Tuesday, December 13, 2005

torturous logic

There's a fine line between busy and lazy; if you're charitable you believe me when I say I've been too tired to post from work stress and/or I've been really thinking hard about the subject of this post ... or if you're a realist you'll believe I've spent the last few weeks playing Battlefield 1942 and GTO: Vice City or watching the dvd boxsets of Criminal Intent, X-files season 3, and The Frighteners. Or all of the above may be true.

Anyway, I thought that I would take a moment from my normal programming to answer a question from Apathy Jack (from the comments):
"Thou shalt not torture"

To analogise this to popular culture, as is the style here:

Did you see that episode of Lost where Sayer was holding out on asthma medication that would save Shannon's life. Jack and Sayeed (indesputably the two alpha-heroes of the show) torture him for the location of the medicine.

On the one hand, it was acknowledged that what they did was wrong, but on the other hand, as they saw it, they didn't have a choice.

Is there ever a morally clear reason?

Good question. I'm of the school of philosophy (a school of philosophy, which, incidentally is newly part of my very own New Zealand Institute of Negotiable Affection, inquire within if you would like to be made the Dean of School) ... the school of philosophy that says that just about anything, no matter how repugnant, will be justifiable in some time or place. You name it, murder, theft, beastiality ... even (shudder) folk-dancing. Call me crazy. Or I can call you betty, but betty, when you call me, you can call me Al.

At root this is one of those Kantian vs Utilitarian moral arguments (grossly simplied. but you're on the internet and I'm not going to hold your hand). On one hand the importance is placed on means (Kant); on the other the ends (Utilitarianism). You may view torture as always and everywhere wrong, an unpardonable sin; or you may view torture as something that can be used where the benefit outweighs the cost. If you want a good practical discussion of the two different moral viewpoints then check out this argument about the morality of dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (this is another snopes discussion): Japan offered surrender in WW2? (it takes a little while to get going, but it's worth the time spent).

But I'm getting way ahead of myself - it's probably best to start at the beginning and roll out a definition of torture. Plucked from dictionary.com:


1. a. Infliction of severe physical pain as a means of punishment or coercion.
b. An instrument or a method for inflicting such pain.
2. Excruciating physical or mental pain; agony: the torture of waiting in suspense.
3. Something causing severe pain or anguish.

For today's discussion I'm only really interested in severe physical pain as a means of coercion. I'm guessing that most people are opposed to torture as a means of punishment, but even if you aren't that is an argument for another day. And I'm going to talk about torture in a semi-utilitarian way (if there are any torture-is-always-and-everywhere-wrong absolutists I'd like to hear from you).

So what I would like to talk about here is torture as a tool. That is, you wish for person X to perform an action or provide information. If person X refuses to do what you want then you will inflict severe physical pain until such time as you get what you want.

At the moment the debate about the use of torture is concentrated on its role in "The War on Terror", which so far has followed in the footsteps of its very successful older brother "The War on Drugs" (trust me: this would be a lot funnier if I had been snorting cocaine through hundred dollar bills when I wrote that, but whaddayaknow I'm clean out of hundred dollar bills. btw, speaking on TWOT, Jack made a funny here). The venerable United States of America uses torture to extract information and/or confessions from those it suspects of terrorism - btw I'm not going to pussyfoot around with semantics of whether the US actually perfoms the torture - asking someone else to do it for you just proves nothing more than that you are an arsehole and a lawyer.

The first argument against using torture is that you it has a reputation for being unreliable (No Right Turn has a good example of this). That is, you run a large risk that your torture victim will tell you what they think you want to hear in an effort to stop the torture; as Wikipedia puts it:

One well documented effect of torture is that with rare exceptions people will say or do anything to escape the situation, including untrue "confessions" and implication of others without genuine knowledge, who may well then be tortured in turn.
(FYI, the rest of the Wikipedia article is quite interesting too. If only I had time to visit the link entitled "Torture and the Ayn Rand Institute" - the mind boggles). Of course, if you are an efficient torturer you will not just relying on torture for information, you will be cross-referencing from other intelligence sources; which might lead you to believe that either you have to torture a lot of people to get a critical mass of data, or you can only indulge in torture in a data-rich environment. Complicating matters is the possibility of torturer bias: that, like we've found with over-zealous interviewers of potential child abuse victims, you run the very real risk of distorting your intelligence based on the prejudices of the people using your "tool".

