Sunday, November 11, 2007

Lippard & Reppert on "torture"

steve said...

With all due respect, Victor, since you are a professional philosopher, and a very competent philosopher at that, don't you think you owe us well-reasoned argument against waterboarding rather than an emotional little tirade like Maureen Dowd could dash off? I mean, seriously.

Why don't you bring some of that philosophical rigor to your political views? Is that too much to ask?

It's as if you've compartmentalized your mental life so that when you're on the job, you're a rigorous thinker—but when you're talking politics, you don't feel the need to argue for your position or subject it to transparent rational scrutiny.

You can do better than that, Victor.

5:33 PM

steve said...

philip m said...

"Steve, as far as I can tell, Dr. Reppert has outlined as much as we need to grip his reasoning. It's unethical, period, to torture people. The only way you could stretch a portion of the torture circle onto the ethical cirlce (thus making a ven diagram) would be to argue for it (so torture starts as unethical, which seems fair enough, and exceptions to this must be argued)."

That's not an argument. He hasn't given us an argument. He's given us his opinion, minus a supporting argument. What you've just stated is pure assertion.

I'm not making a case for or against "torture" here. Rather, I'm making the elementary point that I'd like to see Reppert, as a professional philosopher, actually show us his process of reasoning by which he arrives at his conclusion. All we're getting at the moment is the bare conclusion—which begs the question at issue. Why should anyone agree with him?

9:31 AM

steve said...

Victor Reppert said...

"International law forbids torture."

Sorry, Vic, but this is just another example of where you fail to argue like the capable philosopher you are on other subjects.

You know as well as I that the legality or illegality of a practice is irrelevant to its morality. Would you defend racial discrimination in the 1940s because we had Jim Crow laws?

12:57 PM

steve said...

Also, do you seriously think that "reputation" is a philosophically serious argument for anything? Do you really need me to cite some embarrassing counterexamples?

I'd just like to see you bring to your political statements the same fine-honed intelligence you bring to your religious statements.

steve said...

Yet another problem with your argument, Victor, is that you are playing both sides of the utilitarian fence. On the one hand you say:

“The US has historically benefitted from its reputation as a country that doesn't torture anyone. German soldiers surrendered to Americans and not the Russians because they would be better treated. Germany was, of course, the country that perpetrated the Holocaust (compared to which 9/11 was a misdemeanor), and we didn't use torture to win WWII. Why in the world do we need to sully our reputation in the world by using it today?”

That’s a utilitarian argument for opposing “torture.” But then you turn around and say:
”’Treat humanity in yourself and in others as an end in themselves, and never merely as a means.’ Unless, of course, they're suspected of being Islamic terrorists. Then, you can do whatever you want to with them.”

But in that event you’re opposing utilitarian arguments—unless, of course, they come in handy when you object to “torture.” Then, you can use utilitarian arguments whenever you want to.

If you really think it’s permissible to deploy a utilitarian argument against torture, that it’s also permissible to deploy a utilitarian argument for torture.

You also said:

“To overcome the strong moral foundation on which the ban on torture stands requires an industrial-strength utilitarian argument, if it can be justified at all.”

Since when does a utilitarian justification require an “industrial-strength” argument?

Sorry, Victor, but you seem to oppose torture on purely emotional grounds, and now your flailing about for any argument to warrant your emotional revulsion, no matter how patently fallacious or contradictory the arguments you adduce. You really need to slow down, back up, and make a fresh start. If this is the best you can do, you should reexamine your original opposition.

6:21 AM

steve said...

Jim Lippard said...

The U.S. convicted Japanese of war crimes for engaging in waterboarding. U.S. courts awarded $766 million in damages against Ferdinand Marcos for engaging in waterboarding against Filipino citizens. U.S. courts have found law enforcement officials guilty of felonies for engaging in waterboarding. (See here.)__And the U.S. Navy SERE school uses waterboarding to train recruits on how to withstand torture techniques from authoritarian governments.

There's no doubt that it qualifies as torture.



