My post on waterboarding elicited a predictable response. However, many of the objections were purely impressionistic. And that, too, was predictable.
It’s hard to respond when critics don’t give you an argument to respond to. And it’s not my job to make their argument for them.
However, I think it may be a useful exercise to try, if possible, to articulate their inarticulate reaction. For their basic problem seems to be an inadequate moral toolkit to evaluate the morality of a given position. Put another way, they appear to have only one tool in their toolbox.
From what I can tell, their objection goes something like this:
If we use the same methods as the enemy, then we’re as bad as the enemy.
Or, alternatively: we’re guilty of a double standard when we do the same thing.
Or, alternatively, unless we treat everyone the same way, we’re guilty of relativism.
Or, alternatively, would you like someone to do that to you?
If we try to turn this into an argument, I suppose it would go something like this:
We should treat everyone equally.
The common denominator is that critics like this judge all moral issues by a single criterion. Therefore, if you and I don’t judge every moral issue by a single criterion, they think you and I are being inconsistent. But, of course, we’re only being inconsistent with their simplistic approach to moral deliberation. It hardly follows that we are being inconsistent with our own principles.
And the problem when you get into a conversation with folks like this is that they can only keep one idea in their nogging at the time, since, for them, it’s all about applying a single rule in every single case.
For some reason, it doesn’t occur to them that there is more than one morally relevant consideration in evaluating the morality of a particular position or course of action. Let’s take a few examples:
Should we discriminate between blacks and whites? I suppose most folks would answer in the negative. We should treat blacks and whites equally.
But suppose a rape victim says that she was raped by a white man in his mid-twenties. As the police search for a suspect, who should they be looking for? Should they be looking for black men and Chinamen and Grandmothers and fourth-graders? Or should they look for a suspect who fits the description?
Shouldn’t they begin to narrow their search parameters to white male twenty-somethings?
What if someone screams: “racial profiling”? Well, yes, it is racial profiling. The police are looking for a white suspect. So what?
Let’s take another example. A woman is mugged at knifepoint. Does she have a right to buy a handgun to defend herself in case she’s accosted again?
But doesn’t that mean she’s stooping to the level of the mugger? He uses force, so she responds with even more force.
But why shouldn’t she respond in kind? Indeed, up the ante by arming herself with a superior weapon?
Let’s take another example. Suppose a hostile government is spying on US installations. Don’t we have a right to spy on them in return? Or is someone going to say that when we respond to espionage with counterespionage, we’re guilty of the same thing?
Let’s take another example. A hostile government has missiles pointed at the US mainland. Should we respond by pointing missiles at their direction as a deterrent? Or should we unilaterally disarm on the grounds that we mustn't fight fire with fire?
Likewise, if they attack, should we refrain from launching a counterstrike on the grounds of moral equivalence?
Reasonable people should be able to see from these counterexamples that there’s something fundamentally flawed with the idea of judging all actions by only one criterion.
At a minimum, the criterion needs to be qualified:
We should treat everyone equally all other things being equal. But if things are unequal, then we should sometimes be inequitable.
In this reformulation, you have to keep two ideas in your head at once.
I’m reminded of folks who think it’s clever to point out that American foreign policy used to support Saddam Hussein and the Mujahidin. Then they gleefully pounce on the inconsistency in our foreign policy.
But all this shows me is their incapacity for forming moral judgments. They seriously imagine that moral consistency means always doing the same thing regardless of the circumstances, so that if you ever threw your support behind someone, then you’re committing to backing him forever.
But what this overlooks is why you supported him in the first place. The basic principle of a military alliance is that you support those who support you and oppose those who oppose you. If supporters become opponents, or opponents become supporters, you change sides.
There’s nothing the least bit inconsistent about that. But that does require the ability to actually keep two ideas in mind instead of one. And if you can’t think about more than one thing at a time, it will seem inconsistent.
Ordinarily, a woman doesn’t have a right to shoot a man. But she does have a right to shoot a mugger or a rapist. She doesn’t treat all men the same way, because not all men are the same. Some men are relevantly dissimilar. A mugger or rapist is not morally equivalent to a loving father or a caring husband.
Let’s go back to the case of waterboarding. Should we either waterboard everyone or no one? But that’s simpleminded.
We wouldn’t waterboard a high-value terrorist who volunteers what he knows. And we wouldn’t waterboard just anyone we pull of the street. We’re after information, remember. A particular kind of information. It’s only applicable to a particular kind of informant.
You wouldn’t waterboard Fanny Crosby. She’s not a terrorist. She doesn’t know about impending plots to attack the United States and kill innocent civilians for no good reason.
If policemen use guns, and gangsters use guns, does that make the police the moral equivalent of the mob? No, because there’s more to ethical valuation than similar methods and techniques. What you intend to do and why does make a morally significant difference. Using a gun to murder someone, and using a gun to defend yourself against a murderer are not morally equivalent.
Both a surgeon and a carjacker use a knife, but heart surgery and carjacking are not morally equivalent.
Likewise, people can forfeit certain rights. Ordinarily, you don’t have a right to kill me. But if I attack you without provocation, with life-threatening force, then I forfeit my own claim on life.
This should all be so obvious that it ought to be unnecessary to spell it out. Why do some people ignore the obvious?
Because they don’t want to make a minimal intellectual effort. It’s so much easier to have one rule of thumb for anything and everything, anyone and everyone. You can mechanically apply your wooden rule regardless of motives or circumstances or consequences.
But there’s nothing moral about that. To the contrary, this represents the abdication of moral discrimination. Rubberstamping the answer to every ethical question with the same self-inking stamp is immoral and amoral.