Ethics Bob Asks: “Did Torture Lead Us To Bin Laden”? My Answer: “So What If It Did? It Was Still Wrong.”

It's all for the best.

It’s all for the best.

The last time my friend “Ethics Bob” Stone blogged about ethics, it was way back in August, and he was writing about some guy named “Romney.” Now he’s back on the job, thank goodness, with a comeback post titled “Zero Dark Thirty: Did torture lead us to Osama bin Laden?”. And he’s ticking me off.

“Zero Dark Thirty” is Hollywood’s treatment of the search, apprehension and execution of Osama Bin Laden. The film suggest that methods of torture were employed by the CIA to uncover crucial intelligence that led to the terrorist mastermind’s demise. Torture opponents, including some U.S. Senators, are alarmed by this, and disputing the film’s account. (Imagine that: a movie that misrepresents history!) Meanwhile, conservatives, neocons, Bush administration bitter-enders, talk radio hosts and admirers of Dr. Fu Manchu and James Bond villains are citing the film as confirmation that they were right all along: torture is a wonderful thing.

I am puzzled that Bob got in the middle of this debate as an ethicist. “It worked!” and “It came out all right in the end!” are not valid ethical arguments or justifications. The first is an embrace of a pure “the ends justify the means” rationale, a favorite tool of Auric Goldfinger and Dr. No. The other is consequentialism. When ethicists and principled opponents of torture allow the issue to be adjudicated on this basis, they are surrendering their principles at the outset. “Torture doesn’t work” is a pragmatic argument, not an ethical one. If the societal consensus regarding torture is going to be determined by how much we can benefit by returning to the rack and wheel, then ethical considerations have already been jettisoned.

This argument surfaced here back in 2010, when Bush alums pointed to evidence that  information derived from waterboarding had prevented a terrorist attack on Heathrow Airport in London. I wrote:

“Let us assume, just to simplify things, that everything is as President Bush represents. Waterboarding was, by some legitimate analysis, legal. The information saved American lives and prevented terrorist attacks. Do these facts mean that the use of torture—and waterboarding is torture, whether one defines it as such or not—by the United States of America was justified, defensible, and ethical? No. I don’t think so. I believe that for the United States of America to approve and engage in the use of torture is by definition betrayal of the nation’s core values, and thus threatens its existence as the nation our Founders envisioned as completely as a foreign occupation.”

“It works” is not a valid or sufficient reason to justify a national policy of torture, and I love you Bob, but agreeing to debate torture on that basis inevitably leads there. What the United States, because of its unique mission and values, must be willing to navigate is a far more delicate course.

From an Ethics Scoreboard post in 2006: 

“…the United States is not supposed to be like other nations. It was uniquely founded on an ideal of innate human rights and aspirations, and there is no question that the language of the Declaration of Independence cannot be reconciled with the use of torture on human beings. The great experiment that is the United States of America, thanks to Mr. Jefferson, painted itself into an ethical corner at its inception. If it must use tactics to survive that violate the very reasons for its existence, then the nation’s ideals are more illusory than real. But if it doesn’t survive at all because of its refusal to do what is necessary to survive, then the experiment is a failure….The United States has faced this dilemma many times, in  different forms. Every time it has chosen to go to war, and been willing to be responsible for the deaths of civilians in foreign lands, it has served notice that individual human rights will not be spared at the cost of the country itself. We were willing, after all, to use the atom bomb…twice. When critics assail the U.S. now using the principle of Absolutism, they are ignoring both history and their own value systems. Absolutes always have exceptions.

Nonetheless, the nation’s official stance against torture is an important one, because it states a genuine commitment to the ideal of human dignity in accordance with the country’s core values. This is why the gratuitous abuse of the prisoners at Abu Ghraib was so unforgivable; the ideal was betrayed wantonly and for the basest reasons: disrespect, vengeance, cruelty, and ignorance. But no one should pretend that our commitment to that ideal has ever included a willingness to perish rather than violate it. The ideal of rejecting torture is also important; torture is inhuman, horrible, despicable. The ideal must be stated as an absolute; we aim for it, so that we are not tempted to give it up too easily. But we will give it up temporarily if necessary, and for better or worse, all of us, in our hearts, know that we will.

