Henry Shue’s presentation to the Strategic Studies Group tonight ended up being much more challenging than I expected. The topic was torture and “why no middle way is possible.” That is to say, something that I profoundly agree with. That said, I found his justification to be very problematic.
He began by asserting that torture is obviously immoral and illegal – a position that I do not contest, though we will come back to it. From there, he argued prudentially that states like the US and Britain mustn’t engage in torture for a number of reasons. The first set have to do with how there’s no guarantee the person you torture will know anything, that they might not tell you anyhow, and that the idealized case of the terrorist revealing the location of the hidden nuclear weapon under torture is extremely unlikely to ever transpire. These are fairly standard arguments that deal with the efficacy of torture as an instrument of achieving aims, rather than its acceptability.
His next batch of arguments had to do with the social basis of torture: namely, that to tolerate torture is to tolerate the existence of torturers in society. He argued that some minimal organization of torturers is necessary and that such an organization fundamentally corrupts the society around it. After his talk, I asked him a question about this. Specifically, I asked whether the fact that torturers are readily available around the world for those willing to import them or export prisoners to them changes this moral balance. A state like the United States could easily gain the ‘benefits’ of torture, without risking whatever dangers exist from a domestic torture agency.
His response largely brought us back to a muddle that is at the heart of this. I believe powerfully that torture is an abhorrent act: one that cannot be justified as a practice, even if it was likely to save many lives. This is an easy position to defend if you really believe in some kind of divine or natural justice. If, however, you believe that all the justice out there is what we as people create in the world around us, you are in a really tricky spot. Clearly, saving some huge number of lives must be balanced against the cost of destroying or mangling a smaller number: even if those people turn out to be innocent.
At the heart of things, I can’t come up with a reason for forbidding torture that is somehow firmly rooted to a real moral tapestry that all people are obviously attached to. That makes dealing with the prospect of torture in the ideal case extremely difficult.
My solution, for the moment, as in many other contentious matters is to step back from the greatest controversy and pick low hanging fruit. Even if we allow the possibility that it’s just intuitive revulsion that is the final basis for the understanding of torture as completely unallowable, we can make arguments about how we should operate to reduce the occurrence of torture as something that happens out in the world. This is especially feasible when it comes to states like America that have values fundamentally opposed to such obscene violations of human beings. It’s easier to accuse someone of violating their own moral code than it is to assert some everlasting external morality. Since I don’t feel capable of divining such a framework, but I am nonetheless confronted with irrefutable evidence of astonishing injustice in the world, the best answer seems to be to just act on the basis of a self-aware, pluralistic, and pragmatic ad hoc morality, rather than remain inactive while something terrible continues.
[Update: 21 May 2013] See also: Maureen Ramsay on torture