and, therefore, what one is not talking about -- or without paying sufficiently careful attention to word choice and meaning, the obvious is invisible.

I'm not being pedantic, because the difference makes a difference.

Sean said...

No Brit, I would stick with Idealistic in the context of the jury.

Bottom up community law over state top down law is fast disappearing from our lives.

Your point is right from the former, skippers is right for the latter. But which viewpoint best represent the world as it is? not as we imagine it or want it.

Codifying in law the point where torture begins is desirable and now having read those memos is obviously what the lawyers were trying to do, to set a boundary, this is very different to saying this torture is OK.

Whats to say that imprisonment of anyform is not torture? it can and does cause lasting mental and physical harm, you only have to look at the suicide rates in UK jails to know that to be true.

once again its fine and dandy when you have a jury that can look at the law and its former rulings and marry that with circumstances of the case in front of them, but it is not working like that anymore, with regret.

What next, shall we take up Pythons advice and put the enemy in a comfy chair?

Sean said...

just to add.

I think something important has been missed here with regards 9/11 and gitmo.

All these practices were already apart of the US Military program before 9/11.

U.S. Military's own "Survival Evasion Resistance Escape" (SERE) training programs.

So firstly, it shows that Congress was fully aware that these types of techniques had been used thousands of times in the past on U.S. service members.

Secondly, the SERE training program produced a lot of data about how individuals react, physically and mentally, to various interrogation methods. From 1992 to 2001, more than 26,000 were SERE-trained. Of these, only 0.14 percent were removed from the program for psychological reasons.

So if it is torture, (which I dont think it is, which is what the above data seems to suggest) then you can expect some pretty clever ambulance chaser to bring forward some off the 0.14 percent for damages, which would be very costly, after all congress approved it.

UK personal also do very similar training.

Brit said...

Skipper - your general argument is not wrong, you're just wrong to say Bryan is wrong. It's a question of approaching from different angles.

Also, I'm not saying Bryan's angle is better - your angle is certainly more honest.

Sean - this post is more about ways of approaching issues than about torture. Actually, it seems to be mostly about British versus American conservatism. Your accusation of idealism is therefore bizarre, but don't sweat it.

Nige said...

Enjoy rediscovering (in my case it was mostly discovering) those children's books Brit - beats philosophy any day...

Brit said...

Good points, Gaw and Peter, btw.

Gaw said...

Brit, your imminent rediscovery of the land of childhood inspired me to post something on my blog about the Ladybird fairy stories. It's hard hitting stuff, obviously.

Sean said...

Sorry to bother malty, ive spent 16 hours in A&E over the weekend with a broken wrist, that and being told that conservatism that I did not consider to be an ism, is sort of an ism, when I thought it was akin to pragmatism? well as probably having to cancel a trip to Canada next week, you can gather its not been a good 48 hours...but the drugs are good, I have to say.

Hey Skipper said...


Your post was very thoughtful; I hope this response is not overlong.

I am not saying Mr. Appelyard's argument is wrong, I am saying his position is so empty that it does not even qualify as an argument. Rather, it is a pose stiffened by a generous dollop of indignation. He leaves the central point of contention untouched: without stopping to consider what torture is, we are helpless to say what it is not.

This distinction is not, as you have claimed, some distraction. For as soon as Mr. Appleyard asserts that torture is wrong, full stop, he has introduced a term that by its very nature is relative. Wrong with respect to what? Having completely neglected the first task, his subsequent assertion, far from being some clever point making via the non-obvious, is no more weighty than a decent meringue.

In addition to freighting Mr. Appelyard's pose with more than it can possibly hope to carry, you have completely misconstrued my argument: it has nothing to do with policy, or justifying Bush administration actions, but rather how to approach the issue analytically. My argument is not (I hope I am not unduly flattering myself) pedantry in the first degree. Rather, failing to do so may very well have extremely unwelcome consequences which have nothing to do with torture.

Without a diversion into details, I shall assert there exists a sufficiently specific definition for "torture" such that anyone could conclude what belongs to the class "torture", and what does not, that the set of conclusions would be consistent across the vast majority of people, and that the definition would not upend policies in areas having nothing to do with torture. (My trial balloon definition was not a "safeguard"; rather, it was an attempt to insert some rigor into the discussion.)

With that stipulated, this statement is safe: Torture is abhorrent.

Indeed, abhorrence is what we use to distinguish torture from not torture.