When we really have no choice, when it truly is a matter of giving up everything or violating a core principle, then yes, the unthinkable has to be considered. Then there is an ethical conflict, and ethical analysis can be employed. Then we know, if we resort to torture when all ethical means have failed and total destruction looms,  the unethical can momentarily become the best of unacceptable courses. However, a violation of national ideals and principles, such as torture, must never be casually placed on a scale to be outweighed by mere advantages and benefits of the moment. Even considering torture on the basis of “Does it work? Can it work? Did it work?” corrupts us.

“Did torture lead us to Osama bin Laden?” There is only one ethical answer to that question: It doesn’t matter. Torture is evil, and the United States of America should not engage in it willingly whether it works or not. The United States of American cannot be the United States of America and embrace evil as policy.

 

36 thoughts on “Ethics Bob Asks: “Did Torture Lead Us To Bin Laden”? My Answer: “So What If It Did? It Was Still Wrong.”

  1. Well, I’m confused, as so often about ethics in practice. First, I don’t think it “works,” or that it “worked” with UBL. Second, if I’m wrong, and there is such a thing as the ticking bomb scenario, I think it can be justified–only in this very rare case– as far the lesser of two evils–still evil, but the lesser. I think slippery slope arguments deny our ability to make judgments.

    • First, it shouldn’t matter ethically whether you think it worked or not, Bob. Second, as I wrote, the ticking bomb scenario is a unique situation in which an unethical choice is the only one….yes, the lesser of two evils. But we didn’t have to torture to get Bin Laden, and if we hadn’t gotten him, our civilization wouldn’t have ended. We invite the slippery slope by including a non-ticking bomb in the equation.

      • It does matter, for two reasons: first, if torture isn’t effective there’s NO possible ethical reasoning to justify it. Second, if it did help to find UBL, it will encourage the torture advocates in the future (and, ugh, I suppose the present).

        • Bid Laden is her something of a cipher which needs to be unpacked. America has used its power to complexly define Bin Laden negatively. Beyond that American-specific propaganda project (truth is the first victim of war) facts on the global ground are way more refined and complex than that propagandistic American portrayal. What we have is the cultural tradition coexistent with America itself, that it will hunt down and kill/destroy all who oppose it in any significant way. The American way of the gun; the great simplifier.
          To debate whether it was ethical that America took recourse to torture in coming to where it killed Bin Laden, sets a remit that conly only satisfy America domestically. Beyond the confines of the American community, confining any consideration of such recourse to torture alone, is simply unacceptable.
          This American construction is at it is simply to pander to an American cultural illusion that it is an exceptionallu ethical society. The problem is torture. If we no longer take recourse to torture, then we ensure our ethical salvation. We’ll still kill who we will because we can: but we wont torture anyone in so doing; and that way America will hold fast to its ethical roots and character.

          • Your comment jumps the shark in ways Fonzie never dreamed. Bin Laden killed 3000 American citizens in a cowardly, sneak attack, without provocation, justification or ratioanal cause. Hunting down such an individual doesn’t require any of the tortured rationale you propose—it is a matter of principle and survival. No nation can survive that does not retaliate as a matter of policy for such an attack.

            This statement—“The problem is torture. If we no longer take recourse to torture, then we ensure our ethical salvation. We’ll still kill who we will because we can: but we wont torture anyone in so doing; and that way America will hold fast to its ethical roots and character—is particularly crap. I did not write that avoiding torture guaranteed anything—there are a million ways to fall short of ethical conduct. I siaid, clearly and correctly, that engaging in torture was one way to abandon the ethical foundations of the nation and culture. You can’t discredit an argument by pretending it is a different argument entirely.

            • Jack, your first paragraph reveals the extent of presumption, and it ideological in nature and directed at a foe, which is on account before ethical consideration takes places. That presumption falls into the category of ethnocentric pragmatism. There’s then nothing out of the ordinary about ethnocentric pragatism: but either that pragmatism is not ethics; or an ethics constrained by such pragmatism is a questionable beast. The more ethics is predicated on the survival of something, the more it is compromised by that contingency. The United States of America is a huge something, so the degree of contingent compromise of ethical reasoning reflects that scale. Not all of those within the American community would accept the portrayal of it you offer. A great many outwith that community would reject your portrayal out of hand. The foe you symbolise as Bin Laden, certainly would offer a countering portrayal. On all these counts your ethical reflection and reasoning cannot approach universality, and is instead something whose meaning is found, pretty exclusively, within (part of) the American community. This is not ethics, but rather American culture and ideology: and it none the worse for that; but its not ethics in any classical or academic sense.

