Monday, March 19, 2018

Quandary ethics

Arminian theologian Roger Olson recently did a predictable post on "torture": 

1. Before getting to my main point, I'm going to comment on his arguments (such as they are):

Here, for purposes of this particular argument, I am not going to appeal specifically to Christian ethical norms; I will only say that if I were pastor of a person who engaged in torture of another human being (or even of an animal) I would confront him or her and ask him or her to stop, repent, and undergo a restoration process. Torture is so obviously contrary to Christian love that it cannot be justified under any circumstances. 

It's true that waterboarding is an unloving way to treat the terrorist, but that misses the point. The overriding duty is to protect innocent lives from harm. Waterboarding is unloving in reference to the terrorist, but loving in reference to the innocent. For instance, consider the Boston bombing, where runners were killed or maimed for life due to jihadis. 

However, in addition to Christian love, there are excellent, powerful secular reasons why torture is always, unconditionally wrong and even evil.

First, however, something else needs to be pointed out about this specific action (as described above). That the CIA had to use “secret prisons” set up in countries where, apparently, torture is not illegal, to “interrogate” American prisoners (by which I mean people taken into custody by Americans—wherever, whenever) demonstrates a lack of concern for U.S. law. It was a way around it; a circumventing of the clear social contract that we Americans have among ourselves and with our government.

I agree with Olson that different rules apply to American citizens. Citizenship confers certain due process rights and immunities. That's why we should deport Muslim foreign nationals and have a moratorium on Muslim immigration, since once Muslims are naturalized, they game the system. 

Second, and getting more to the point, torture (including “enhanced interrogation techniques” which is just a euphemism for torture) is always wrong because one can never know with absolute certainty that the person has the information in his or her head that the torturer wants. It is an extreme measure for attempting to gain needed, perhaps even necessary information, that assumes the person being tortured knows that information. It is simply impossible ever to know that with absolute certainty.

i) I agree with Olson that "enhanced interrogation" is a euphemism. I prefer the term "coercive interrogation". That's more accurate. 

Notice, though, that just as the Bush administration used a euphemism to defend its policy, critics use a dysphemism to attack its policy. The actual issue which gave rise to Olson's post is waterboarding. Have you observed that critics of waterboarding always change the subject? Instead of talking about waterboarding in particular, they invariably recast the issue in terms of "torture". Rather, that discuss waterboarding, they substitute a dysphemism. They characterize waterboarding  as "torture" because that has pejorative connotations, so it prejudges the issue. Euphemisms and dysphemisms have the same polemical function in that regard. 

ii) Apropos (i), a problem with (re-)classifying waterboarding as "torture" is that you're substituting a less accurate category for a more accurate category. Waterboarding is a specific technique. Why not discuss that, since that's what we're really talking about, rather than "torture"? The word "torture" evokes a wide range of methods and motivations, most of which are irrelevant to the use of waterboarding to compel information from high-value terrorists. Rather than clarifying the analysis, it deliberately obscures the analysis by interjecting and triggering many associations that are extraneous to the specific context under review. Ironically, it's unethical for critics of waterboarding to recast the issue in the name of morality. They're intentionally trying to discredit the opposing position through the fallacy of guilt by association. It's a smear. And if waterboarding is wrong, it should be possible to demonstrate that point on its own terms, without resorting to sophistry.  

iii) "Absolute certainty" isn't a sine qua non for coercive interrogation. The individuals were leaders of terrorist networks. Given their position in the organization, of course they'd have information about future plots as well as operatives. 

iv) Notice Olson's admission that this may be "necessary information". He's conceding that even though, or even if, this is necessary information to thwart a terrorist attack, it's morally forbidden to extract that information by waterboarding a terrorist. 

Third, torture is always wrong because it is simply barbaric, a crime against humanity. Almost all civilized countries of the world have known this for a very long time and have outlawed torture to protect and preserve themselves from falling into the same barbarity of the person(s) they want to interrogate.

Of course, that simply begs the question. And it deliberately ignores necessary moral distinctions regarding methods and motivations. Not all methods or motivations are morally equivalent. If say, a terrorist suffers from arachnophobia, and the interrogator exploits that to extract information about terrorist plots and terrorist sleeper cells, that's hardly equivalent to electric shock torture. Likewise, that's hardly equivalent to sadistic torture, torture to extract a criminal confession, or torture as a deterrent to keep citizens under the heel of a totalitarian state. 