Having gotten this far, though, it should be clear how airily invoking the the word "wrong" (But the ultimate question is, of course: is torture absolutely wrong beyond all considerations of efficacy? The answer in western liberal democracies has to be yes.*) amounts to mere posing.

Torture is always abhorrent, no matter the circumstances, no matter the hypothetical. However, "wrong" must always be a relative term. To use it coherently, wrong must always refer to a specific inferior choice among some list of alternatives.

Torture is a class to which admission is defined by abhorrence. However, whether an abhorrent act is wrong only has meaning with respect to the wrongness of not conducting the abhorrent act. Imprisonment is abhorrent, yet we western liberal democracies have well populated prisons because not-imprisonment is less wrong than imprisonment.

To make clear how empty Mr. Appleyard's indulgence in the non-obvious is, he has declared torture to be absolutely wrong. What is his stand on torture's far larger brother, war? Since its consequences are so much worse than mere torture, war must be even wronger, right?


Torture, like war, or imprisonment** is abhorrent. However, one has gone a fair distance indeed into the logically meaningless to state all torture is wrong, just as the statement "war is wrong" isn't worth the pixels it took to type it.

Having failed to grasp the definitional nettle, then abusing the word "wrong", Mr Appleyard leaves himself completely disarmed when it comes to consequences.

Political, for a start. The signal feature of functioning democracies is the regular, peaceful, transfer of power as a consequence of voters' collective judgment. Perhaps the most important reason that works is that the outgoing government is not concerned with post hoc retribution. The moment we start prosecuting government officials for their official acts, we create a very strong incentive for them to hold onto power by whatever means available.

Then there is the existential. How many 7/05s could the UK withstand before your very western liberal democracy suddenly has to leave a sizable gap where "liberal" is now? The Bush administration may well have conducted interrogations so abhorrent as to qualify as torture by anyone's standard. In retrospect, those interrogations may have been ineffective; or, effective, but showed there was no serious threat, after all. Before the fact though, if the administration's state of mind was that more variants of 9/11 were in the works, they were faced with the possibility of consequences that, while not capable of destroying the US as an entity, could well lead to any manner of illiberal results.

Mr. Appleyard has not made an argument, even of the non-obvious kind. Rather, he has presented us with a statement that gives no clue as to what it is, or is not talking about, en route to a stunning misuse of the word "wrong".

That is why I called his utterance "piffle". He has taken a complex, extremely troubling topic and reduced it to a pose.

Torture is completely ineffective in obtaining evidence; the Inquisition proved that centuries ago. However, in the quest to corroborate information -- think seriously about what "corroborate" means -- torture is quite effective. If it wasn't there would be no need to talk about it, because every instance of torture would be the inferior choice from all the alternatives on offer. This is as good an example of the futility of trying to prove a negative as you are likely to come across this week.

Because we cannot prove that negative, we are left with clearly coming to terms with what counts, and what does not, as torture. Without that, we are powerless to judge the alternatives, ascertain necessary from wrong, or, indeed to conduct any interrogations whatever.

Of course, that is the difference between constructing an argument intended to lead to a conclusion, and the mere wafting of presumed moral superiority: piffle, in a word.


* When stating But the ultimate question is, of course: is torture absolutely wrong beyond all considerations of efficacy? The answer in western liberal democracies has to be yes., Mr. Appleyard makes two further, but less important, mistakes. First, the clear conclusion is that for non-western, or non-liberal, or non-democracies, the answer could well be "no". Really?

Second, he insists, and without a hint of irony, an a priori dictatorial position upon western liberal democracies. Assume this proposal was put up for a vote in the UK: In order to prevent another 7/05, the government may use torture to corroborate information.

And it wins electoral approval. Did the UK become suddenly non-western, or non-liberal, or a non-democracy? Perhaps the better explanation is that when presented with a meaningful use of the word "wrong", voters might well decide that torture, while abhorrent, is less wrong than not-torture.

** Sean highlighted the problem with definitional lassitude: if "torture", lazily applied, is "wrong", then so surely must be all our penal policies. Now what?

Brit said...

Skipper -

I don't really think I can say much without repeating chunks of the original post. But I suppose a few points arising from your comment:

1) I don't see how War is torture's 'older brother'. Policy and law don't apply in the same way. Torture is more like murder. Murder is always wrong in law, but sometimes there is mitigation. As Peter above says - you don't need to legally redefine 'murder' to allow for grey areas.