              Regards your second paragraph. My suggestion reflects my sense of the effect likely to be had across framing the question of torture as has taken place since the release of this film. The judgement that torture is dysfunctional in a current global circumstance can be accepted; so on that basis we do what we can, at whatever is our local level, to prevent what sees torture done in our global world. We then differ on whether cleaving to ethics or questioning power is the way to combat torture at the local level on which we can act.
              Some of the things you mention in you taking an ethical approach, I and others would also object to; but in doing what we each do, we employ differing constructions. For me the primary issue is how we use language, to hide from realities, and hide what we are actually doing. Such language usage is involved in our media, our religions, our politics, our culture generally.
              Our presumption that we are good and ethical, is ultimately a self-serving and comforting illusion, I believe. I think I understand its functionality on a psychological and socialpsychological plane; and I’m not antithetical to that function, except when the effect of the illusion begins to overpower people’s capacity to grapple with fundamentals.
              The American cultural presumption that The United States of America is exceptional and exceptionally ethical, is integral to a current American crisis; a crisis that may signal some denouemont in the decline of a nation and society.

              • 1. Ugh. My stomach isn’t strong enough for your nonsense. I could not care less whether many in the US would disagree with me; many also can’t distinguish ethics from a merry-go-round. That Bin Laden would disagree with me is as obvious as it is irrelevant.

                2. “The American cultural presumption that The United States of America is exceptional and exceptionally ethical, is integral to a current American crisis; a crisis that may signal some denouemont in the decline of a nation and society.” Good luck with that. The U.S. is founded on uniquely ethical ideals and principles, which have served it, and by extension, the world, very well on balance. Living up to these ideals is difficult, but this nation has consistently aspired to do so, often failing, more out of failure to correctly analyze how to conform to the ethical ideals rather out of a willful effort to betray them. The current American crisis, neither the most threatening or the worst crisis it has faced, has nothing to do with American exceptionalism and everything to do with a bad stretch of weak leadership. We’ll be just fine, Colin. Sorry to disappoint you.

                • There seems to be a solipsistic aspect to your activity of ethics. Others are wrong right left and centre. Others disagree with you right left and centre; and you don’t care. Again I’m struggling to see just what ethics can be and do within such parameters; parameters of disregard for the others who make up the world to which you want your ethics to apply.

                  • Ethics is an ongoing inquiry into what is right and wrong. As such, it is subject to differing theories of how one gets the answer. I have mine; I respect any contrary or differing opinion reached through legitimate analytical means. That doesn’t mean I can’t conclude that my approach is better, and their conclusions are wrong. There are right answers in ethics. I recognize that you belong to the school that holds that everything is right and no one is wrong, and that is,in fact, the death of ethics, not the pursuit of it.

                    The vast, vast majority of human beings make their decisions about right and wrong based on nothing close to ethical analysis, by simply consulting moral codes, by trying to avoid consequences, or by applying thought fallacies and rationalizations. No, I don’t care what they thing, except in the sense that the unethical conduct that results makes life more difficult for everybody. Ethics is not a popularity contest or an exercise in majority rule.

                    • I think we are getting somewhere Jack. It may be that I do not find ethics useful. I’m exploring that possibility in talking to you. You are the openly ethical guy, so examining what it is that you are doing in what you call ethics, provides me opportunity to reflect on what ethics is and does.
                      I don’t subscribe to the school that everyone is right and no one is wrong. I’m not convinced that right and wrong is what I most orientate to, personally. What I am concerned with is finding out who the other person is, and what this other person is doing. What I’m then most concerned about is what happens between people, where people see themselves as right and the other wrong; it does seem to me as if that dynamic is embedded in nearly all human events. So I am interested in the detail of what allows a person to see themselves as right, and the detail of what allows them to see others as wrong: but I’m not convinced that human beings are too capable of having a sense of what is right that can hold universally. I think we then have to grapple with that actuality. As things stand, it looks to me as if striving to be ethical, might be a good exercise and discipline, in the sense that doing yoga might ring these two bells; but I’m not convinced by your notion of an imperfect structural ethicalty, a way of collective living that is ethical if imperfectly so, where the United States of America embodies that structure.

