Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Torture: The Madness that Wouldn't Die

For proof that this madness will just not go away, see this article:


I'm not sure what it is. Do Americans watch too much 24? Is it that they actually believe that Jack Bauer is a decent human being? It seems that as long as you're a patriot, you can be forgiven any sin. Seems a lot like Christianity to me. You can be a filthy evil bastard and as long as you're doing for God by asking for forgiveness, well, then God bless you and Hallelujah.

It cannot be a coincidence that intellectuals and those who are supposedly representing reason have basically handed out a philosophical carte blanche to the CIA and all of those paranoid 24 fans eager to fantasize about a real-life Jack Bauer cutting up, real-life 100% guilty terrorists to stop an imminent 100% confirmed ticking-time bomb.

Come on, gimme a break! You gotta be kidding me! It brings me right back to Sam Harris, who stands prominently as a person who has argued for torture and reason in the same breath. I agree with his estimations of the religious threat to personal freedom, but the kind of nationalistic justification he offers to support his ideas of torture, undermine those very same freedoms. And we still see this hesitation, this dedication to opening the bag on this travesty and I hold Sam Harris partly responsible for this. I hold anyone who has argued for the acceptability of torture as responsible for this.

I debated with myself whether to publish this or not since I didn't formally ask for an interview, but given that there has still been no recanting of his endorsement, I'll post it and let you decide for yourselves what you make of this. I approached Sam via e-mail to present a counter-argument to his rationalization of torture. What follows is the complete exchange, I have selected to replace my real name with my screenname. Also any additional commentary is bracketed [in green font]:


Dear Mr. Harris,

First I would like to say that I am a great fan of your work against religion and religious thought. I also think that the concept of rational morality is something that has been abandoned for too long in public discourse and the default has yielded far too much ground to the irrational or corrupt. I would like to applaud your efforts in trying to stimulate discussion along these lines and especially outside the confines of a purely academic audience.

However, I think that one of the greatest dangers to the foundation of rational ethics is the potential for it to be derailed by red herrings and inadvertently lead to false justifications of atrocity under the guise of reason. Having throughly read your writings on the subject and responses to your challengers I am convinced that this is in no way your intent in arguing for the use of torture. I instead see it as a result of 'test-driving' so to speak your conception of a rational ethics and seeing where it can take you. I applaud this effort as well. However, I see the torture issue as a possible misfire of that conception.

I understand that you are rejecting arguments based on the efficacy of torture and are looking for a purely ethical argument that would rule it out in all cases. However, I think that efficacy is a major factor in what makes torture unethical. But, in respecting your desire for a purely ethical argument, I would also like to attempt to convince you of some errors in your reasoning on a purely ethical basis. So I will present two distinct arguments against torture. One will be based on efficacy. One will be based on ethics.


You have argued that the effectiveness of torture need only be as effective as the dropping of a bomb to merit its consideration from utility. However, there seems to be little evidence for the efficacy of torture in producing information. The efficacy of bombing in destroying targets is readily apparent. Both techniques do create "collateral damage" as you have pointed out. However, the target of the bomb is known from the start, whereas the target of torture is not necessarily known. You have said that we should consider that if we are going to drop bombs to kill a single man, then we should be willing to possibly torture innocent men in order to save many more lives. Although I would doubt the rationale of using a bomb to target a single man, perhaps this phrasing doesn't do adequate justice to your position.

Let me rephrase it like this:

Intentionally inflicting misery on innocents due to flawed intel is the same as accidentally inflicting misery on innocents due to flawed targeting. That is to say that the collateral damage of bombing inaccuracies bears the same moral weight as the possible misery inflicted on innocent people by being falsely subjected to torture. The problem is in the efficacy of intel gathering.

