Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Writing a blank check

Unfortunately, but perhaps predictably, Steven Wedgeworth has done yet another confused post on "torture":

He consistently fails to frame the issue correctly. His latest post is basically worthless. 

What is his objective? What does he think he's trying to prove? Is his goal to show that "torture" is intrinsically evil? Is his goal to show that "torture" is wrong in principle?

If so, then attacking the arguments of Dick Cheney or John Yoo is beside the point. I shouldn't have to explain to Wedgeworth that if your objective is to disprove a position, you need to attack the strongest version of the position. Your foil needs to be the most astute representatives of that position. 

In fact, there are philosophers who, before attacking the opposing position, will even improve on the arguments of the opposing position. They will make the strongest case they can for the opposing position before they proceed to dismantle it. 

As I pointed out before, John Yoo was giving legal advice. That's not even relevant to the moral status of coercive interrogation. 

Cheney is a bright guy, but he's not a philosopher or ethicist. And, from what I can tell, he's a nominal Christian at best. 

Even if his case for coercive interrogation is ethically flawed, what does that prove? It does't begin to prove that coercive  interrogation is wrong in principle. If that is Wedgeworth's objective, he chose the wrong foil. 

Here's an example of a more sophisticated argument:

What is Wedgeworth's goal? Is it to assess the interrogation program of the Bush administration? Or is it to assess coercive interrogation as a matter of principle?

For instance, two people can support the same thing for different reasons. My reasons for supporting coercive interrogation can be entirely independent of Cheney's. 

The moral question which underlies everything is always answered by a sort of “two wrongs make a right” red herring. The evil of our enemies is all the justification we need.
Speaking for myself, I haven't used that argument. 
But the reality of using that sort of argument is that it creates a blank check for any and all actions taken in response to 9/11.
Except that that's exactly what Wedgeworth is doing, albeit unwittingly. There are two different ways of approaching this issue:
On the one hand, you can begin by formulating general criteria, or necessary and sufficient conditions, for licit and illicit interrogation techniques. You then use that to rule in or rule out specific methods.
On the other hand, you can begin with paradigm-cases of licit or illicit interrogation, then analogize to comparable candidates or methods. 
Wedgeworth doesn't do either. He vents. He emotes. 
He offers no constructive guidance to officials sworn to protect Americans from foreign terrorists. By his intellectual dereliction, he hands them a blank check.

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