The problem with trying to assess these factors, of course, is that torture is a fairly secretive business. We tend to hear from the victims rather than the perpetrators; therefore it seems to be rather difficult quantify the success or otherwise of the intelligence gathered. How many lives have been saved by the application of torture? Since the US and allies have such a difficult time admitting that they use torture, how can we assess the positive effect claimed for it?

It's now 11pm on a school night, so this is going to turn into another multi-part discussion ...

Book you should read even though it will probably confirm your worst prejudices about religion:
Under the Banner of Heaven : A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer. Or my preferred title: When Strange Religions Go Really, Really Fucking Bad.

"In Under the Banner of Heaven, Jon Krakauer tells the story of the killers and their crime but also explores the shadowy world of Mormon fundamentalism from which the two emerged ... In an age where Westerners have trouble comprehending what drives Islamic fundamentalists to kill, Jon Krakauer advises us to look within America's own borders." --John Moe

You always wanted to know, but were afraid to ask:
Did General Motors destroy the LA mass transit system?

7 comments:

Josh said...

Yes, whenever you ask someone to come up with a situation that could justify torture, it's always the ticking bomb one -- lives will be lost if we don't get this information out of this horrible, horrible person right damn now. TV shows manage to contrive such situations, e.g. "Lost" and most notably "24", which, being one season-long ticking clock, seems to consist entirely of Jack Bauer shooting people in the thigh to make them talk.

Thing is, do these situations occur in real life? Like, ever?

span said...

do bombs still tick in the digital age?

Herr Dummkopf von Kranken-Brainen said...

More to the point, what kind of self-respecting fanatical, baby-killing, suicide bombing terrorist is going to 'fess up after just being shot in the thigh?? Bunch of goddamn pansies if you ask me. Doesn't anyone read Satre anymore?

But anyway, Jack's question (um, Apathy Jack, not Jack Bauer) was is there ever a morally clear reason for torture, which I'm interpreting to mean is torture ever not "bad". As tends to happen whenever I didn't finish my train of thought (it was around the time I asked everyone to call me 'Al'). I should have said that my personal opinion currently is that torture always comes under the moral category of 'bad'; but since I think that moral problems can be ranked depending on the circumstance, I think it can be perfectly feasible that you could be faced with a situation where torture was the only tool available to prevent something a whole lot worse on the moral scale. Whether or not my current opinion is actually defensible is something we'll just have to see ...

To answer your question, do these situations ever crop up in reality? Christ, who knows. But I think it is perfectly reasonable to discuss the something that seems entirely possible if extremely unlikely. Otherwise, what the hell would philosophers do for jobs?

Josh said...

Well, I went into work at a software company.

At any rate, to tease the hypothetical torture-justifying scenario out more, it seems we need to be sure of at least four things:

1. The information being obtained is necessary for some greater good (usually to save lives).

2. The Bad Guy has the information.

3. Torture will definitely get the information out of the Bad Guy.

4. All other methods won't (or might not, or won't within the imposed time limit).

I don't see that you can ever be certain of 3 and 4, so I don't reckon the circumstances exist that could ever fully justify torture. (And that's before you factor in things like the dehuamnising effect of the torturer and the unreliability of information obtained form torture that you mention in the main post.)

Apathy Jack said...

"[L]ives will be lost if we don't get this information out of this horrible, horrible person right damn now... Thing is, do these situations occur in real life? Like, ever?"

Yeah, all the time, apparently:

US Soldier: "If you don't give us the names of your terrorist compatriots RIGHT NOW Saddam Hussein will kill a blond orphan puppie!!!"

Second Generation American of Iranian Decent Who Is In Guantanamo: "But, Saddam Hussein is in custody. And he never had any links with Osama bin-Laden in the first place..."

BANG

Second Generation American of Iranian Decent Who Is In Guantanamo: "Argh, my thigh!"

Herr Dummkopf von Kranken-Brainen said...

hmm, I think you need to work on your characterisation:

US Soldier: "If you don't give us the names of your terrorist compatriots YOU WILL MAKE THE BABY JESUS CRY!!"

Rich said...

Do you not think that analysing the real world in the light of fictional television series is a bit wrongheaded?

The situations you describe almost never happen - have you ever heard of a court trial where the accused wilfuly withheld information that could save someone's life? I have never seen one reported.