Whereas in the first iteration of a cycle of torture or bombing, the results appear to be equivalent, the ethical disparity makes itself known in the way future targets are generated. Bombing does not generate subsequent targets of bombing in the same way that torture generates future targets of torture. If a bomb, misfires, innocents suffer. This is a fact. If torture misfires, then more innocents face torture, which in turn forces more innocents to face torture. How does this work? You have already laid out the process in your appraisal of the Inquisition and how it managed to generate massive numbers of witches when there were none. An innocent man has only one recourse when faced with torture, to try and incriminate as many people as possible, to try and tell the inquisitor what he wants to hear. This generates a new cycle of people eligible for torture as suspected terrorists. The only way to mitigate this would be by objective methods of investigation to corroborate or dispel the intel gathered under torture. If there are sufficient methods in place to corroborate such information, then the necessity of reverting to torture seems less urgent. But this is, of course, assuming that we are not 100% certain that the prisoner has information that would save lives.

For the sake of argument, let us say that we have Osama bin Laden in custody. We know that he is privy to scores of plots to kill innocent people all over the world. We need to know what he knows. Would torture enable us to do so? Possibly. And as you have said the probability of obtaining usable intel need only be as great as the possibility of killing him with a bomb. But would torture have any effectiveness in producing information from a devoted zealot such as bin Laden? Would he not simply try to mislead, misdirect, and stall our efforts to avert disaster as much as he could. He could tell us lies that we would have to waste resources on to follow up. He could incriminate innocent men which we may be forced to torture in an attempt to secure that 'real' intel we need. If a bomb goes astray, we do not successively target greater and greater numbers of civilians. If we inadvertently torture innocents, we may find ourselves inadvertently targeting more and more innocents.

This is, in fact, exactly what happened at Abu Ghraib. I'm sure we tortured some guilty men. But the fact was that our original intelligence, the intel which labeled many innocent men as terrorists and granted us our 'certainty' of the permissibility of torture, came from warlords who were both assaulting US bases and running checkpoints at the same time. The flawed nature of the intel bred more false intel which bred more false intel. It was a spiral which got out of control because the premises guiding decisions were flawed to begin with.

But as you have correctly pointed out, this is not a 'purely' ethical argument. So, let me phrase an objection in ethical terms.


First, we need to look at the fundamental ethical premises in play. One assumption inherent in your argument is that the greater the loss of life, the greater the tragedy. In effect, the more human lives threatened the more urgent the need to remove the threat. As such, it would seem that failing to find the ticking bomb in time would be a greater tragedy then the torture inflicted on one man. And in the extreme case, as you say, what if that man is Osama bin Laden, a man who without a doubt has blood on his hands and who very probably knows things which may save lives.

A human life has value. But do more human lives have more value than a single life? If it is ethical to torture bin Laden to save many lives, is it ethical to torture a man to save the life of a little girl for instance? And if it is, would that mean that torture should be used as a judicial as well as a military instrument? The American constitution is based on the premise that all people are created equal, that we ALL have inalienable rights. The reason for this is simple. The minute we start to arbitrarily decide who gets what rights in which circumstance, we start to see our ethical certainty slide away. Many lives are precious because any one life is precious. Any rights of the masses, or of a group of people exist because every individual has that right. If it is inalienable for one then it is inalienable for all. If it is alienable for one, it is alienable for all. The only way the concept of rights and freedoms work is if it is applied across the board. Otherwise we will always have the specter of relativism hanging over our heads. If rights are not universal, then who is it who decides who gets what rights when? Government? Can we really trust the government to preserve rights if we grant them the authority to revoke them?

One possible objection concerns the principle of the right of a government to punish criminals. This principle seems to imply that by violating the rights of others, one cedes their own claim to those same rights. However, in our society we have extended certain rights even to criminals. This is embodied in the doctrine of "innocent until proven guilty". A key assumption in this doctrine is that it is better to let a guilty man go free for want of evidence than to persecute an innocent man in error. If we let a murderer go free for want of evidence, then he may kill again. We have made the choice as a society that it is better that an innocent may die then to punish an innocent. If we turn this on its head and adopt the code Napolean, that we are "guilty until proven innocent", then suspicion is enough to elicit punishment. Fear becomes the focal point. We would be forced to say that it is better to punish an innocent man then let a guilty man free. And this is what it means to say that it is better to torture an innocent man in the hopes of saving many lives. But once again, you're assuming 100% certainty of guilt. So what is the ethical objection to punishing a guilty man, to torturing someone whose guilt is not in doubt?

