Philosophers on Torture

Philosophers on Torture


The Report on the C.I.A.’s Use of Torture from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence was released several days ago. As we have occasionally done in the past for other events, I would like to open a spot here at Daily Nous for comment on the report, for collecting links to commentary elsewhere from philosophers on this report, for suggestions of philosophical or philosophically-related work on torture that are particularly worth looking at, and for a general discussion.

To start, Robert Paul Wolff has commented at his blog. Below are five lessons he draws from the report:

  1. contrary to oft-repeated statements by public commentators who claim to be shocked and appalled by the revelations, this is in fact who we are as a nation.it is who we have been since the nation was founded on the labor of enslaved africans.  vastly larger numbers of americans than non-americans have been tortured in the past four hundred years by and with the complete legal approval first of the separate colonies and then of the states and the federal government. 
  2. the actions of the united states government were in violation of u.s. law and treaties signed by the united states government.everyone involved is patently guilty of major crimes. 
  3. no one will be indicted, tried, convicted, or punished for those crimes.
  4. by its refusal to hold anyone legally accountable for the torture, or even to fire people still in government employ who were involved in the torture, president obama and the obama administration make themselves complicit in the actions of their predecessors.
  5. no one will pay any political price for having participated in the torture, or for having failed to prosecute those who did.

 (art: detail from “Devil’s Rope” by Andrew Effendy)

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Merilyn Jackson
6 years ago

We hold these truths to be self-evident.Report

Anon
Anon
6 years ago

As I’ve watched members of CIA and our government refuse to take any responsibility for overseeing, enacting, supporting, quietly tolerating, or refusing to see these crimes, I cannot help but think that philosophers should seriously consider our own limited but real degree of culpability.

There is a substantial body of recent and not so recent philosophical literature that helps keep alive the sham debate about the moral rightness and effectiveness of torture by playing along with the ticking time bomb scenario, the go-to pseudo-argument that every television producer, radio/tv host, and politician relies on. It is high time we recognize that this is one case where we must reject ideal political theory as too dangerous in its its theoretical detachment from actuality.

We must stop using the ticking time bomb scenario; refuse to participate in debates with philosophers who do; and admit that when we participate in the *ideal* torture debate, we incur moral responsibility for the continued culturally and politically perceived legitimacy of the *real* torture debate.

We should no longer be the torturers’ intellectual collaborators and we must our disapproval to our philosophical colleagues who continue to be. No one in our government will draw a line, but we can. It’s time to convict the Cheneys among us.Report

Edsel
Edsel
Reply to  Anon
6 years ago

The ticking time bomb scenario could only occur in T.V./movies. In movies or T.V., terrorist press ahead with their original plan despite the set back of the good guys capturing one of their own. This is meant to show the viewer how frighteningly determined the bad guys are and allows the hero to learn their plan from the captured bad guy in order to swoop in at the end and save the day. It is purely a literary device that drives the plot of fictional action movies. Real terrorists do not behave in the way the scenario presupposes. Either the mission that resulted in the capture of the hypothetical detainee was disruptive enough to his organization to eliminate the urgency presupposed by the thought experiment or nothing he could know will prevent it.Report

Anony2
Anony2
6 years ago

I agree with Anon 7:14, and could not agree more. (There can be degrees of agreement just like there can be degrees of belief, right?) The ticking time bomb scenario argument is a joke. I have never heard any philosophically worthy arguments justifying torture and whenever I have seen people attempt them my clear impression is that they are making conceptual space to make it seem that there is some viable position here. There is not, and there never was. The only exception for when it is reasonable to talk about is where someone might be introducing act utilitarianism to students in a classroom, and showing what the reasoning of the act utilitarian is like But as a considered philosophical position, it is a sham to say there is any rational support for torture, much less as a considered policy position. Yes, philosophers have been complicit in this, since we did not speak up and we allowed it to seem like a plausible or at least debatable position. We are as complicit as those psychologists and MDs who participated or who supported those who participated. If philosophers contributed to this by allowing it to happen when we could have resisted, how can we expect other segments of society to do much better.Report

Matthew Kramer
6 years ago

My own book “Torture and Moral Integrity” was published earlier this year by Oxford University Press. Another 2014 book on torture that I recommend is David Luban’s “Torture, Power, and Law” (Cambridge University Press).Report

Ronnie Hawkins
Ronnie Hawkins
6 years ago

Excellent that the Daily Nous has started a blog for philosophers to address torture. But I went to RPW’s own blog, to see how he justified claims 3 and 5. Apparently these are just assertions.

Why do we accept this kind of social determinism? Don’t philosophers have a role to play in demanding prosecution and punishment for these crimes?