2) I can't actually grasp the corroboration point, which is a failure on my part.

3) Assume this proposal was put up for a vote in the UK: In order to prevent another 7/05, the government may use torture to corroborate information. And it wins electoral approval. Did the UK become suddenly non-western, or non-liberal, or a non-democracy?...

Perhaps not 'non-democracy', but certainly it became a lot more non-liberal. Likewise if the motion was "In order to prevent another 7/05, the government may... hold people without trial/restrict freedom of speech/quietly bump people off."

4) Your comment is not overlong, but the "Mr Appleyard" and "piffle" thing is laid on a bit thick.

5) Since everyone seems to be misinterpreting everyone else (natch), let's substitute everyone's name X for "an argument I ascribe to X, but which X may not be making"... and then we can all be right.

Hey Skipper said...


Last things first.

... "Mr Appleyard" and "piffle" thing is laid on a bit thick.Since Bryan is famous, and I am not, using his first name felt like invoking an unwarranted degree of familiarity.

Regarding "piffle", you are absolutely correct. It was over the top; I could have made my point just as well without using a term that was undeserved in any event.

Perhaps not 'non-democracy', but certainly it became a lot more non-liberal.I think if you were to explicitly lay out the the salient characteristics of a liberal democracy, you would see this is a non sequitor. Indeed, it would probably be the most liberal thing to do to pass such a law: here is the list of things the government may do that qualify as torture, these are the circumstances under which they may be done, and the Prime Minister / President must explicitly approve each instance.

How would that not be "liberal"?

Obviously, such a thing could end up being very illiberal, but in making the distinction, you are acceding to one of my central points: with respect to what?

I can't actually grasp the corroboration point, which is a failure on my part.Coercion is completely ineffective in obtaining judicially acceptable evidence. Plea bargaining, as relatively benign as it is, opens the door for a defense attorney to impugn the credibility of testimony.

But coercive interrogation, regardless of whether it constitutes torture, must have as its goal developing further information through corroborating existing information. The interrogator must possess some facts; the person undergoing interrogation must not know how much the interrogator knows. Without corroboration of some body of existing knowledge, coercive interrogation is completely useless -- there is no way of knowing whether the coerced responses are correct, a dodge, or simply saying whatever it takes to make the coercion stop.

I don't see how War is torture's 'older brother'. What I actually said is that war is tortures bigger brother, in the sense that in every way war creates much more serious and widespread damage than torture. If torture is a priori wrong, something in which a liberal democracy must never engage, how could war, which is so much worse, be anything other than absolutely prohibited?

Torture is more like murder. Murder is always wrong in law, but sometimes there is mitigation. As Peter above says - you don't need to legally redefine 'murder' to allow for grey areas.I am sure Peter will correct me if I am wrong, but both law and morality clearly delineate between murder and killing.

For instance, in the US, nearly (perhaps) every state has codified the castle doctrine: I must do everything I can to avoid a violent confrontation, including retreat. However, I have no obligation to retreat from my own home. If I end an intruder's life in my house, that is killing, not murder.

Besides, until you define torture, I you cannot say it is like murder. In fact, unless the torture kills, it by definition is not at all like murder. A survivor of interrogation is alive; murder victims are dead.

Please do not construe any of this as endorsing torture, or justifying Bush administration policies. It is not an argument for or against torture. Rather, I am insisting on the impossibility of approaching an intelligent assessment with morally lofty but essentially empty statements like "Torture is wrong."

David said...

First off, people with an official secrets act and no guarantee against prior restraint should step a little softly around pronouncing that "we would never do such a thing, Old Chap." For better or worse, the US government is a sieve when it comes to official secrets, so we generally learn the worst sooner rather than later. It seems highly unlikely to me that the British government is as spot free in these matters as some of the preening, particularly Brian's, would suggest.

Second, one reason that there's less going on in Bryan's post than meets the eye is his desire to forestall debate on two highly debatable subjects: the significance of Abu Ghraib and whether what was done was actually torture. What happened at Abu Ghraib was a break down of discipline aimed purely at humiliating prisoners. It deserved to be punished and it was punished. The enhanced interrogation program was, whatever its other failings, highly disciplined and, as Peter points out, intensely legalistic.

Gaw said...

Aah! Look, Skipper, you're right, OK? I give in. But whatever you do just please, please stop posting these really long comments. I just can't take it any more.