Fourth, torture is always wrong because the person being tortured will always say whatever he or she thinks the torturers want to hear. In other words, there is no way to know if the person being tortured is giving the right needed information or whether he or she is simply succumbing to the pain of torture and offering up false information.

Of course there's a way to find out. You follow up on the lead. Does their answer check out? If it turns out to be a false lead, then the interrogation process resumes until the terrorist gives honest answers. 

Fifth, torture is always wrong because…it steps over a line into territory at the top (or part-way down) of a slippery slope that could very well justify much worse. Explanation: What if the person being tortured does not give the information being sought by the torturers—even under the worst torture? What if “time is of the essence” to avoid some catastrophe and the suspect is not forthcoming? Torturers could eventually (and I predict will eventually) give up torturing the individual and bring in his family—wife, children—and torture them in front of him.

You say “Well, that hasn’t happened.” I say “Once you step over that line into justifying torture as evil but necessary you make that justifiable. And I’m sure it has happened somewhere, at some time.

i) That only follows if the justification for coercive interrogation is purely utilitarian. However, there's no logical connection between subjecting a high-value terrorist to coercive interrogation and doing the same to innocent relatives or kids. The terrorist, by virtue of being a terrorist, has forfeited certain prima facie immunities which, by the same token, an innocent relative or child has not. 

ii) Likewise, I agree that there are certain universal norms regarding the treatment of human beings, however evil. A threshold below which we shouldn't go–regardless of the consequences. But waterboarding a terrorist doesn't qualify. That exploits the gag reflex. That exploits an involuntary reaction which people find unbearable. It's a pity we have to resort to that to force information out of a terrorist, but that's only if the terrorist is unwilling to volunteer the information. Sorry, but I have no sympathy for a terrorist. 

Finally, torturing people WE suspect of having needed information gives our enemies and everyone permission to use torture as well—even against our own citizens captured by them. It is simply duplicitous for us to say “We can use torture, but you cannot.” And the “you cannot” will be ignored.

That's so willfully obtuse on several grounds:

i) The bad guys don't wait for permission. They don't play by the rules. If we refrain from coercive interrogation, that doesn't mean they will reciprocate. Is Olson really that childishly naive?

ii) This isn't about "torture" in general, but using the least coercive techniques necessary to compel information from an unwilling terrorist. 

iii) And motivations are a morally salient considerations. There's a world of difference between coercive interrogation to save innocent lives and sadistic torture, deterrent torture, or judicial torture. 

2. But that's all preliminary to my main point. Olson's position is incoherent. For Olson takes the position that Christians, or human agents generally, are sometimes confronted with genuine moral dilemmas, where you can't do the right thing. Whatever you do will be morally wrong. For instance:

I respect pacifists, but I know I’m not one. How do I know that? Because I know I would use deadly force to protect my granddaughter or grandson from a would-be rapist or murderer. On the other hand, I also believe it would be a sin. And, yet on the other hand, again, I believe God understands our frailty and the condition of our world and the need to protect the helpless innocents. I do not think Christ expects his followers in this time between the times to eschew all violence; sometimes violence is a necessary evil and, when it is, God forgives.

i) That's just one example. He's said that sort of thing on multiple occasions. Suppose, for the sake of argument, we grant Olson's contention that coercive interrogation is unconditionally wrong. But by Olson's own admission, human agents generally, as well as Christians in particular, sometimes find themselves in situations where wrongdoing is unavoidable. There are no morally licit options. 

ii) BTW, it's not coincidental that Olson is a freewill theist. Freewill theism generates irreconcilable tension between deontology and moral dilemmas. In freewill theism, God lacks sufficient control over the necessary variables to ensure that human agents will always have a morally licit alternative available to them. 

Since by Olson's own admission, we sometimes find ourselves in a moral predicament where there is no sinless course of action, that applies mutatis mutandis to the ethics of "torture", like ticking timebomb scenarios. He subscribes to "quandary ethics". We sometimes have conflicting intrinsic duties. We can't do both. So he can't forbid "torture" under all circumstances any more than he can forbid lethal force under all circumstances. His ethical and theological conundrum applies with equal force to coercive interrogation. 

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