It is quite true that, for those of us who identify as “Americans,” this who we have become, or what “our group” has been allowed to become, and what it will continue to be until we start setting things right. It may seem daunting to challenge the prevailing culture to this extent, but massive culture change will be required for our human species to deal appropriately with the coming decades no matter what. To put the brakes on climate change, we’re going to have to change our economic systems, level off population growth, and get over the group-on-group competition/conflict that underlies militarism. The US starting to acknowledge and clean up its act regarding the last 13 years could serve as a catalyst for this needed change.Report

Ben
Ben
6 years ago

Anon+Anony2: I admit that I am not really familiar with philosophical debates about torture, but all I’m seeing here is “torture is obviously wrong, and arguments for torture should be ignored.” How is this supposed to be convincing? The ticking time bomb simply establishes that an act of torture might, in principle, be justified on consequentialist grounds. For the argument to justify an actual act or policy of torture, we would have to establish that that particular act or policy is justified by consequentialist considerations – considerations that are, by definition, not ‘theoretically detached from actuality.’ So I do not see the force of this ‘ideal-actual gap’ argument. Or perhaps you are suggesting that consequentialism itself is just obviously wrong. I disagree; in fact, I think one of the most important arguments against torture is that it generally does not produce good intelligence – an argument that necessarily admits the moral significance of torture’s consequences.Report

Anon
Anon
6 years ago

Absolutely no claim about the wrongness of torture or the possibility of justified cases was made. The point is that *even* if there are remotely but logically possible justified cases, the only *practical* consequence of arguing that this is so is to encourage their misidentification.

It’s never going to happen–never–that someone in an actual position to permit or commit torture will say: “Hey, having thought about the ticking time bomb scenario, I’ve decided this isn’t one.” Entertaining possible justified cases will only ever increase unjustified ones.

From a rule utilitarian perspective, we should never entertain debates that try to apply ideal theory torture to real torture, the benefits are probably nil, the costs potentially high.Report

Jessica
6 years ago

Anon 5.53pm has an excellent point.

I have a short piece addressing some of these issues around the continued use of the ticking bomb scenario in debates about torture here:
http://issuu.com/humanrightsasia/docs/torture_v3_n4_-_the_torture_fantasy/7?e=5860122/10474025Report

Eddy Nahmias
6 years ago

As someone who has taught something like the ticking time bomb scenario in Intro classes to discuss utilitarianism, I’m not sure it’s best to avoid discussing the question of torture and consequentialist reasons for and against it, as advocated above. After all, it’s not like the consequentialist reasons won’t get brought up by politicians and pundits anyway (Cheney, Fox news, etc.). Rather, why not make sure people aren’t twisting the facts to make the reasons for torture look way better than they really are?

First, explain why torture is unjustified on almost every viable moral theory. Then point out that act utilitarianism is the theory most advocates of torture will try to use to justify it (perhaps implicitly). But then don’t let them forget all the utilitarian reasons against torture. For instance:

-on utilitarian grounds, non-Americans’ lives and suffering count as much as Americans’, so one can’t adjust the tallies to suit one’s purposes. One must count, for instance, the innocent detainees who were tortured (26 according to the Senate report), such as the one who says he tried to kill himself three times, scrawling in his own blood, “this is unjust.” (Same goes for drone bombings.)
-the evidence suggests torture is not an effective way to get reliable information and/or other methods are likely more reliable. (Just like death penalty likely isn’t justified based on empirical arguments that it deters.)
-don’t forget about the long-term calculations that must be included. Torture (just like some drone strikes, etc.) plausibly causes more long-term problems than it solves in the short term. Politicians are especially unlikely to concern themselves with negative effects in 10 years compared to the short-term effects that will get them un- vs. re-elected. And trust in our government agencies is an important long-term consequence too.
-on utilitarian grounds, all the torture and resources we spent hunting down OBL were likely unjustified, given that he was not mastermining much anymore. Instead, the obvious justification used was satisfying our retributive impulses, which only count on utilitarian grounds for the short-term happiness among many Americans sparked by his killing.

And so on. Of course, trying to do the calculations (esp. long-term) described above indicates one of the weaknesses of act utilitarianism and one of the reasons to move towards, at a minimum, rule utilitarianism, or any one of the other theories that delivers an unequivocal NO answer to torture.Report

Mavis Biss
Mavis Biss
6 years ago

Claudia Card’s “Ticking Bombs and Interrogations” : http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11572-007-9036-zReport

Fritz Allhoff
Fritz Allhoff
6 years ago

I wrote a book on this topic, if interested, see *Terrorism, Ticking Time-Bombs, and Torture* (University of Chicago Press).Report

Matthew Beard
6 years ago

I wrote a short piece for the broader public earlier this week in the Australian media. It’s freely available online here. It’s not the most philosophically rigorous analysis because it is aimed at the broader public.
http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-12-10/beard-cheney-defends-torture/5957372Report

