Monday, April 27, 2009

Why I don't buy the "ticking bomb" scenario

Behind the political debate over the actual torture memos and instances is the generic question of situational ethics versus absolute moral codes. I come down on the side of absolute moral codes because I do not believe in the unique situation.

Some things must be unthinkable; once the unthinkable becomes merely the unusual, then it becomes an ever more attractive option. It becomes the destruction of all morals by the salami method- slice by slice. You don't think so? Let us stipulate, for the sake of argument, that torture would be effective and the information gathered thereby accurate, even though history questions this. Now let's examine the classic ticking bomb scenario- NY is about to be bombed, and you have one of the terrorist gang in your custody- do you torture him for the location of the bomb?

If you said yes, let me reset the scenario for you. Suppose that your captive is not a member of the cell that is actually doing the bombing, but is a member of the organization, and knows the names and contact information of the perpetrators- do you torture him? Logically, if you said "yes" before, you should agree here, too- if not, can you give any logical reason why not?

If you said yes, then answer me this: suppose your captive was not himself a terrorist, but knows who the terrorists are and how to find them- a brother perhaps, whatever? After all, both Christian and Islamic moral codes- as well as all other religions I'm aware of- teach that if you know of a criminal plot and do nothing, you are guilty of the same crime- "One who eats meat cannot sneer at the butcher". In many countries, he would be legally guilty as well- accessory before the fact. Do you torture him? If you said yes to both of the above, I don't see how you can say no now- the principle is the same.

Now let us suppose the captive is a real hard case- you've waterboarded him a hundred times, and he hasn't talked. Time is running out, and 14 million lives are at stake. Do you move on to more traditional means, hot coals and nutcrackers? Is he more important than 14 million Americans? Isn't the principle the same as it was before? Before you answer, let me offer you an alternative- would you waterboard his child in front of him to break him? After all, everyone keeps telling me that waterboarding leaves no lasting physical effects, the kid is in no physical danger. What do you do- give up, put him on the rack, or waterboard his child?

Now suppose your chain of information was wrong at any point- congratulations Mr. macho Jack Bauer, you've just tortured the innocent child of an innocent man.

There are other slippery slopes than the one above, once you have established the principle of "greater good". Suppose it weren't 14 million New Yorkers. Suppose it was a real life version of the movie "Black Sunday", an attack on the Super Bowl. Would you torture him to save 100,000 people? Suppose it were an office building- do you torture for 1,000 people? Suppose it were a nightclub- do 200 victims justify torture? Knowing that we will torture when necessary, how many police will feel justified "merely slapping some guy around a little bit" when he feels it's necessary? After all, it's not like it's "real torture". Or maybe using his Taser to torture instead of to subdue, because "it leaves no lasting effects"? I mean, I wouldn't ordinarily do it, but this case is so important...

At this point, whenever I'm arguing "situational ethics" with someone, I'm always asked, "What if it were your wife at stake?" I am going to answer, but before I do, let me point out that this question is not a valid question for the discussion, because societal ethics and personal ethics are entirely different things. for example, it's moral for a society to tax its members, but it's not moral for me to shove a gun in my neighbor's face and demand money. My answer: I don't know for sure; nobody knows how they would behave in an emergency unless they've experienced it. But I do know this: if I succumbed to temptation and tortured the perp, I would NOT claim that I had done the right thing. PG had it exactly right in her comments on The Chaliceblog" ; I would expect to be arrested and prosecuted for it, and I would plead guilty. I would be guilty, both of the law and of my personal understanding of right and wrong. It has been said that we will have justice when those who were not injured feel as outraged as those who were; I would add that we can get there if those who are injured can retain their morals and ethics.


Bill Baar said...

It's not situational vs absolute eithics.

It's the choice between two immoral acts: tortue, and letting people die when there was a reasonable probability torture would yield inft that would save those lives.

The morality is absolute and the decision maker will be immoral either way.

So what does one do when forced to do two evil acts?

Some have said the administration were sadist. That the case the wrong is clear.

Some have said torture always ineffective. Will, what if your told torture has a good probability of working.