And they say torture doesn't work...

But seriously, where are you coming from?

"I am insisting on the impossibility of approaching an intelligent assessment with morally lofty but essentially empty statements like "Torture is wrong""

As I've said in previous posts, far from it being 'impossible' the legal system has managed perfectly well in assessing the legality/wrongness of torture. It's ILLEGAL. And wrong.

At the most basic level it's a form of assault, one of the most common crimes against the person to come before the bench. But I'm sure you'll be able to obfuscate this through some definitional uncertainty.

You're just creating theoretical problems where there are pre-existing practical solutions, which in turn have been based on a long-standing combination of theories modulated by practice. You are what Burke would describe as a 'refining speculator'.

Brit said...

Skipper - the War comparison just doesn't work. Wars come about for too many reasons outside the reach of policy. You may as well say Famine or Disease. 'Genocide' would be better as torture's 'bigger brother'. In which case, yes, genocide is wrong, murder is wrong, torture is wrong. And then we're just back to the original question of deduction from first principles versus empiricism and mitigation. And we've already pursued that to The Ends Of The Earth.

Gaw - long comments is just what Skipper does. And he never, never surrenders.

David - there's no suggestion that the British don't torture while Americans do, but since everybody is merrily misconstruing everybody else... come on in, why not, the water's lovely!

malty said...

If you deal in absolutes in the case of torture then if not using it leads to one or thousands of deaths and torture has been banished by the liberal will, how do these deaths fit into the liberal conscience ? A case maybe of the will of the liberal argument winning out at the expense of the lives of others.
on the other hand this tends to fortify their argument.
Another peachy post Brit, the old wanderer's a Non-Obvious then, must be something he picked up at Cambridge, hope he doesn't return home with a curly tail and grunting, something he picked up close the the border with Gonzaleshire.

David said...

Brit: Actually, I think that this is a subject on which the west is just too tough on itself. We ask ourselves odd hypotheticals about whether we'd shoot a terrorist in the knee to stop the countdown on the big nuclear weapon in the middle of Manhattan. We worry about whether a procedure for which tens of thousands of people have volunteered is torture if done involuntarily. We have lawyers and doctors standing by. We tell the enemy "here's the worst we're willing to do and we'll only do it for 20 seconds."

This whole debate only makes sense if we're so far up the trail of western guilt/belly button gazing as to have lost sight of the rest of the world. In much of the world, torture consists of raping a man's wife in front of him, or swinging his child be the feet to crack its head open against the wall. Should he be made to stand in an uncomfortable position for a couple of hours really doesn't enter in to it.

For the record, my position is that we shouldn't torture under any circumstances but that the enhanced interrogation methods weren't torture (I think that actual test they used (i.e., if people volunteer to undergo a procedure, it's not torture) works pretty well). I think that reasonable people can differ on both those positions. I think that a lot more latitude should be allowed military interrogators seeking actionable intelligence than is allowed to the police seeking confessions or evidence. I think that there's a lot of moral preening going on by people who are absolutely confident they'll never be in a position to have to make these decisions.

Brit said...

So in conclusion, David, torture is always wrong.

David said...

Yes. Torture is always wrong.

But not always unforgivable. This is a nice illustration of the Fundamental Attribution Error, which is the tendency of people in the west to attribute the observed actions of others solely to their dispositions, while ignoring the role played by the situation. If we had been in the same situation, we would likely have done the same things. Anyone who doubts it should go read up on the Milgrim Experiments.

Peter Burnet said...

Torture is always wrong. But not always unforgivableUnforgivable by whom? Or perhaps I should say by Whom?

I don't think recognizing mitigating circumstances that go to punishment or even the decision to prosecute is the same as forgiving.

David said...

By whom? Since I don't think that there was torture done here, I don't think that anyone needs forgiveness. But if officially sanctioned torture had been done, forgiveness would have to come from the people of the United States, in whose name it was done.

Peter Burnet said...

But David, surely that is a problem. If the U.S. or anyone else is going to reserve the right to forgive torture (or even define it) to domestic constituencies, they shouldn't be signing international treaties binding themselves, no?

David said...

I don't mean "forgiveness" to be a synonym for immunity. We could in theory both prosecute and forgive. Rather, I mean forgiveness is a more or less Christian sense: that we stay conscious of the fact that any of us might have done the same.

