Philosopher Named to New State Dept. Commission on Unalienable Rights
U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo earlier this week announced the creation of a new “Commission on Unalienable Rights,” comprised of scholars and activists interested in various dimensions of human rights, law, and religion, to provide him with “advice on human rights grounded in our nation’s founding principles and the principles of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
Among the dozen individuals named as members of the committee is University of South Carolina Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and Department of Philosophy Chair Christopher Tollefsen.
The commission will be led by Mary Ann Glendon (Harvard Law) and also includes Russell Berman (Stanford, Hoover Institution), Peter Berkowitz (Hoover Institution), Paolo Carozza (Notre Dame Law and Political Science), Hamza Yusuf Hanson (Zaytuna College), Jacqueline Rivers (Seymour Institute), Meir Soloveichik (Rabbi, Congregation Shearith Israel), Kiron Skinner (State Dept.), Katrina Lantos Swett (Lantos Foundation), David Tse-Chien Pan (UC Irvine), and Cartright Weiland (State Dept.).
I hope that the commission will revisit the most basic of questions: What does it mean to say or claim that something is, in fact, a human right? How do we know or how do we determine whether that claim that this or that is a human right, is it true, and therefore, ought it to be honored? How can there be human rights, rights we possess not as privileges we are granted or even earn, but simply by virtue of our humanity belong to us? Is it, in fact, true, as our Declaration of Independence asserts, that as human beings, we—all of us, every member of our human family—are endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights? Each of these is an important question, and the mission of the commission is to provide advice on them and others not as purely abstract academic matters, but in a manner deeply informed by the timeless truths embedded in the American founding with a view to guiding our nation’s foreign policy.
The full announcement is here.
Sounds to good to be true, what’s the catch?Report
Besides the dubiety of serving on a human rights commission under the Trump Administration, after Trump campaigned on committing serious human rights abuses and in fact has committed serious human rights abuses, it is notable that this commission is stacked with hardcore opponents of abortion (including Prof. Tollefsen).
This is not to say that opponents of abortion shouldn’t be heard (though I think the position is wrong), but when a commission on “inalienable rights” is overwhelmingly tilted to one perspective like that, it’s not difficult to see what’s up.
(Disclosure: Peter Berkowitz was a professor of mine and wrote a recommendation for me for graduate school.)
This isn’t directly related to Tollefsen but I also find it a bit concerning that two of the members of the commission (Berman and Pan) appear to be scholars of prominent Nazi political scientist Carl Schmitt. That seems like a lot for a commmittee on inalienable rights? It’s been a looooong time since I read any Schmitt but I don’t have the impression that he’s a big inalienable rights guy.Report
On the same ‘opposition to some humans’ rights’ note: https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/trump-administration-s-new-human-rights-commission-alarms-lgbtq-advocates-n1028276Report
In other words, Schmitt, a Nazi authoritarian, is an enemy, so scholars who work on Schmitt are likely also enemies, who should not sit on our human rights council, which must be populated by our friends (the cosmopolitan liberals).Report
The thought was more along the lines of “It would be weird to have a bunch of Hume scholars on a committee to study Kant.” Berman and Pan AFAICT have no expertise in human rights (Berman’s a big Mohammed bin Salman fan though).
Actual human rights scholar Samuel Moyn sees Berman mostly as “the animating spirit” of a journal that “has long flirted with the European New Right,” and it looks like Berman was a big translator of Alain de Benoist who was a big inspiration of Richard Spencer who is a big inspiration of people who want to murder me, so yeah, I’m not totally sure he’s not my enemy?Report
>when a commission on “inalienable rights” is overwhelmingly tilted to one perspective like that, it’s not difficult to see what’s up.
What is that supposed to mean?Report
That the results of this commission are preordained; rather than seriously engaging with the questions that Pompeo says it’s supposed to address, it’s going to push for a notion of human rights that minimizes or excludes women’s reproductive rights and LGBTQ rights, perhaps among others.Report
Abortion is a violation of human rights, so it is right to have an opponent of abortion sitting on a board interested in unalienable rights. Abortion is a violation of the unalienable rights of the unborn.Report
Yes, it’s a good idea to make use of assumptions that we all share!Report
I have some concerns about Professor Tollefsen’s views on interrogational torture and waterboarding, given the statement about torture in Article 5 of the1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
“No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”
In an online reflection, Tollefsen says,
“But, on the other side, the interrogational torturer, by my account, can inflict some pain for the sake of inducing a suspect to talk.”
and later on,
“I suspect that a single application of waterboarding does not constitute torture, and can be done without an intention to harm.”
