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.
“…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.