But in the real world, I can't think of a situation in which the question arises. When, in our legalistic regime are we going to conclude that "this is torture, but go do it anyway?" In fact, the terror memos put real limits on the options open to interrogators. If the Justice Department concludes, as I conclude, that water-boarding is not torture, then who would we prosecute? We've signed treaties promising not to torture and we haven't. We haven't signed treaties allowing international prosecution of Americans, so whether to prosecute is our decision.

Hey Skipper said...


But seriously, where are you coming from?From precisely here: Bryan's statement about torture, far from being an exercise in delphian non-obviousness is, excluding the contradictory bits, simply banal.

Your remedial description of torture does nothing to relieve that problem.

Of course torture is wrong; no one has ever said otherwise. It is not a moral revelation, nor is it a courageous instance of speaking truth to power.

Torture is wrong. Now what? Is its wrongness so wrong that it is wrong to torture no matter what? Torture is wrong, we will have no more of that. Fine, what will you have more of?

All coercion in the attempt to obtain information the subject is not freely willing to provide is a form of assault.


... the War comparison just doesn't work.Strictly speaking, it isn't a comparison, and I should not have phrased it like one. Torture, like a ground invasion, air attack, naval blockade, etc is an act of war.

And like all acts of war, the proper (as in, the only one that ever really matters) judgment for whether it is justified is whether its net effect is to advance towards the war's goals, and whether the consequences of the act are so horrible that no war aim could possibly justify it.

Yet, alone among all the acts of mayhem that constitute war, Torture is So Wrong that we may never resort to it, no matter how it might help advance (or avoid hindering) our war aims?

That is why "torture is wrong" is so meaningless. Yes, it is always wrong, just like killing/murder is always wrong. Absent the rare sociopath, it is a rare person indeed who relishes the chain of circumstances that led to someone's torture, or violent death. It is wrong in the trivial sense that it is a wholly undesired outcome, but that has nothing to say about whether the outcome is justifiable.

For the record, my position is like David's. Properly defined, we should never engage in torture, because, properly defined, we need never engage in torture to obtain the information we desire: enhanced interrogation methods will always suffice. While they undoubtedly make for an awful experience, they do not amount to torture.

Which is why justifying what is included, and therefore also what is excluded, is, far from a distraction, completely central.

Barry Meislin said...

All of the above sounds pretty abstract to me.

What if one were to phrase the question as follows:

"If you had someone in custody who would be ecsatatic to kill himself in order to kill or maim or terrorize another, or 10 others or hundreds or thousands of others, or who is allied with an organization that preaches and encourages such a worldview; and what if you believed such a person had information that could prevent a future (or imminent) attack that could cause significant damage to you, your loved ones, your society; would you do your utmost to try to prevent such an attack?"

Should one respond, "While I do not wish my (fill in the blank: wife, my children, my parents, my friends, my neighborhood, my city, my society, my country etc.) to be (fill in the blank: injured, blinded, maimed, scarred for life, left limbless, killed), I do not see how I can morally or legally coerce information from this person to prevent it, since the coercion, or torture---even of one who would be ecsatatic to kill himself in order to kill or maim or terrorize another, or 10 others or hundreds or thousands of others---is something I can't countenance. No, I will have to find other ways to prevent this, and if something awful does happen, it is far preferable to accept fate and be able to live with myself...."?

P.S. Is this not the crux of Truman's decision to do something which he believed to be the lesser of two evils?

But even this may be a bit abstract. So let's try this formulation: "What if you have (fill in the blank: 24, 12, 6 2) hours to prevent a terrorist bombing, and you have someone in custody who might be able to provide information to prevent it?"

Brit said...

Then I might torture him, or I might not. Likewise I might murder someone or steal something in the right hypothetical circumstances. So what? You're stating the bleedin' obvious. The point is you don't draw up legislation sanctioning torture, murder and theft for every extreme hypothetical; you ban and mitigate in individual cases.

Barry Meislin said...

Right, so it's damned if you do, damned if you don't.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking.

Brit said...

What, you want life to be easy?

Yeah yeah, the hypothetical clock is hypothetically ticking, I've seen 24.

Barry Meislin said...

Except that after 9/11 the hypothetical stopped being hypothetical.

And after London,

And after Madrid....

There's more to this argument than righteous indignation based on abstractions.

Brit said...

Which London bombings - 7/7 or the IRA ones? I'm arguing for the status quo, nothing more.