Utilitarianism and Torture

While I was going through my collection of links worth revisiting, I came upon a piece by Daniel McInerney, ” ‘Quantitative Judgments Don’t Apply’: Foyle’s War, Series Seven” (The Imaginative Conservative, October 2013). McInerny opens with this:

At the beginning of the third volume of Evelyn Waugh’s masterful World War II trilogy, Sword of Honor, Guy Crouchback, a British Catholic officer entering a disillusioned middle age, has a conversation with his elderly father in which he disparages the Lateran Treaty. Gervase Crouchback rebukes his son’s irascibility. ““My dear boy,” he said, “you’re really making the most terrible nonsense, you know. That isn’t at all what the Church is like. It isn’t what she’s for.”

Later, Gervase Crouchback writes Guy a letter trying to explain more clearly what prompted his rebuke:

When you spoke of the Lateran Treaty did you consider how many souls may have been reconciled and have died at peace as the result of it? How many children may have been brought up in the faith who might have lived in ignorance? Quantitative judgments don’t apply. If only one soul was saved, that is full compensation for any amount of loss of “face.”

His father’s anti-utilitarian phrase, Quantitative judgments don’t apply, hangs in Guy’s mind, and through his interior monologues it becomes the leitmotif of this third volume. Quantitative judgments don’t apply: when it comes to evaluating the pearl of great price, one doesn’t weigh it against purely material considerations.

I have elsewhere criticized utilitarianism: here, here, and here. In the post at the third link (“Utilitarianism vs. Liberty”), I say that

strict utilitarianism requires that all decisions — not just governmental ones — must yield “the greatest amount of happiness altogether.” For example, if I fail to take your happiness into account when I buy a new car, I might make you less happy by my acquisition (because it makes you envious). And, in the utilitarian calculus, your unhappiness might outweigh my happiness. Ergo, less happiness altogether.

The foregoing example make it easy to see how modern “liberalism,” with its strong appeal to envy (among other unattractive traits), is an outgrowth of utilitarianism. (For more in that vein, see “Inventing Liberalism.”) . . . .

. . . [U]tilitarianism compromises liberty because it accords no value to individual decisions about preferred courses of action. Decisions, to a utilitarian, are valid only if they comply with the views of the utilitarian, who feigns omniscience about the (incommensurable) happiness of individuals. Agreement among various utilitarians about the desirability of a particular course of action signifies nothing more than a shared prejudice about the way the world ought to be.

As a critic of utilitarianism, can I properly defend torture? Is it not utilitarian to suggest that a supposed wrong (torture) can be weighed against an unquestionable good (saving innocent lives)? It might seem so, given the statements that I  (and others) have made with respect to torture; to wit:

In sum, torture is moral — and therefore justified — when it becomes necessary for the purpose of eliciting information that could save innocent lives and the lives of those whose job it is to defend innocent lives. I do not mean that torture must be used, but that it may be used. I do not mean that torture will not have repulsive consequences for its targets, but that the thought of those consequences should not cause the American government to renounce torture as an option.

Such a statement could be taken as a utilitarian response to the trolley problem:

There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. Unfortunately, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options: (1) Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track. (2) Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person . . . .

. . . A utilitarian view asserts that it is obligatory to steer to the track with one man on it. According to simple utilitarianism, such a decision would be not only permissible, but, morally speaking, the better option (the other option being no action at all).

Whatever the merits or defects of the trolley problem, it isn’t analogous to the terrorist-victim problem. To make it analogous, it would be rewritten as follows:

A trolley driver who is in full control of his vehicle sees, ahead of him on the tracks, five persons who are tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks: (1) Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five persons on the main track. (2) Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it may derail because of its speed, thus injuring or killing the homicidal trolley driver . . . .

The problem, in other words, isn’t a choice between killing one innocent or five innocents. The choice is between harming a killer or allowing the killer (and his compatriots) to take many innocent lives. To put it another way, it’s a choice between faux morality and self-defense.

Faux moralists of the “liberal” ilk often criticize the execution of murderers and the torture of terrorists because capital punishment and torture aren’t “civilized.” And yet most of those same faux moralists defend abortion, which is nothing better than the torture and execution of innocents. What could be less civilized?

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Related posts:
Modern Utilitarianism
Does Capital Punishment Deter Homicide?
Crime and Punishment
The Left, Abortion, and Adolescence
Saving the Innocent?
Saving the Innocent?: Part II
Abortion and the Slippery Slope
Privacy, Autonomy, and Responsibility
Peter Singer’s Agenda
More Punishment Means Less Crime
More About Crime and Punishment
More Punishment Means Less Crime: A Footnote
Clear Thinking about the Death Penalty
Let the Punishment Fit the Crime
Less Punishment Means More Crime
Another Argument for the Death Penalty
Singer Said It
A “Person” or a “Life”?
Utilitarianism, “Liberalism,” and Omniscience
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
Torture
Clear Thinking about the Death Penalty
Saving the Innocent
Crimes against Humanity
Abortion and Logic
Why Stop at the Death Penalty?
Utilitarianism and Psychopathy
Lock ‘Em Up
Legislating Morality
Legislating Morality (II)
Free Will, Crime, and Punishment
Abortion, Doublethink, and Left-Wing Blather
Abortion, “Gay Rights,” and Liberty

Torture

Can torture be justified? I say yes, because where torture has a reasonable chance of saving innocent lives, it is a proper course of action.