There are two basic problems with your reply (actually, more than two, but I'll confine myself to the immediate points you raised):

1.You are offering a legal definition of torture. Even if you're correct, that's irrelevant to the moral status of torture. There are good laws and bad laws. There are even immoral laws.

Criminalizing something doesn't automatically make it wrong. If miscegenation is illegal, does that make it wrong?

2.Apropos (1), the problem with framing the "torture" debate in legal terms is that laws can be repealed or overturned. What's illegal today can be legalized tomorrow. So that's a very shaky foundation on which to lay your case.

6:22 AM

steve said...

Victor Reppert said...

"This issue is a morally clear to me as slavery. I can see a century from now atheists pointing out that good Christians actually approved this practice back in the beginning of the 21st Century."

That's not an argument, Victor. Supporters of coercive interrogation are equally clear in their moral intuitions.

steve said...

victor reppert said...

“Reputation has considerable utilitarian value, parting with it is expensive.”__i) Why do you always single out the reputation of the US on this question? We aren’t the only nation that uses hard knuckle tactics. MI5 does the same thing:, of course, the French use torture in Algeria. What about their reputation?

ii) Anyway, your appeal to national reputation is circular. If you equate all coercive interrogation with torture, and treat coercive interrogation as intrinsically evil, then, of course, that would stain our moral reputation.

But that’s in large part an effect which critics like you are helping to create or reinforce in the first place. If you and others were to vigorously challenge the glib assumptions you currently peddle, that might improve our standing in the world by arguing down the international critics.

“Our reputation in the Arab world is what is going to keep Muslims on the moderate side and not going off to Al-Qaeda camp.”

Victor, try to be serious. You think Arabs are offended by torture? That would be pretty hypocritical of them. The objection to extraordinary rendition is that we remand certain terrorists to Arab nations where torture is used with impunity. __“Some laws are unjust. But why suppose that this one is, since we seem to have successfully gone through _WWII without torturing anybody. Why do we need interrogation techniques against Islamic terror suspects that we didn't need against Nazi Germany?”

There are a couple of problems with that argument, Victor.

i) You seem to have forgotten how the allies won WWII. We nuked Japan, carpet-bombed Germany, and used flamethrowers in Iwo Jima. We were far more ruthless in WWII than we’ve been in the so-called war on terror:

So, Victor, is your alternative that we go back to the methods we successfully employed in WWII by, in this case, nuking Iran, carpet-bombing Syria, and turning our flamethrowers on Hezbollah?

i) In addition, there is evidence that the Allies resorted to torture in WWII. It’s just that those who did it covered their tracks by classifying their actions, so that it’s only long after they dead, and no longer in a position to keep it under wraps, that the truth is beginning to leak out:,,1745489,00.html

“Are you seriously comparing the Geneva Conventions to Jim Crow laws in Alabama? Are they unjust?”

Now you’re being demagogical. For someone who’s affecting the moral high ground in this debate, why do you constantly resort to sophistical arguments to bolster your case?

i) You know perfectly well the level at which I was making my comparison. You implicitly equated morality with legality. That was the level at which I answered you. I engaged you on your own terms.

ii) You’re also making very debatable assumptions about the scope and original intent of the Geneva Conventions. Have you ever attempted to read both sides of the argument? Otherwise, all we’re getting from you is an illustration of your self-reinforcing prejudice:

“As well as to national law. Romans 13 considerations can be overridden, but by what? The only thing I can think of that would justify it would be really strong evidence that these coercive techniques will save thousands of lives, and they are the only methods that will save those lives.”

i) Nothing could be more anachronistic, Victor. Do you think that 1C Roman officials didn’t use torture in their interrogations? How does Rom 13 rule out coercive interrogation?

ii) I’d add that you skew the debate by your constant use of the prejudicial word “torture.”

“I'm sure people in the antebellum South had clear moral intuitions supporting slavery.”

That’s an argument from analogy minus the argument.

“I'm not just appealing to intuition, though. I'm saying that a violarion of the international law requires very strong justification.”

Why? That’s not a moral argument. And it’s not a philosophical argument, either.

“Otherwise, WTC's argument stands: err on the side of ethics.”

