I, personally, am opposed to torture. I also consider the notion that water boarding, sleep deprivation, and similar “enhanced interrogation techniques” are not torture absurd. Whatever one cares to consider it when inflicted in a carefully controlled training situation, water boarding is most definitely torture when inflicted on an enemy not once, but 80, 90 or 100 times, by tormenters who are confident they will not be held to account for their deeds. Resistance to torture doesn’t have to be a moral decision, just a practical one. Nations that torture weaken themselves by playing into the hands of their enemies, handing them an effective propaganda tool. Anyone who was following the European media at the time the Abu Ghraib story broke knows how effective and damaging such propaganda can be. For democracies, at least, condoning torture carries a high political cost. The damage it does to the national security of a democracy by allowing its enemies to seize the moral high ground and by eliminating its own moral authority in the world greatly outweighs any plausible advantage that could be gained by it.
Individuals who support torture live in an imaginary world in which the victims are always their enemies, persons certainly guilty of terrorism or worse, regardless of whether they have had a trial or whether there is any plausible evidence against them. The principles embodied in the American Bill of Rights don’t matter, as long as their precious security is at stake. In the end, though, that security is a chimera. Those who believe that torture will only be applied to the “others,” never to themselves, live in a dream world. In the first place, nations that torture provide their enemies with justification for torture, putting their citizens, and especially their soldiers, at risk. In a world that condones torture, the idea that the old rule, “What goes around, comes around,” doesn’t apply is not only stupid, it is suicidal. In a world that condones torture, every individual is a risk.
History has demonstrated that the state is the most effective terrorist, just as it is the most effective killer. It was to protect us from the state as torturer and killer that or forefathers established prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment, the assumption of innocence until proven guilty, protections against arbitrary imprisonment, and all the rest of the freedoms we treasure for ourselves, and should treasure for others. The conservatives in the USA who cheer so loudly for “enhanced interrogation” are wringing their hands at the same time about the expansion of government power and what they perceive as the approach to socialism. If the state is really in danger of becoming so evil, is it wise to cheer so loudly for torture? What if the state really does become evil? What if it occurs to the leaders of that evil state to engage in the wholesale torture of those who, after all, were torture’s most zealous defenders? What? You think “It can’t happen here?” Was the history of the 20th century nothing but a bad dream? No, it wasn’t a dream. It was a reality that could happen here quite as well as it happened elsewhere. In such a world, our genuine security depends on standing by the principles we never should have abandoned in the first place, including rejection of torture.
Sometimes I can’t even believe we are having this debate. A bunch of religious fanatics gets lucky and kills 3000+ people, and we are suddenly in a “war,” and have to throw all our liberties out the window. Going on a decade later, we are still at “war,” and anything goes, as long as we can bamboozle ourselves into believing that our precious “security” requires it. It reminds one of the constantly warring states in Orwell’s “1984.” I suspect Orwell would have detected a very familiar ring in the arguments being fobbed off on us today to justify this constant state of “war.” We have over 25,000 firearm deaths every single year in the US, and over 40,000 traffic fatalities. Is anyone suggesting we throw out the Bill of Rights and introduce a police state because of that? Hundreds of thousands have died defending the liberties we are now supposed to casually discard because we are all so terribly threatened by the evil terrorists. What fine Americans we are, what brave defenders of the faith our fathers fought and died for! One successful attack, and all we can think of is crawling under a rock and bleating about our illusory “security.” One successful attack that in no way threatens our existence as a nation and, suddenly, we are drawing dire parallels with the need to suspend habeus corpus during the Civil War. What wimps we have become, what rabbits!
The right in the US really seems to have taken leave of its collective senses on this issue. They really seem to believe that the torturers will never turn on them, that they will somehow, against all odds, be immune to the disease they are so blithely promoting. The idea that the people who are given the authority to apply torture will always be philosopher kings, or, for that matter, are even likely to be capable of distinguishing those in the act of carrying out a nuclear attack from innocent civilians rounded up based on no or faint evidence is nonsense. History has proved it nonsense time after time. Those who condone torture have forgotten or never learned the lessons of history. Our founding fathers were well aware of those lessons. They didn’t suffer from our modern delusions about the benevolence and justice of the state as torturer. That’s why they took the stand they did. If we abandon their stand in pursuit of a hollow security we might as well give up the fight. We will have become the mirror images of the people we are fighting.
When one looks at the ideological divide in the US today on the matter of torture, one can only shake ones head. The right openly condones it. They give Nathan Hale speeches defending it, as if it were some kind of a holy cause. For them, no one can be truly “patriotic” who opposes it. For the left, it is just an ideological bludgeon that they find a convenient tool for attacking their enemies. One hears no reasoned arguments against torture. Instead, in place of reason one finds nothing but the usual pious posing from the “moral high ground.” In other words, they oppose torture more or less for the same reasons the Bolsheviks opposed it before 1917; because it is a useful political tool.