I begin by stipulating that certain practices constitute torture by almost everyone’s standards. Given that there is such a thing as torture, is it ever justified? Let us consider the  objections to torture, which are several:

1. It doesn’t work.

2. Even if it works (in rare circumstances), it is counterproductive because it creates enemies.

3. Torture is wrong — period. Therefore, it does not matter what good ends may be served by torture (e.g., gaining information to prevent terrorist attacks).

4. “We” (i.e., the American government, acting on behalf of Americans) must not sink to the level of those we would torture. Despite all threats and provocations, “we” must stand up for our ideals, which include respect for human life.

5. The practice of torture may be hard to contain, like a contagious disease or a slide down the slippery slope: enemies today, Americans tomorrow.

Here are my responses to the objections:

1. Torture doesn’t work. Never say never, as the saying goes. Of course torture works, sometimes. If you count waterboarding as torture, as do the opponents of torture, there is a strong case that torture prevented post-9/11 terrorist attacks in the U.S. Those who say that torture doesn’t work really mean something else, for example: it may not work in all cases, it will not work if not done skilfully, or there may be ways — short of torture — to achieve the same result. All such objections may be correct, but their possible correctness does not rule out torture on practical grounds.

2. Torture creates enemies. This may be true, but what is another enemy if his enmity is impotent — as is the enmity of most of the anti-American world. (It should not be forgotten that the most potent enemies of liberty are Americans, who — with increasing success — seek to dictate the terms and conditions of our daily lives.) We are not engaged in a popularity contest; we are engaged in a death struggle against predators. The real issue here is whether anti-American sentiment translates into reliable threats of action against Americans and their interests (as opposed to demonstrations), and — even if it does, to some degree — whether the threat is to be feared more than more imminent threats (e.g., terrorist attacks). Further, there is a strong case that signs of weakness (i.e., inaction, negotiation, the pursuit of “justice” rather than vengeance) do more to encourage our enemies than do signs of strength (of which a demonstrated willingness to torture surely is one). There is evidence, for example, that Osama bin Laden was emboldened to attack the U.S. on 9/11 because of the weakness of American responses to earlier attacks. In general, the historical record — notably in the history of the Third Reich and Soviet Russia — points to the folly of accommodation and appeasement.

3. Torture is wrong — period. How can torture be wrong — period — if it can be used to prevent harm to innocents? To assert that torture is always wrong is the same thing as asserting the wrongness of self-defense. It replaces a noble goal — protection of innocent persons from harm — with an ignoble goal — protection of miscreants from harm. If torture is always wrong, then attacks on innocents which could be prevented by torture are always right. That is the logical implication of an absolute injunction against torture. The proponents of an absolute injunction (e.g., this one) usually start from the premise that it is wrong to take human life. But I wonder how many of them would persist in that premise were they in a life-or-death struggle with an armed intruder. Would success in such a struggle mean that a proponent of the “life is precious” view had somehow “sunk” to the intruder’s level of moral depravity? Let us see.

4. “We” must not sink to the level of those “we” would torture. Even the most obdurate opponents of torture (excepting rigid pacifists) would agree that self-defense is a fundamental right. To oppose torture is, therefore, to oppose self-defense. Self-defense is not a matter of “sinking” to the level of those who would kill us; it is a matter of acting rightly against predators. Did we “sink” to the level of Japan and Germany when we warred against them? We did not; to the contrary, we rose to the occasion of defending humanity against brutality. Thus it is (or can be) with torture, in the right circumstances.

5. There is a slippery slope from torturing enemies to torturing Americans. This may be the most telling objection to torture. But, like the other objections, it fails to entertain the alternative: harm to Americans and their interests. It is the prevention of harm, after all, which justifies government. The question of “harm to whom?” was confronted in the creation of American armed forces and police forces. Both can be used (and in the case of police forces, sometimes are used) against innocent Americans. But Americans, by and large, are willing (often eager) for the protections afforded by organized defenses against foreign and domestic predators. It has long been understood that the defenders must be controlled to ensure that they they do run amok, but it also has long been understood that the risk of their running amok is worth the payoff, namely, protection from predators. The point is that adequate control of the timing and methods of torture can ensure against a slide down the slippery slope.

In sum, torture is moral — and therefore justified — when it becomes necessary for the purpose of eliciting information that could save innocent lives and the lives of those whose job it is to defend innocent lives. I do not mean that torture must be used, but that it may be used. I do not mean that torture will not have repulsive consequences for its targets, but that the thought of those consequences should not cause the American government to renounce torture as an option.

Related reading:

An example of the payoff: “Cracking KSM” (here and here, too)

The “torture memos” and why they shouldn’t have been released

The politicization of the “torture issue” (AG Holder cannot conduct an investigation on his own authority, despite disingenous claims to the contrary)

The always insightful Megan McArdle: here, here, and here

The brilliantly incisive Thomas Sowell: here and here

Other commentary: here, here, here, here, here, and here

My earlier (and unchanged) views: here, here, here, here, and here