Perhaps it is better to rephrase the argument in terms of warfare, and this is where the second possible objection to the universality of human rights can be found as well. War is a state where one group of people uses physical force to kill, subjugate, or neutralize another group of people. Under this umbrella is everything from genocide, to UN "police actions". It would seem that war is a state in which human rights are unilaterally abrogated. The stakes are kill or be killed. It would appear to make no sense to handicap ourselves with rights in such situations, except that it is clear that there is a moral distinction between targeting non-combatants and inadvertently killing them. Simply from this we can see moral issues and issues of human rights enter even into the domain of warfare. It is clear that there is something being held more important than winning at all costs. The principle at play here seems to mirror the principles we adopt to justify our judicial system. We consider it appropriate to punish combatants because they are actively involved in the military threat, they are 'guilty' of fighting us. These 'guilty' parties in war have apparently ceded their rights by choosing to fight in the same way that criminals have ceded their rights by choosing to commit crimes. And yet, if we extend certain rights to criminals so as to err on the side of caution, might we not have the same ethical necessity to err on the side of caution in war? I think most people in the world would agree that we do. This is why we have developed things like the Geneva convention in the first place.

Just as rights must be applied universally if rational, so too must our treatment of criminals be universal to be just, or our treatment of enemy combatants to be civilized. The principle of justice works, because the laws are applied systemically to all people irregardless of affiliations. If we start to make exceptions or treat some criminals worse than others for similar offenses then the sense of justice inherent on our system quickly begins to crumble. We are forced to hold ourselves to the same standards that we hold others, and this lends us the moral certainty to criticize countries like China and Egypt for their treatment of prisoners and the inherent bias in their systems of 'justice'. Without this universality, it would all be "relative". The principle of justice in warfare works because we must hold all enemy combatants to be eligible for the same treatment if we are to have the moral certainty to criticize our enemies on ethical grounds.

An enemy soldier is unquestionably a 'guilty' party in war. For whatever reasons, they are involved in actively trying to kill people on our side. As such they surrender some or all of their rights to be treated as we normally would treat other human beings. The extent to which we revoke our consideration of their rights must be equally applicable to ourselves if we are to judge rationally which side has the ethical superiority in a given conflict. So, if our ethical terms are such that it is acceptable to torture the enemy if it may yield information which could save lives on our side even if it means the loss of more lives on their side, then we must allow that it is ethical for our enemies to torture our captives to gain similar information with opposing goals. From the perspective of both sides, the captives are equally 100% guilty of attempted murder and very probably possess useful information. Where then is the ethical distinction?

If it is ethical for us to torture bin Laden so that we may perhaps be better able to kill and torture more terrorists and thereby possibly prevent further loss of American lives, then is it ethical for Jihadists to torture captive American soldiers to perhaps be better able to kill American soldiers and thereby remove us all the more speedily from their land? Of course that isn't their end goal and I am sure that they wouldn't be satisfied until the whole world was Islamified, that our very existence makes us their perceived enemies. But, on what can our ethical claims rest if we do not treat combating sides equally? If it becomes simply a matter of it's ethical because we're doing it for our side, then doesn't the whole concept of rational ethics fall apart? Doesn't it just become might makes right?

The answer is in the universality of human rights, in what constitutes humane treatment of human beings. It is this principle of universality which lends us certainty in our moral superiority in the conflict against terrorism and terrorists. And it is the hypocrisy of trying to circumvent it which undermines our moral credibility in the eyes of the world and of our own people.