That begs the question of which side the issue falls on. Without exception, you use one lame argument after another. When are you going to dust off your philosopher’s cap and offer something resembling a sound argument for your position? Why is that too much to ask?

“Using waterboarding as a means is morally horrible.”

That’s an assertion, not an argument. Where’s the argument?

“It seems to me that either no end could possibly justify it, or very strong evidence that it will do vastly more good than harm might justify it.”

It “seems to you” is not an argument, Victor. Where’s the argument? __“No one has told me why we need waterboarding now when we didn't need it in fighting the Nazis. Al-Qaeda is really evil and the Nazis and Japanese weren't?”

Asked and answered.

5:03 PM

steve said...

jim lippard said...

“Steve: Is it your position that morality requires *less* of us than the law does?”

The question is nonsensical since morality and legality are logically separable and sometimes opposed to each other. So it isn’t a question of more or less. The question, rather, is whether a given law is moral or immoral.

“I grant your point that there can be immoral laws, but I don't agree that the laws prohibiting torture are among them. If you seriously think those laws should be repealed.”

As I’ve argued on more than one occasion, I wouldn’t frame the issue in terms of “torture” in the first place.

“Where should we stop? Should hacking off limbs of presidentially-declared ‘unlawful enemy combatants’ in order to make them talk be acceptable?”

Two problems:

i) Drawing lines is a two-way street. If one side of the debate is obliged to draw a line in the sand, so is the other side.

Are you taking the position that a terrorist has an inalienable right to withhold information of say, a plot to dynamite Grand Coulee Dam, or firebomb the Astrodome during the Superbowl?

If so, I’d also be curious to know how a secularist like you could arrive at such an absolutist view of human rights. How did a colony of bacteria—to use one of Richard Dawkins’ definitions of a human being—become so utterly sacrosanct?

ii) The “where should we stop” objection is rather silly, don’t you think? Should a surgeon never operate on a cancer patient on the grounds that he never knows if he’s cut away enough tissue to get all the cancer and prevent a recurrence? Likewise, should an oncologist never irradiate a cancer patient on the grounds that he never knows if he’s irradiated enough tissue to get all the cancer and prevent a recurrence?

“Should we repeal the 8th Amendment, or the entire Bill of Rights? Habeas corpus? Human rights in general?”

You seem to be assuming that the Framers of the Constitution and the states that ratified that document intended the Bill of Rights to protect a terrorist from the American people rather than protecting the American people from a terrorist. I’m waiting to hear your historical argument. Speaking for myself, I think that laws should exist to protect the innocent from the guilty, and not the guilty from the innocent.


  1. I'm surprised Victor appealed to Kant here. As Rachels says of Kant: "When we decide what to do, we in effect proclaim our wish that our conduct be made into a 'universal law.' Therefore, when a rational being decides to treat people in a certain way, he decrees that in his judgment this is the way people are to be treated. Thus if we treat him the same in return, we are doing nothing more than treating him as he has decided people are to be treated." (Rachels, Elements of Moral Philosophy, p. 139)

    A case could be made on Kantian grounds that since terrorists ahve tortured our citizens for a long while now, in order to get us to do certain things, we can treat them as they wish to be treated, per the categorical imperative, and toture them in order to get them to do certain things we'd like them to do.

    This would escape Reppert's "people are not means-to-end" argument. In fact, one could argue that if someone treats someone as a means to an end they are declaring that is how they wish to be treated, and so we are treating them how they wish.

  2. "You seem to be assuming that the Framers of the Constitution and the states that ratified that document intended the Bill of Rights to protect a terrorist from the American people rather than protecting the American people from a terrorist."

    Actually it was done to protect the people from the government.

  3. Lippard and Reppert both have 7 letter last names. The 3rd & 4th characters are both 'p'. This is why they believe as they do.

  4. If you're going to pull my comments from another blog, it would be nice if you would leave the links intact, or at least provide a link to the original source (where I've provided at least one further comment not quoted here).