          • “The American way of the gun; the great simplifier.”

            Idiotic Comment of the Century.

            Check out a cool little thing the rest of us like to call History.

            The American way of Diplomacy is more accurate. Our national culture, when brought to war, is the thorough belief that the war ought to prosecuted to complete finality. This belief that only in complete victory you can have peace is what has driven American’s aggressive martial spirit.

            However, there is often a long painful process that drags begrudging Americans into a war to begin with, because prior to our aggressive martial spirit, we have a belief that we like Peace more. There have been a handful of our conflicts that Americans have readily mobilized for, such as the Mexican-American War and the Spanish-American War. Most other of our conflicts have been preceded by a long train of abuses before America either finally accepted the necessity of war or a major abuse occurred. Such as World War I, the USA absorbed 2 years of belligerent acts that any one alone would have constituted a right to go to war. Or World War II, several years absorbing abuse until finally the audacious act of 7 December awoke the sleeping giant. Even the American ‘Civil’ War could be argued to take several decades to build up to hostilities, when had the war been allowed to occur when it ought to have (some would say the early 1820s) we may have had far fewer headaches in its aftermath. Even our own Revolution was preceded by a decade of evils that Americans were more disposed to suffer, while those evils were sufferable.

            As for war being prosecuted to complete finality, our national culture, indeed most of Western Civilization psychologically burned itself out in that culmination of European History, as we have not prosecuted a single conflict to complete victory since then.

            • I would accept that what you say is one American ideological view of The United States of America. Others would disagree with you on every detail with which you portray your vision of that United States. That’s what history does: namely offer narrative which leads to how the present is to be seen; and differing groupings harbour different histories. This again comes down to who is inside and who is outside a given community.

              • Well, my ‘ideological’ view of the USA is based on solid analysis of fact. The language you are using in this ‘discussion’ goes only one direction — the democratization of fact….which is not fact at all. Just whatever is trendy to believe at the time.

                Unfortunately scholarship doesn’t work that way. You ought to know that, working at a school.

    • Bob says. “I believe that for the United States of America to approve and engage in the use of torture is by definition betrayal of the nation’s core values, and thus threatens its existence as the nation our Founders envisioned as completely as a foreign occupation.”
      The question arises as to what status of reality we award these ideas of “core values” and Founder’s vision. The reference to foreign occupation is interesting also.
      The United States of America, like every other project of European colonisation, involved the colonisers in becoming foreign occupiers, if we look at the initial circumstance from an indigenous point of view. We then have a culture emerging which portrays and values everything from the point of view of the coloniser.
      At some point in time, a bloodly civil war was fought, and the constitutional architecture of The United States of America was drawn from the thinking of the victors. The sense that a victorious North “occupied” a defeated South, has not been expunged from the culture of the United States of America.
      The historical resume could go on. Consistently through that resume, the willingness of the United States of America to resort to whatever force at its means was necessary to satisfy its societal interest, is manifest. This outcome stemmed and stems from the founding consitution, and expresses core values concerning those and that beyond The United States of America. It would be a challenging exercise to derive core values from the actuality of all this. What can also be derived is the clear truth that a complex pragmatism drove events and outcomes far more fundamentally and powerfully than anything that we could consider ethically specified.
      It’s probably wisest to consider that Bob is referring to an illusion; an illusion that only ever functioned as a cultural and ideological and socialpsychological resource. An illusion which was always sustained within a pragmatism expressing realities differing greatly from the illusion. What Bob fears might happen, is probably an actuality that has always obtained.
      Regards cleaving to a nominally ethical position, say of not countenancing torture; that risks tolerating the pragmatism that does not qualify as torture. The existential problem is power and its ethnocentric application. Torture can and should be objected to, but not so as to see primary objection and opposition to the exercise of power deflected.