JDRox
JDRox
6 years ago

I’m a bit confused by many of the comments, especially comments 4 and 5. If act consequentialism is true, then loads of torture might be morally justified, indeed obligatory. (There are ways to torture that do not do not cause much long term pain or harm, after all.) I myself am happy to say that (any typical variety of) act consequentialism is clearly false, partially because it makes torture so easy to justify, but these commentators don’t seem to want their claims about torture to hinge on that claim. The debate about torture is a sham debate iff the debate about act consequentialism is a sham debate. Pick your side.Report

JDRox
JDRox
6 years ago

In related news, Dick Cheney has called for an international ban on torture reports. http://www.newyorker.com/humor/borowitz-report/cheney-calls-international-ban-torture-reportsReport

Ronnie Hawkins
Ronnie Hawkins
6 years ago

I think the question needs to be posed, is there any chance of the _Philosophical_ APA, in contradistinction to the Psychiatric and Psychological APAs, which have already done so (the latter after a lengthy debate), taking a stand against torture? (Or perhaps this has already been done, by an APA committee, or some other body of philosophers? My apologies if I’m simply ignorant of what has happened.) Can the issue of attaining a kind of moral closure with respect to torture, and taking action so as to affirm it publicly–not just armchair speculation about whether or not “theory” can be bent to support it–at least be subject to a debate in philosophical circles?Report

David Velleman
6 years ago

David Sussman, “What’s Wrong With Torture?”, Philosophy and Public Affairs 33 (1):1–33 (2005) — an absolutely brilliant piece.Report

Ronnie Hawkins
Ronnie Hawkins
6 years ago

With all due respect to David Luban and the righteous motivation to celebrate those who stand up for what’s right, I’m not sure Philip Zelikow should be identified as a brave man who “kept his moral clarity intact.” Zelikow may have written a memo in 2006 pointing out to the Bush administration that “‘waterboarding, walling, dousing, stress positions, and cramped confinement'” were “‘techniques least likely to be sustained’ by the courts”–seemingly an obvious legal finding–but, as executive director of the 9/11 Commission, he apparently also played a central role in keeping a great deal of important information about the 9/11 event from becoming known, both to members of the Commission and to the American public.Report

Gordon
Gordon
6 years ago

My .02 is in “One View of the Dungeon: The Ticking Time Bomb between Governmentality and Sovereignty”. It’s from 2008; the basic claim is that the time bomb argument serves to make torture appear efficient or otherwise justified on utilitarian grounds, by constructing an (impossible) scenario where all the epistemic and other difficulties in real life go away. In other words, the use of the TTB scenario is itself a significant part of the problem.

I don’t think anybody’s mentioned Kim Lane Scheppele’s critique of the TTB, which I found really helpful. I’ll also second the endorsements of Luban and of Sussman.Report

Adam Hosein
Adam Hosein
6 years ago

I just wrote a defence of prosecution (well, mainly a defence of it from some common objections…) for the Boston Review: http://bostonreview.net/blog/adam-hosein-torture-prosecution-political-undemocraticReport

Ronnie Hawkins
Ronnie Hawkins
6 years ago

Good for you, Adam. The apologetics of Walzer and Posner are shameful.Report

Adam Hosein
Adam Hosein
6 years ago

Very glad you liked it, many thanks.Report

Ronnie Hawkins
Ronnie Hawkins
6 years ago

A correction to a comment I made above:
Nathaniel Raymond, researcher at Harvard School of Public Health and research ethics adviser for Physicians for Human Rights, noted today in an interview “In 2006, the AMA and the little APA, American Psychiatric, passed clear bans on participation. And those bans on participation are now being echoed by The New York Times. The American Psychological Association is, of the big three, the only association that still permits involvement in interrogations.” (http://www.democracynow.org/2014/12/23/weaponizing_health_workers_how_medical_professionals#) A significant percentage of the membership of the latter organization has been pushing for such a ban for many years, however.

Interesting that the American Psychological Association is “the big APA” and the American Psychiatric Association is “the little APA.” Apparently the American Philosophical Association is, in this context, “the irrelevant APA,” or perhaps “the nonexistent APA.” Of course, the former two APAs have members that actually DO things in the world, and hence can be “banned” from certain practices. But we do things too–we teach, we formulate positions, sometimes we even advise those who DO do things in the world. How many of us teach medical ethics, for example? Raymond also says, “This is a five-alarm fire in American medical ethics, up there with Tuskegee. . . . It appears that there were changes to both the interpretation of the Code of Federal Regulations related to human subjects research—the Wolfowitz memorandum—and changes to U.S. interpretation of the Geneva Conventions related to biomedical experimentation during the Bush administration. . . . And we have a responsibility, underneath the precedents of Nuremberg, under the precedents of the Tokyo trials, to hold the chain of command accountable.”

On the same program, Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff for Colin Powell, referred to “the ticking time bomb argument, which is a fallacious and stupid argument if you really parse it well.” Apparently he didn’t need a philosopher to guide him to this conclusion. Maybe, with respect to the general opinion in the US, the tide is finally turning: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/22/opinion/prosecute-torturers-and-their-bosses.html?_r=0Report