Some try to look at the range of coercieve techniques and draw a line between waterboarding v crushing a fellows fingers, putting them to the rack, etc. That's a question of degrees.

Bottom line is if your a leader bound to be immoral with either decision... what do you do when you have no moral option? What do you do when your told by those who know, there's a very good likely hood we'll getting meaningful information from this guy if we waterboard him. Information that will tell us future plots agains the Nation you're sworn to defend.

I think ever American President without hesitation would waterboard plus a good deal more if he/she believes it would work.

The would follow an absolute of committing the lessor of two evils.

PG said...

Just wanted to say that I love the image you have from Monte Carlo. There are two similar sculptures in the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle in NYC.

UUbuntu said...

Thank you, Joel for a good post, both from a personal and a political perspective. With regard to torture ethics, I think we'll find ourselves in complete agreement, right down to the self doubt about our anticipated responses to personal atrocities.

Joel Monka said...

Bill, I disagree for a number of reasons. First, that there are two absolutes- there is no absolute that no Americans must be allowed to die. If that were true, Bush would have nuked Afghanistan- one might even make the case that in the long run, it would even save Afghan lives... but he ordered American soldiers to (for some of them) certain death to maintain a principle. US Presidents have many times permitted Americans to die to preserve law or principle- we never used poison gas in WW II, for example, even though it would have saved tens of thousands of American lives with little or no possibility of retaliation. Presidents frequently must decide to allow Americans to die for a principle.

Those are both tough choices, but they are not equally moral choices.

PG- yes, they are both Botero, but I've never seen the ones in NYC. Hmm... what does it say about me that I've been to Monte Carlo, but not New York City?

UUBuntu- thanks for the kind words

Bill Baar said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bill Baar said...

...there is no absolute that no Americans must be allowed to die. There is when you've sworn to protect the United States agains all foes foreign and domestic.

Presidents frequently must decide to allow Americans to die for a principle. Presidents order Americans to certain death to die for principles plus women and children too (my points on Hamburg, Dresden, Hiroshima)

My point is Presidents make choices between immoral options. They have to pick when there is no moral option available.

They need criteria to pick the least evil choice among what they have...

That's not situational in the sense what's right in one situation, is wong in another situation.

The wrongs are all absolutely wrong. You just don't have any choices but the immoral ones.

In time Historians will look back on the Bush adminstration and find the responses to 911 measured and humane.

The chapters on torture will find an administration trying to sort out what they can do to obtain information to protect our security vs the rights and treatment we afford people who fight us outside the bounds of law.

Their only failure will have been to write this down in legal opinions. Thought out...'s a mistake Chicago Democrats never make. Witness the current Jon Burge trial and how 20 years of torture far brutal than that metted out KSM is going with nary a word from Rahm, David A, or Barack... all lads weaned by the machine.

Joel Monka said...

Bill- "...there is no absolute that no Americans must be allowed to die. There is when you've sworn to protect the United States agains all foes foreign and domestic."

You're thinking of lesser offices. The oath of the President, from article one, section two, clause eight: "Before he enter on the Execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath or Affirmation:
"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

and his duties, section two: "He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient;
he may, on extraordinary Occasions, convene both Houses, or either of them, and in Case of Disagreement between them, with Respect to the Time of Adjournment, he may adjourn them to such Time as he shall think proper;
he shall receive Ambassadors and other public Ministers;
he shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed, and
shall Commission all the Officers of the United States."

I don't see anything in there about "He shall violate the laws of God and Man, and treaties lawfully signed if necessary to gather information about our enemies." It's quite clear that his office is all about preserving the law.

I'm not of those who claim he broke the law- he had a legal opinion that waterboarding is not torture. I disagree with that opinion, and believe that the courts will as well, but his use of it falls within the law as it stood then. *MY* point is that no, not every President will do whatever he feels necessary based on situational ethics- and if he or she does, then he is morally and legally wrong in doing so. The decision IS between doing the right thing, and doing the thing that erodes civilization itself. A jury may well let him off, or say "guilty; sentence, $1.00 fine"-but that's for the jury to decide, not him.