      • Yes, well, peddle the Howard Zinn worldview someplace else. The nation has always made mistakes, examined its motives, learned from its errors, and returned to basic principles. That the nation has not always been true to its principles and ideals is not an argument for abandoning them, denying they exist, or decrying the national mission statement as a fraud.

        “It would be a challenging exercise to derive core values from the actuality of all this.”
        No, it wouldn’t. The nation has displayed altruism, sacrifice and subordination of its own interests to the greater interest of mankind many, many times.

        • I’m not familiar with the Howard Zinn worldview.

          I acknowledge that taking recourse to torture is one of the unacceptable things which The United States of America has indulged in, along with most other collective’s that have the power to so take recourse, and so as to preserve their respective self-interests in times of perceived survival and thrival crises.
          Where we seem to disagree is about the American claim to exceptionalism. The United States of America fails to be true to its espoused ideals and principles on a continuous basis, and on a scale reflecting the power it exercises. The national mission statement is a promissory note: not a fraud; but something whith a floating value across everything which America does.
          America should not take recourse to torture: but ethics is not the only frame of reference on that issue; and ethics is only one resource for any correction. The fundamental factor is what drives America to take recourse to torture. Ethical parsing of all this is significant; but so is an empirical surveying of what drives America to take recourse to torture.
          You say: “The nation has displayed altruism, sacrifice and subordination of its own interests to the greater interest of mankind many, many times.” That is an argument which can be offered. Ultimately any such argument is likely to be an expression of ideology. Others would offer other arguments, about what America does, about what the motivation for what America does is, about what the effects and consequences of what America does are. These counter arguments would tend to be ideological.
          If and as the erstwhile argument about the unacceptability of torture is advanced, we encounter the forms of life whose continued existence ultimately grounds that recourse to torture. America currently takes recourse to torture, for pragmatic reasons; and an American polity and culture sees that recourse endorsed. America currently is, as always, engaged in a life-or-death struggle to sustain what global dominance it has. American culture provides itself with the veil of perceived exceptionalism and ethicality, as has pretty much every powerful human society; but the hermetic and perspectives of that veil only cover a small part of what America is and does.
          What would be more effective, what might grapple with fundamentals, would be ethics considered in a global frame of reference. There we encounter all the complexities of what America and others have dubbed “the war on terror”, and much else of course. What can be considered ethical reasoning and decision within the frame of reference of the American community, does not qualify as ethical reasoning and decision when the applied frame of reference goes putatively global. Which is why the crucial factor in all this is community; and where we struggle to come to anything which can go universal across a global community.
          America’s recourse to torture is wrong, but ethical reflection within an American frame of reference is not going to correct that: this is how it seems for some outside the American community. Those inside the American community who believe that America has an ethical foundation and dimension, which is significiant in relation to American pragmatism, will disagree with that extra-American position.
          It is possible to argue against torture on a prgmatic basis. Torture is dysfunctional because it is inconsistent with optimal realisation of human potential; working rather to the advantage of those who are skilfull in garnering power. Ethics has significance, but only alongside all else in which human being and occurring subsist.

          • “Ethics has significance, but only alongside all else in which human being and occurring subsist.” This is my favorite line of pompous gibberish in years. Thanks for that. I am not opening a debate on American exceptionalism. To anyone without an axe to grind, the nation’s singular accomplishments in industry, science, technology, art, entertainment, human rights, literature, foreign assistance, war and peace make the word “exceptional” a fair and obvious descriptor. You can dispute this if you like. You are wrong.

            I recommend the works of Zinn to you highly and without reservations. You will love them. You’re welcome.

            • Jack, hopefully you recognise the intellectual and scholastic difficulty introduced by your gambit of dismissing the views of others with no more than rhetorical flourishes. Again you presume something of enormous scale about America, and then refuse to discuss that presumption; those who disagree with you are just wrong. What exactly does ethics become within such parameters?

              • That’s not the case at all. This isn’t an ideological blog, nor is it a forum to be hijacked by those with ideological agendas. I am quite familiar with the mind- and word-games of those who have a construct, and work to squeeze every issue, fact and occurrence into a conforming hole within it. It is life by confirmation bias, and mine is too short to waste time arguing with such people. Ethics is non-ideological.