He seems to hold that a single waterboarding session itself is not torture.. And yet the person doing the waterboarding is described by him as the interrogational torturer.
Is this not inconsistent, on its face?
And the casuistry he uses, in determining his position (based in part on what the doctrine of double effect, as he understands it, allows), is given in a context of considering whether or not to waterboard Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (the Underwear Bomber).
According to at least one account, waterboarding wasn’t used on Abdulmutallab after he was captured. He was “interrogated for several hours before he was given medical treatment” for burns on his hands, thigh, and genitalia.
I’d like Tollefsen to consider whether leaving Abdulmuttalab’s injuries untreated for hours, while interrogating him, was a violation of Article 5 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Was this omission torture, cruel, inhuman, or degrading?
Were the interrogators torturers?
Did this treatment violate Abdulmuttalab’s unalienable rights?Report
This is a really terrible misreading of Tollefsen’s argument, which is an argument against use of techniques like waterboarding to extract information, even for the sake of worthwhile ends. Instead of taking this inaccurate summary for granted, I recommend that you follow the link and read Tollefsen’s short piece.Report
(1) You make quite a set of claims here, that I’ve misread Tollefsen’s argument and that I’ve given an inaccurate summary of his piece.
You give no evidence to support your claims, other than the authority of “M”.
Well, what to say?
Did I ever claim to be summarizing the piece, or giving a precis of his argument? No.
What did i do? I gave accurate citations of things Tollefsen said in the piece. And I took issue with
those things. This is not inaccuracy. It is taking someone’s statements seriously, and criticizing them–by making them explicit and gesturing towards some problems for them.
(2) You say, “I recommend that you follow the link and read Tollefsen’s short piece ”
Very good advice. I included the link for exactly that purpose.Report
I would like to register my agreement with M regarding this comment. This quote from Tollefsen’s Public Discourse article gives a better sense of his view:
The upshot of my discussion is this: if, as the double effect defense presupposes, waterboarding or some other interrogation technique is done in a way that is expected to cause harm to the suspect, then that harm is most likely intended as a means by the interrogator and double effect will not justify it. And if such techniques are performed with the intention to cause pain, but not either direct physical harm, or psychological disintegration, then they are likely to be ineffective. Either way, it is, in my view, a good thing that United States’ policy has moved (as it did in the second Bush term) beyond the grim, if understandable, policies of the first few years after 9/11.Report
While it is true that Tollefsen is arguing against torture, the context of the line DAW quotes seems to me awfully naïve.
“I suspect that a single application of waterboarding does not constitute torture, and can be done without an intention to harm. Those who have assisted journalists, such as Christopher Hitchens, or military personnel, in being waterboarded, certainly did not intend them harm.”
An important distinction between Hitchens and the military personnel (I assume Tollefsen is referring to the use of waterboarding in SERE training) is that Hitchens and the military personnel consented to the treatment. If waterboarding that someone agrees to is not torture and not intended to harm, that hardly establishes anything about involuntarily waterboarding a captive.
Furthermore, Hitchens was being waterboarded in order to see for himself whether it was torture, and the point of SERE training was to help the trainees to resist torture, so the existence of these cases really doesn’t establish that a single session of waterboarding isn’t torture. In fact Hitchens said “If waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture,” having stopped the session after ten seconds, and the Pentagon banned waterboarding from SERE training three years before Tollefsen’s piece was published* because it was too effective at breaking trainees. The very evidence Tollefsen is citing here is evidence that any amount of waterboarding, certainly when done to a captive who is not able to have it stopped at will, is in fact torture.