To understand morality it is necessary to understand what it is and why it exists. Morality is a construct of our minds. In other words, it is subjective. It is a part of us, in the same way that our eyes, heart, and feet are parts of us. Being a part of us, it exists for the same reason that our other parts exist. It promotes our survival, or at least did promote our survival at some point in our past. It is a characteristic which evolved, in the same way that all our other characteristics evolved. We do not yet understand how it works, or what gives rise to it, or the detailed nature of its development as our conscious selves interact with the world around us during our lives. We cannot see it, as we can see our hands and feet, or hear it, as we hear our voices, but still, we know it’s there, and is a part of what we are. The thinkers among us have often noted its remarkable consistency across otherwise widely divergent cultures. For example, in response to a M. Le Beau, who claimed that, “The Christians had a morality, but the Pagans had none,” Voltaire replied in an article entitled “Morality” in his “Philosophical Dictionary,”
“Oh, M. Le Beau! …where did you pick up this absurdity? …There is but one morality, M. Le Beau, as there is but one geometry. But you will tell me that the greater part of mankind are ignorant of geometry. True; but if they apply a little to the study of it, all men draw the same conclusions. …We cannot repeat too frequently that dogmas differ, but that morality is the same among all men who make use of their reason.”
The point I wish to make here is not that Voltaire was strictly correct in his conclusions about the absolute consistency of morality, but that he noticed that it is a part of our nature. While it may not be exactly the same in one individual as in another, the similarities across cultures are remarkable. We experience morality, not as relative or situational, but as an absolute. It was this aspect of morality that Kant perceived when he associated it with a categorical, rather than hypothetical imperatives.
It is not difficult to understand why morality evolved. We all have desires. However, others desire the same things. A state of affairs in which each individual laid claim to the same scarce resources, and was willing to battle all others to the death to acquire them would not be conducive to our survival. On the other hand, if something in the consciousness of the individuals in a group caused them to share the available resources according to rules familiar to all, derived from certain fundamental principles, it would enhance the chances that the individuals in the group would survive. It would give them an advantage over others not possessing the same quality. Therefore, like everything else about us, morality evolved. Its basic framework is hard wired in our brains. Its behavioral manifestations are moderated more or less in practice by our environment, by cultural influences.
We experience morality as an absolute. Why? Because it functions best that way. We experience good and evil as real, objective things because they are most effective in promoting our survival if we experience them that way. In other words, we experience a subjective entity as an objective absolute because it works best that way. The resultant conundrums and apparent logical inconsistencies in our perception of good and evil have busied philosophers through the ages. In all likelihood, morality evolved long before our emergence as a species. However, while other animals have moral natures, and can distinguish between “good” and “bad” actions, they were fortunate enough not to be aware of these logical difficulties. We, with our greater mental capacity, have often run afoul of them.
The ancient Greeks were certainly aware of the difficulties. Plato explores the problem in his “Euthyphro.” The “hero,” Euthyphro, gives himself out as an “expert” on piety. Socrates embarrasses him in his usual style when he is unable to provide any logical basis for distinguishing good from evil.
In fact, morality is not really absolute, in that it is subjective, and has no independent existence outside of our own minds. If we did not exist, one rock would not be more or less good or evil than another. Unlike a rock, good and evil have no objective existence. They are constructs of our minds. How then, “ought” we to act?
As Voltaire pointed out, we all experience morality in the same way regardless of what ideological or religious dogmas we associate ourselves with. There is no difference between atheists and the most zealous Christians in this regard. Visit an atheist website, and you will see that professed atheists can experience righteous indignation and are quite as firmly convinced that they know the difference between good and evil as any true believer. Neither, as Socrates pointed out long ago, can provide any logical basis for this conviction. What “should” we do? To the extent that there is anything that we really “should” do, we should survive. There is nothing more immoral than failing to survive. Morality is a part of us because it works. It is, therefore, probably not a good idea to “overthink” the issue. We should not try to be too coy with Mother Nature. On the other hand, morality evolved long before the emergence of modern human societies. It may prompt us to do things which had survival value when we existed as small groups of hunter-gatherers, but would be disastrous in the context of modern civilization. See, for example, what I have written below on the different moral standards we apply to “in-groups” and “out-groups.” The outcome of nuclear war was not possible when morality evolved.
Perhaps, then, we should act as enlightened moral beings, seeking to do good and avoid evil as we perceive them, but keeping in mind the reason that morality exists to begin with. In other words, act morally, but not self-destructively.