                The conclusion that the United States, based on its founding documents, was established to embody and advance virtuous ideals is a fact, not a presumption, and someone has to be spinning hard to claim that over the course of its history, the leaders and the public of the nation haven’t been dedicated to meeting those ideals, often falling short. The burden of proof is on anyone who asserts otherwise, and they are welcome to make that argument…someplace else. I’m not interested in it, and it is not germane here.

                • Jack, your two paragraphs offer contradictory notions. In the first ethics is declared to be non-ideological; and that a fascinating aspiration. The second offers an ideological vision of The United States of America; the declaration as to indisputable facticity notwithstanding, it simply being rhetoric. What you are then saying is that you’re not interested in reflecting upon and discussing where nominal ethics may remain attached to ideology. Where the question then becomes, what does ethics become within such a parameter.

                  • Nonsense. The two statements were unconnected. Ethics is not ideological, though ethical analysis is inevitably warped by ideological biases, hopefully as little as possible. My characterization of the U.S. is factual and historical. I know plenty of people disagree. They are wrong, that’s all. I’m rather sure of it.

                    You do realize, I hope, that you frequently communicate in a parody of academic, pseudo-intellectual clap-trap. This is of no use to anyone, though I’m sure it is amusing to those who communicate similarly. I don’t enjoy it; I’ve never enjoyed it, though there was a period in my life when I was pretty good at the tricks of the trade. I have low tolerance for it now: it reminds me of arguing with anarchists and nihilists in the Sixties. It doesn’t enlighten, it doesn’t persuade, and it alienates and bores 95% of the public, who are the ones who need to be interested in ethical analysis and get better at it. This is why the entire field of ethics has had a negligible influence on modern life, while virtually all public policy problems that should be discussed in ethical terms are instead decided on emotion, snap judgments and rationalization. I’m really not interested in debating philosophy, linguistics, or the sources of anti-American sentiments abroad, at least not here. I’m not interested in watching you try to show how smart you think you are. either. If you were next door, I’d love to hit a bar with you and debate all night, my treat, but that’s not what Ethics Alarms is for, and you’re monopolizing my time.

                    Colin, I appreciate the measured, polite and inquiring style of your discourse, I really do. But it’s off point, your orientation is philosophically hostile to the mission of the site, and your persistence borders on trolling, at least on this thread.

  2. The fundamental issue here, is community. The culture of the United States of America has its population considering what it does in terms of good and necessity and justification; so reflecting on itself and what it does ethically. Beyond the boundaries of that community of the United States of America, ethics are not apparent in what these United States is and does. Ethicality is the ideology of the United States of America, at least in significant part; but the actuality and function of ideology, while making the United States of America distinctive in detail, are in general terms what they have been for every other community throughout human history. Ethics is a post-reflexive activity, and not thereby redundant; but the reflexive impulses to survive and thrive and dominate play out before ethics begins.
    Torture exists on a spectrum. Is it torture, of individuals and localities, to have ecenomic lifeblood drained across changing technology and changing investment patterns. Is it torture, as arguably in Iraq, to invade in a manner which subjects one or more generations to instability and degradation of life prospect. Is it torture to convey to the world, that as long as The United States of America (or Rome or Germany) has the military power and means, it will smash anyone and anything that opposes it in significant ways. Is it torture for The United States of America (and all other investing machines) to sustain a global financial system where the interests of indigenous populations around the world are sacrificed. Is it torture to have populations around the world suffer deprivation to bail out a banking system that often appears to work as does the mafia.
    Torture is not ethical, yes. But we humans engage in a spectrum of torturing to sustain the ways of collective life which advantage some of us. Lets not get fixated on particular points of that spectrum.

    • “Is it torture, of individuals and localities, to have ecenomic lifeblood drained across changing technology and changing investment patterns. Is it torture, as arguably in Iraq, to invade in a manner which subjects one or more generations to instability and degradation of life prospect. Is it torture to convey to the world, that as long as The United States of America (or Rome or Germany) has the military power and means, it will smash anyone and anything that opposes it in significant ways. Is it torture for The United States of America (and all other investing machines) to sustain a global financial system where the interests of indigenous populations around the world are sacrificed. Is it torture to have populations around the world suffer deprivation to bail out a banking system that often appears to work as does the mafia.”