Tollefsen deserves credit, or anyway non-blame, for good intentions here–in that he’s arguing against the use of torture in interrogations. But it seems to me that philosophers who are doing public-intellectual stuff ought to be particularly careful about the details of controversial topics they impinge on. Even if it’s only an aside to his main argument and he’s ultimately opposed to it anyway, I think saying that a single application of waterboarding isn’t torture can cause real harm. (To be fair, this happens with lots of other philosophers, and non-philosophers too.)
*Though it seems as though the ban may have become public only just after Tollefsen’s article was published, in response to the same pro-torture PR blitz by Marc Thiessen to which he was responding.Report
He allows, as my citation, shows, that a single instance of waterboarding is not torture.
It does not matter for my objection to that proposition that he goes on to say that multiple instances of waterboarding definitely are torture, or that one instance of waterboarding is likely to be ineffective.
Note what immediately follows that citation:
“But, on the other side, the interrogational torturer, by my account, can inflict some pain for the sake of inducing a suspect to talk. And perhaps, given this, someone like Abdulmutallab, unlike Khalid Sheik Mohammed, ought to have been subjected to somewhat more inducement to provide information. He ought, perhaps, to have been made somewhat less, rather than more comfortable. Yet the limits of such an approach seem clear: a level of pain that falls short of harming a suspect by beginning to disintegrate his psycho-somatic functioning is hardly likely to induce a serious terrorist to answer questions voluntarily.” (my emphasis)
Isn’t this endorsing the permissibility of making Abdulmatallab feel a significant amount of pain in one session, however ineffective it might be in getting actionable information? If not, what does that “can” and that “ought” mean?Report
It seems to me some of these comments are just relitigating the 2016 election: the Republicans won, they get to pick people they like, and it’s probably better than this committee exists than that it doesn’t. If the particular people on the committee aren’t the preference of liberal academics, then maybe Clinton should have campaigned in Minnesota. Just because some of these people have different views than your own doesn’t mean those views are prima facie non-starters and can’t be grounded in both moral philosophy and international law.
Hope the committee does cool work, and congrats to Prof. Tollefson et al. for their appointments. Also pretty cool exposure for philosophy to be involved at this level—aside from some Bioethics’ Councils, can’t think of many when we’ve been represented.Report
It’s probably better than this committee exists than that it doesn’t
Just because some of these people have different views than your own doesn’t mean those views are prima facie non-starters and can’t be grounded in both moral philosophy and international law.
The issue isn’t that these views are prima facie non-starters. The issue is that this committee is stacked to achieve a certain outcome.
maybe Clinton should have campaigned in Minnesota
Bracketing the multiple levels of ignorance that this shows about the 2016 election, is your view then that it’s always OK to volunteer to help implement the policies of your government when that government has taken power in a legal way? If not, what in particular makes it OK to do so for Donald Trump’s attempts to redefine the notion of human rights? I’ve already given my reason for thinking it’s not OK–that Trump campaigned promising many egregious violations of human rights, and has committed many egregious violations of human rights.Report
My view is that you’re just being vastly uncharitable. (Yes, Minnesota should have said midwest, but it was meant jocularly in the first place.) And that it’s this kinda of hostility and divineness that’a a principal part of our political dysfunction. Name calling someone who disagrees with you as displaying “multiple levels of ignorance” is just poor form.
And sure, of course the people on this committee were chosen for outcome-oriented reasons. But of course had someone else won the election, it’d be the same thing, just the other way. And, of course, you wouldn’t be complaining about that. So the upshot is that it’s only controversial when you disagree with the policy views, which makes the criticism hypocritical.
I’d respectfully suggest a more constructive tone.Report
Sorry for the late reply.
Name calling someone who disagrees with you as displaying “multiple levels of ignorance” is just poor form.
“Multiple levels of ignorance” was accurate, as described below–you were wrong about the state you mentioned, and you were wrong about the counterfactual concerning Clinton campaigning in the Midwest.
it’s this kinda of hostility and divineness that’a a principal part of our political dysfunction.
The principal part of our political dysfunction is that one political party is based on white supremacy and is doing everything it can to entrench minority rule, because it cannot win in a majoritarian system. This elicits hostility, which is the appropriate reaction.
But of course had someone else won the election, it’d be the same thing, just the other way.
You provide no evidence for this. Obama named a pro-life Franciscan friar (Daniel Sulmasy) to his bioethics council. It’s not true that every politician will name an advisory council that’s exclusively stacked with one viewpoint.
