Friday, March 24, 2006

Tortured logic

According to Jim Lippard of the Secular Outpost:

“Not surprisingly considering the content of the Bible, a Pew poll shows that 57% of those who are "secular" think that torture is never or only rarely acceptable, while only 42% of Catholics and 49% of white Protestants and white evangelicals feel that way. (I'm not sure why the poll only looked at white Protestants and evangelicals.)

The survey question was "Do you think the use of torture against suspected terrorists in order to gain important information can often be justified, sometimes be justified, rarely be justified, or never be justified?" The poll was taken of 2,006 adults between October 12-24, 2005.

I score this one as a point against the thesis that religious people are more moral than non-religious people.”

This is yet another example of the anti-intellectual bubble which the average atheist inhabits.

Clearly Lippard is intellectually isolated, not in the sense that he has no conversation partners, but in the sense that all his friends are like-minded individuals. If he were accustomed to intellectual competition, he’d never churn out so many ill-informed or ill-reasoned posts.

i) Notice how he assumes, without benefit of argument, that “torture” is always wrong. That’s the nice part of being a secular rationalist. You don’t have to give reasons for your rationalism.

Attitude trumps aptitude, platitude trumps exactitude, while turpitude trumps rectitude.

ii) He also doesn’t bring any critical thinking skills to bear on whether we should frame the issue of interrogation in terms of torture. Surely there’s a continuum here, is there not? There are many degrees and kinds of coercion.

In addition, if we capture a high-level terrorist, and he doesn’t want to talk, should we do absolutely nothing to extract actionable information from him?

If that’s the position of secular humanism, then secular humanism is one of those useless ideologies like pacifism which is incapable of meeting the challenges of a real world situation.

iii) Then there’s his position that belief in use of “torture” under any circumstances makes you a worse person than someone who rejects the use of “torture” under any circumstances.

So by that yardstick, individual Christians who reject the use of torture are better people than individual humanists to espouse the use of torture under certain circumstances.

Is that really where Lippard wants to go with this argument?

iv) Then he misstates the “thesis” that believers are more ethical than unbelievers.

But that’s not the thesis. The thesis, rather, is that unbelievers have no reason to be ethical.

This isn’t a question of whether unbelievers are more or less ethical than believers, but why they should be ethical, given their worldview.

I’ve done a few posts on the subject of “torture” as a means of interrogation. Unlike Lippard, I actually analyze the question and separate out one issue from another.

Readers may disagree with my conclusions, but there is an argument on the table.


  1. Steve:

    Your post is a bit heavy on the ad hominem and you have drawn inferences about my position and circumstances that aren't based on what I actually wrote. If you read the comments on my original post at the Secular Outpost, you'll see that my own answer to the survey question is "rarely" rather than "never."

    So, to address your points in order, your claim in (i) that I assume without argument that torture is always wrong is mistaken. I neither said nor implied that--the most you can infer from what I wrote is that leaning in favor of widespread use of torture is less moral than opposition to most use of torture. For the record, I do think that torture is prima facie wrong, and as a public policy matter should be prohibited across the board. There are possible circumstances where the use of torture to obtain information may be the best possible course of action on utilitarian grounds, just as there are possible circumstances where murder or cannibalism may be the best possible course of action--but I don't think that calls for a revision of public policy to have anything other than an absolute prohibition on them. There is always the necessity defense in a court of law. I happen to think that the U.S. should abide by the 8th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the Geneva Conventions, and UN Convention Against Torture (UNCAT) which the U.S. Senate ratified in 1994. What do you think?

    In response to (ii), I agree that there are interrogation techniques that fall short of torture, which also have the added benefit of being more reliable--recipients of torture tend to say what they think their torturers want to hear. You say I don't bring my critical thinking skills to bear on a topic that I didn't even discuss.

    In response to (iii), again you've fabricated a position for me to disagree with (i.e., you've engaged in the straw man fallacy). My actual position is that those who fall on the end of the spectrum of endorsing widespread use of torture are less moral than those who fall on the end of the spectrum of opposing most or all uses of torture. Likewise for murder.

  2. To bring home a more specific example--Bush administration advisor John Yoo (who, along with Alberto Gonzales, was the primary architect of the Bush administration's position on torture) has said that the president has the authority to order that the child of a terrorist be tortured, by crushing his testicles, in order to get the terrorist to talk.

    Do you think that such an action could be moral? I don't, and I think it not only should be but is illegal as well (I strongly disagree with the "unitary executive" arguments for expansive presidential powers that seem to have completely lost sight of the fact that the judiciary and legislature are supposed to have equal weight to the executive branch).

    Also, you stated as a premise in your argument to the erroneous conclusion that I'm "intellectually isolated" in the sense of not having any non-like-minded friends that I have posted "many ill-informed or ill-reasoned posts." Which posts are you referring to, can you point out a few of the many, and possibly explain why you characterize them as such?

    Finally, why didn't you link to the post on the Secular Outpost you are responding to? That reduced the likelihood that I (or other Secular Outpost readers) would see your comment. Fortunately, Sean Choi pointed it out, encouraging some cross-blog and cross-worldview interaction, which I welcome.

  3. "Clearly Lippard is intellectually isolated, not in the sense that he has no conversation partners, but in the sense that all his friends are like-minded individuals. If he were accustomed to intellectual competition, he’d never churn out so many ill-informed or ill-reasoned posts."

    That's the most ironic thing I've read in weeks, coming from someone who barricades himself amongst not only "like-minded individuals" but whose worldview thrives on reducing individuals to sheep (in fact, that's the very word their mythical savior used to refer to them). Ad hominem, hasty generalization and association fallacies are the general order of Steve's posts. They make a very humorous display. Good job, Steve!

  4. Though I gave some criticism to Lippard's reasoning in his post, I dare say that the poor logic and outright dishonesty that you present here is worse.

    You state, "Notice how he assumes, without benefit of argument, that “torture” is always wrong."

    This is a lie.

    Lippard focuses on "never or only rarely acceptable". You claim that he says "never." Which means that you lie. Or, what means the same thing, you have decided to "bear false witness" against Lippard by claiming something about him that is not true.

    You then use this false claim as "never" to create a straw man with which to criticise Lippard's claims -- asserting that it implies that we do nothing to the terrorist who has useful information. The position that you are criticizing here exists only in your own mind, yet you attribute it to Lippard. Thus, you are expanding the realm of your own deception.

    Your third item is simply a repetition of your first item, as if repeating a lie will somehow make it true.

    Finally, there is the claim that "The thesis, rather, is that unbelievers have no reason to be ethical."

    This is absurd as saying that unbelievers have no reason not to stick our hand on a red-hot stove, or no reason to install smoke detectors, or no reason to establish and maintain competent emergency reponse teams in case of an emergency, or no reason to create a society where neighbors are less likely to kill, rape, assault, or rob us or those we care about (wives, children, friends, neighbors).

    It is an absurdly false claim that best fits in the mold of hate-mongering bigotry than moral argument.

    Alonzo Fyfe

    The Atheist Ethicist