      No, no, no, no, no and no. None of these are “torture”, and using them this way simply makes the poor argument that we’ve tolerated that, so we should tolerate this. This is a collection of rationalizations—“There there worse things” (although there aren’t) and “Look over there!” prime among them. You’re muddying water that isn’t that muddy.

      • Jack, where did I suggest that anything should be “tolerated”? You are egocentrically writing in strawman handles for your own priorities.
        It’s more that the ethical discussions in the United States of America, which properly seen are ideological arguments rather than ethical discussion that can get to fundamentals, depend upon cultural parameters which do no obtain for those looking at the United States of America from the outside.
        Human beings have a very circumscribed capacity to be ethical. Communities then dress themselves up in illusory cultural ideas about themselves. As Bob says, when considering what is taking place across the survive and thrive pragmatism he points to, “then the nation’s ideals are more illusory than real”. Most of what passes for ethical reflection and discussion and argument, is then going to be socialpsychological process process which plays out across what is ultimately illusory; what is more real being what takes across and through such process.
        This has not too much proved a problem for The United States of America when acting out foreign policies of various types. But it has become a crisis domestically; perhaps the kind of crisis which ends tearing great powers apart from the inside. A crisis because it has culturally become unable to grapple with the real fundamentals underlying ethicality. Rather its population currently appears polarised across two dominant politically expressed and mutually exclusive hermetics. From the outside, just how America can reintegrate and progress from this point, is unclear. The United States of America, regards cultural and ethical and intellectual compass, appears to be trapped in something of a moment of dysfunction.
        What The United States of America then does abroad, that is to those considered to be outside its community, on all sorts of planes, has never been guided by ethics, but rather by all sorts of pragmatic considerations, to which every empowered community has always been subject.
        Every empowered community, to survive and thrive and dominate, does dreadful things abroad. Its then not a matter of “tolerating” these things, but rather remaining attentive to and mindful of these things. Ethical reflection which is not grounded in such attentiveness and mindfullness, is always at risk of becoming an exercise of culture and socialpsychology; something a community does within the illusions it provides itself.

        • (Your comment was to me, not Bob. The quote is mine.)

          Frankly, I object to your whole approach. The issue isn’t the justification for invading Iraq, or any of the other complex episodes that in hindsight we may, or may not, regard as breaches of America’s ideals and goals. The issue is torture, and there is nothing ideological about it, The sense of arguments like yours is, “How dare we get our panties in a bunch over torture, when we perpetrated the Trail of Tears? None of the places such an argument can go are productive: “Since we have violated our principles before, let’s follow precedent!” “The US doesn’t really have ideals, it just pretends to!” “We can’t consider torture unless we consider every other issue, which means, in practical terms, we can’t consider torture.”

          There are several ethical problems at root of most of the episodes you mention. If you are the most powerful kid on the block, do you let bullies beat up the other kids, or step in? If you believe that your system is the best chance for the world to achieve peace and harmony, do you try to impose it? Do you agree to work with regimes that violate your core values? All fascinating issues, that are not about torture: the abuse of national and personal power to inflict pain and suffering in order to bend others to their will.

          This kind of statement, with which your comments are rife, are just annoying: “Every empowered community, to survive and thrive and dominate, does dreadful things abroad. Its then not a matter of “tolerating” these things, but rather remaining attentive to and mindful of these things.” This is intellectual humming. Every body does it, followed by…what? Being mindful and attentive are states of mind on the way to action: after being “mindful”, what do you do? There’s nothing ethical about being mindful, unless it leads to ethical conduct.

          • Wdo what do I do across being mindful of what I refer to? I invest in sustained critique of all manifestations of the social and the societal; and I apply that critique to the support of children on the autistic spectrum. I believe that all that needs to be adjusted in the macro social and macro societal, plays out and can be researched in how the social and the societal plays out in autistic occurrence. That may not cover all the required bases, and I may do what I there do becase I’m not capable of doing anything more; but its there that I do what I can to be the change that I reflexively want to see in the world.