I’d respectfully suggest a more constructive tone.
Declined. You decided to come into the discussion with a disrespectful and factually erroneous joke and facile both-sidesism, and now instead of providing substantive argument–for instance, addressing any of my points–you’re complaining that you’re not being treated with sufficient respect. I honestly think it’s far more disrespectful of you to ignore the substance of the argument than it was of me to make an aside about the factual errors in your “joke.”Report
I think you mean Wisconsin or Michigan. I’m a native Minnesotan and it’s irrationally important to me that I not be lumped in with the Wolverines or Cheeseheads!Report
And even if she had won Wisconsin and Michigan, she wouldn’t have won the electoral college without winning Pennsylvania, which she campaigned in extensively. (Or some other state where the margin was less close.) Electoral college map with Wisconsin and Michigan flipped.Report
Oh I’m aware. I’m a native Minnesotan have lived in Philly for years. For a while on election night it seemed like all eyes were on us (well, our suburbs anyway).Report
“maybe Clinton should have campaigned in Minnesota”
She won Minnesota.Report
This was noted above, from a different source, but I think it’s worth putting out again, about this group of people, and what sort and limits on “unalienable right” they are likely to find:
(I don’t think every complaint here is as strong as every other, but each gives grounds for worry, and taken as a group it is obviously a good reason to worry.)Report
Good for Chris! He is a great guy and a good philosopher (Note: I may be biased because he was my supervisor).Report
I am surprised that, given the apparent loophole that Tollefsen carved out for a single case of water boarding not being torture given the right set of intentions (however ineffective), that no one here has yet worried about the possibility that he might carry this view into deliberations by the committee about unalienable rights, torture, water boarding, and other practices.
We have seen from Matt Weiner’s comments here how flimsy Tollefsen’s reasons are for considering a single case of waterboarding to be ineffective.
If an American philosopher gave even the slightest legitimacy to waterboarding to a committee advising the government of Donald Trump, I would be outraged. Wouldn’t you, fellow American philosophers?Report
I would rather not want American philosophy’s history repeating itself without protest..
Consider who was a prominent American political philosopher. And a vocal defender, after 9-11 of torture (unlike Professor Tollefsen). And a member of President Bush’s Presidential Council for Bioethics.
The late Jean Bethke Elshtain, of the University of Chicago.
Did philosophers, the APA, anyone protest this at that time? I hope someone did.
I do hope Professor Tollefsen will reconsider his view of waterboarding.
He opposes torture. Good.
Now include single instances of waterboarding. And instances like what happened to Abdulmutallab.
That’s an minimal, but necessary, improvement on Tollefsen’s position..Report
And lest we think that parsing whether or not single cases of waterboarding constitute torture is a mere academic exercise, consider this:
In 2017, President Trump went on record saying that in his view, waterboarding works, and is not torture.
And well, this:
“Donald Trump endorsed waterboarding at a rally at a convention center in Ohio on Monday night, saying it is nothing compared to what ISIS does.
“They chop off our young people’s heads and put them on a stick,” Trump said. “They build these iron cages, and they’ll put 20 people in them and they drop them in the ocean for 15 minutes and pull them up 15 minutes later.”
“Would I approve waterboarding? You bet your ass I would,”Trump said. “And I would approve more than that. Don’t kid yourself, folks. It works, okay? It works. Only a stupid person would say it doesn’t work.”
“It works,” Trump said. “Only a stupid person would say it doesn’t work. Believe me, it works. And you know what?
If it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway, for what they’re doing. It works.” ”
My focused criticism of Professor Tollefsen’s views (whom no critic on this thread has refuted, or even tried to refute) should not distract us from the problematic views of other people on this commission:
See this piece by Ali Rogen, of the PBS Newshour:
The “commission’s theme, gathering as it does, during the travesty of the Trump Administration and its violation of basic human rights (say, the right of a child not to die of neglect, due to an easily treatable disease in a holding center for people seeking asylum) is reprehensible. People die, on American soil, due to this Administration’s horrible mistreatment.
It should be a scandal that any American philosopher would take part in it. It is not an honor that lends credibility to philosophy in America.Report