    Permitting these "enhanced interrogation techniques" on declared unlawful enemy combatants means that they will be used against *suspected* terrorists. In practice, that appears to mean a less than fifty percent chance of being an actual terrorist, and a vanishingly small chance of being someone guilty of a crime for which a conviction can be obtained (just looking at Guantanamo Bay detainees ' record to date).

    Perhaps you are comfortable having a government that gives power to its chief executive to unilaterally declare individuals to be unlawful enemy combatants to be held without trial or judicial oversight and subjected to these techniques. I don't.

    Regarding your Dawkins question, I believe in basic human rights, though I'm uncertain as to the best metaethical justification or explanation, but I think there are multiple good options available. Just pretend I'm an advocate of the ideal observer theory; at the level of the current argument it doesn't really matter unless we identify conflicting reasons which differ in their available metaethical support.

  5. Paul:

    1. As I asked at Vic's blog, doesn't treating the person in that way also show that *you've* decided that's how people are to be treated and the same argument applies to you?

    2. You're classifying the person as a part of a group rather than based on their own actions--and further, as part of a group that they may not actually be a part of. That's a huge mistake, especially in light of the fact that there's no evidence that most of the people held in Guantanamo Bay as suspected terrorists are terrorists at all, which is why many have been released without being prosecuted after being held for years. That's part of the problem of paying out cash bounties for the collection of terrorists to groups like the Northern Alliance.

    If you endorse these techniques, you've got to realize that their use means that they will sometimes be used on people who are wrongly suspected of terrorism.

  6. For the same reason, I think we should abolish all prisons. There are innocent people in prison today, and if you think we should keep prisons then you must think they can put you in prison too (it applies to you too, see?).

    Keeping kidnappers in prison only brings us down to their level.

    We ought to take the moral high ground. Release everyone. Better for the guilty to go free than the innocent to suffer wrongly.

    Equivalency(R). It's more than just a pansy way of ethics. It's your ticket to a brighter future!

  7. Peter:

    Those in prison have received a trial, been allowed to defend themselves to the best of their abilities, and found guilty by a jury of their peers. The conditions of their imprisonment are restricted to fall within the bounds of the 8th Amendment.

    Those being subjected to waterboarding have not been put on trial or even charged with any crimes, have not been allowed to defend themselves, and have not been subjected to any kind of judicial oversight, and the 8th Amendment is ignored as irrelevant.

    Your purported counterexample isn't one.

  8. Jim,

    1) Not according to the Rachel's quote. All it shows is that you've decided to treat people how they want to be treated. But, I'm not a Kantian. All I was doing was using Kant against Victor. He appealed to Kant as if that necessarily got around the torture question. For a fuller discussion on Kantian penology, you can read the entire section in Rachel's Elements of Moral Philosophy.

    2) Again, I'm not doing anything.

    But, I don't think we need absolute certainty when it comes to charging someone or viewing them as a criminal. Do you? I'd assume there's a modicum of intelligent thought put into who to treat as a terrorist or someone with important information.

    I'd also say that I'd assume that you'd deny waterboarding be done to people we *know with certainty* are terrorists. So, I find your comment a red herring.

  9. I'd add that on your assumption, Kant couldn't maked sense of any punishment whatever.

    If we can "put people in jail for holding people against their will" we're not saying that we want to be held agaisnt our will even though we hold them against their will.

    But, if you think Kant can't escape, and so his position is crippled, fine by me. One secular ethic down, 99 to go. I win either way. :-)

  10. Counter example?

    I wasn't giving a counter anything.

    Apparently Jim is not as liberally enlightened as I assumed. The poor man believes that if someone is convicted via a trial he must be guilty.

    But innocent people are convicted too.

    Jim would dare to use the same system that has been in error in the past as if there were no problems now???

  11. To piggyback on Peter's statement, judicial activists don't care about innocence and guilt. They only care about the rights of the accused. For them it's not about getting your due, but due process. They think it's a fair trial when a defendant, whose guilt was never in doubt, gets off on a legal technicality. Technicalities invented by judges.

    For them, a fair trial is not about convicting the guilty and acquitting the innocent. For them, the process, rather than the end-product, is all.