  3. That the US has failed these ideals in the past, can’t really be a question. there are plenty of examples in too many places and times. That doesn’t mean we should not examine recent failures or give them a pass just because of fear. The cause for the fear changes over generations, but poor decisions are made that later generations will point at and say that are just wrong. What seems a necessary exception for yesterday’s internment camps, doesn’t once that fear passes.
    Those ideals core to the Founders’ documents, even if they had trouble too, can be called enlightened self-interest, golden rule, or tit for tat game theory, but if we make exceptions and approve of its use, then that approves it being used against us too. The self evident truths were not about us alone, but for all. After all, we stole, er borrowed them from Europe; they didn’t claim those rights were just for Europe.
    Torture takes everyone to the lowest common denominator of animal survival and bullying to a violent extreme. Ideals of equality, liberty, fairness and ethics are hoping to improve interpersonal to inter-governmental interactions above feral; that we can grow up as a species.

  4. Taking the “ticking bomb” scenario – and torture alas does work sometimes in getting time-critical information…

    Torturers should be subject to condign punishment.

    If the only way to stop a nuke going off, killing millions, was for me to torture someone, I’d do it.

    I’d then insist that I be executed. Only by such drastic punishment can we be certain that we are acting in the least unethical manner possible. If it’s not worth dying for, doing it is more wrong than not doing it.

    • That would seem to offer an ethicality based on personal integrity and personal responsibility taking.
      So you would be willing to do something that in itself might seem unethical, and do that in order to avoid what you viewed as a greater evil. And you would secure your own death as the condition of remaining ethical.
      Do you accept that this places you in the same ethical position as the terrorist or suicide bomber: where that bomber or terrorist does something which is ethically indefensible in itself; but that bomber or terrorist does that something in order to stave of a greater evil (as they see it).
      I see that Jack might reject this comparison, if and as he simply writes of the suicide-bomber or terrorist as beyond the pale of consideration, ethical or otherwise.
      Regards Bob’s concern about how ethics can be acted out in the real world, and accepting that you are unlikely to have to deal with the scenario you offer, can you list some of the more down to earth situations in which you would be prepared to be a torturer, and clarify whether you would ensure your own execution in such down to earth instances

    • Totally get your reasoning, if it really saved millions of people from certain death. But I don’t think this particular torture session saved anyone. Bin Laden wasn’t captured before 9/11 to prevent the attacks… Does revenge justify torture?

  5. “Absolutes always have exceptions.”
    Umm…is the author of this statement absolutely certain of this? Because if he is, then he has a problem: If, as the author claims, “absolutes always have exceptions”, then that means that there are exceptions to the absolute statement that says “absolutes always have exceptions”, which logically implies that that there must be at least some absolutes for which there are no exceptions. If indeed, there are some absolutes for which no exceptions exist, wouldn’t torture be one of them?

    • Any more “umms” and “oh really?’s”, jerk, and you’re banned, get it? You’re a guest here; this topic is my specialty and my living, and I am not going to tolerate snottiness from someone who has earned no credility here. The blog’s commenter earn the right to be wise-asses. You haven’t.

      As to your point, yes, I am quite aware of the conundrum yu refer to: Kurt Godel, who identified the Incompleteness Theorem, had a lot of fun with it. I don’t have a problem, you do, because all absolutes fail at one time or another. It is, in fact, the exception that proves the rule. Intransigent absolutists go to grief as soon as they escape the security of theory and have to deal with reality. I know this includes the majority of philosophers. I don’t care. The statement is true.

  6. “When we really have no choice, when it truly is a matter of giving up everything or violating a core principle, then yes, the unthinkable has to be considered.”

    Oh, really, and why is that? If you are willing to consider the unthinkable when faced with giving up everything, does that mean you would consider surrendering to the enemy? As long as you are considering unthinkable things, would you consider surrender to be better or worse than the use of torture?
    The fact that people are willing to die rather than compromise their principles means that you always have a choice. That choice may cost you your life, but isn’t that better than living in moral cowardice? Plenty of our soldiers (not to mention the founding fathers) down through the centuries would seem to agree. To say that one has no choice is really just an excuse for cowardice. This is not to say that I haven’t been guilty of this myself in the past, but at least I’m not making excuses to justify my moral failure.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.