Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Following through on the deontological intuitions regarding torture

First, the link of absolute agreement:

The view I am going to espouse may seem practically absurd, but it is the one I share being a deontologist over a utilitarian. Before proceeding, I give a brief definition of the two. A deontologist is anyone who feels there are inviolable principles of duties that must be adhered to independent of consequences. Deontological principles are good for their own sake. A utilitarian is anyone who thinks principles of duty should try to maximize the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

Put another way, for the deontologist there are inviolable principles of morality that are independently objective, and should be adhered on their own intrinsic merit. These principles indicate what it is as a nation we value, and one of them is the rule of law above the political and tactical expediency that the promise of torure brings. Let's put this into the often cited example of a ticking time-bomb scenario so favorable to many pragmatic conservatives.

Suppose there is a ticking time-bomb, a nuclear bomb to be more precise. The bomb will destroy a major metropolitan city in the contiguous United States unless it is found. US police authorities have every justifiable reason for thinking that they have in their custody a person involved in the bombing plot. Further, let us concede that from a meta-perspective he truly is a fully knowledgeable participant in the concealing of the nuclear bomb. So far, Mr. X has been resistant to all conventional interrogation methods, and the detonation is just hours away. Do the police authorities now with impending nuclear calamity have justification to torture Mr. X since all avenues of interrogation have failed?

The principles embedded in the rule of law are constraints on what we can and cannot due when it comes to treating prisoners, people subjected to the due process of law. If due process is suspended, then the values of our law do not apply, and our failure to be consistent with the very same principles we endorse for our greatness are betrayed to the expedient. This is not an option since no one can make for them an exception to the demand of morality behind these principles, and as such, in keeping with the fairness principles of the rule of law, I put forward something like:

(1) Principles consistent with a fair rule of law prohibit the torture of any detainee.

From there, we move to our particular case:

(2) Mr. X is a detainee

Therefore, (3) Mr X should not be tortured

The tension here is that there are rights versus the possibly good consequences torture would engender---the safety of thousands of innocent civilians. Rights are inviolable, and no matter of interpretation or matters of convenience can get us past them. They form the values of what we as a society truly value, and those values are worth dying for since so much is put behind how enlightened our principles are. Do rights trump utility? I think they do, so here is the basic absurdity of this view that many Americans may not agree with.

By not torturing Mr. X, the authorities rightly lay claim to what is most valuable, the principles of fairness within our rule of law. If people die in this scenario, it is because the government chose rightly not to torture Mr. X. If all legitimate and moral manners of treatment of Mr. X led to the detonation of the nuclear device, then the government did all it could that was morally right in trying to rectify the scenario, and the preventable blood on the government's hands is the price we all pay for adhering to a morally fair rule of law.

One likely objection here is that I have reached an absurd conclusion. Certainly, consequences matter more than deontological prohibitions on one's actions since the consequentialist qua utilitarian would get us out of this scenario by choosing to torture Mr. X. The loss of so many can hardly be the greatest good for the greatest number.

My response is more formal. I think that consequentialist positions that try to bring about their state of affairs cannot reliably demonstrate how consequences will play out. Consequences take on a life of their own in human action, but what is controllable on our part as moral agents is that we can at least control the intention behind our actions. The deontological focus of intentions is within our power to judge what is good. Thus, the story goes that we judge what principles to adhere to, and conform our actions to those principles that ring true for all time.

Moreover, there is a plight attached to the utilitarian. For the utilitarian, it matters not if you use others as pawns to maximize the good for the greatest number. One could sacrifice another in this scheme for the greater good of the many even if it meant torturing one to save a city. Clearly, a single act of torture is wrong on any count, and as a deontologist, I bite the bullet on that account. On this view, morality is not something to be shed lightly simply as a matter of convenience.

Due-process rights are a culmination of two centuries of case law. They did not spring up over night, and they are very easily forgotten as the current situation with the Bush Administration easily shows. I hope this post has shown that practices like waterboarding or any other form of torture are wrong, and how torture looks from the deontological moral point of view.

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