I hope that this argument has been sufficient to convince you that the use of torture is not rational or humane. Although I am sure there are probably things which I may have not explained sufficiently, I am certain that these are some core reasons why your hypothesis is in error. If you would like to debate it further, I would be eager to engage in a discourse on the subject. I think that the lion's share of what you have said in your works is admirable and I would like to support many of your causes as much as I, in my limited capacity, can do. However, I can't in good conscience sit by and let reason be used to justify what I perceive as an injustice. I, too, wish to see the further development of the "science" of ethics. It is in pursuit of this that I have offered up this challenge to your views on torture. I think it is vitally important that we provide a rational alternative to the mystical ethics of religion if we are ever to have a hope of driving it into the dark vestiges of our history. But we must be careful not to let it be merely a rationalization of future tragedy.

Sam Harris:

Hi [American Antitheist] --

Thank you for your thoughtful argument re: torture. I think it breaks down is a few places, however, especially in the passage quoted below. What you have given here is itself a statement of moral relativism which I do not accept. It is quite possible, for my point of view, to have a war in which one side really is right and the other wrong in moral terms. Therefore, there would not be the moral equivalence you describe.

In any case, you may not have seen my most recent thoughts on the subject. I have page on my website that I occasionally update. It's here, if you missed it:

On Apr 20, 2008, at 12:14 AM, [American Antitheist] wrote:
So, if our ethical terms are such that it is acceptable to torture the enemy if it may yield information which could save lives on our side even if it means the loss of more lives on their side, then we must allow that it is ethical for our enemies to torture our captives to gain similar information with opposing goals. From the perspective of both sides, the captives are equally 100% guilty of attempted murder and very probably possess useful information. Where then is the ethical distinction?

If it is ethical for us to torture bin Laden so that we may perhaps be better able to kill and torture more terrorists and thereby possibly prevent further loss of American lives, then is it ethical for Jihadists to torture captive American soldiers to perhaps be better able to kill American soldiers and thereby remove us all the more speedily from their land?

[I find it interesting that the quote he is providing is a rhetorical question and not a statement of relativism, one which misses the larger point I was making namely that such a conclusion must be wrong.]

American Antitheist:

Hi Sam--

Thank you very much for taking the time to respond to my e-mail. I understand that you believe that a war can be right in absolute terms, and I share the same view. However the basis for claiming which side is morally superior must be based on a universal standard of rights. If it is moral for one side to use torture, how can it be immoral for the other side of a conflict to do so? If we wish to maintain our moral superiority, isn't it necessary for us to take the high road? I apologize for not phrasing it more clearly in my initial e-mail, but I definitely do not support relativism. I am only saying that the standard for determining the moral character of the combatants has to be universal, or else it just becomes a statement of "It's my side so I'm right." This is most certainly not objective. Anyways I will try to give it more thought so that I can phrase my argument in a clearer and more convincing manner.


[American Antitheist]

Sam Harris:

It may be moral or immoral to wage war. Likewise, it may be moral or immoral to kill, torture, steal, lie, etc. Needless to say, such things are generally immoral (or tainted by immorality). But the details of the situation matter. I suspect that the two sides in a conflict are rarely truly equivalent in moral terms. There are situations in which we may want to pretend they are equivalent, to serve some larger good. But I don't think we need pretend with Al Qaeda.

American Antitheist:

I would also agree there as well. What I am saying is that what makes us morally superior to Al Qaeda is that by a universal application of ethics, we come out better. That we generally don't think that things like torture are good is one of the things which grants us moral superiority. However if we rush to embrace them, we would become as evil as Al Qaeda and we would lose that superiority. Otherwise, what would be the standard by which we gauge our ethics? If you are saying that we need to judge morality on every single isolated situation, then you, yourself are veering from an argument on principle and supporting a relativist ethical stance.

[And that was the end of the exchange]

And THAT is the problem with all justifications of torture. They come down to the idea that, well we're in the right, so anything we do must be right. It neglects the fact that if we stop being moral, then we lose the ability to assert that we are in the right. And he can't justify torture and human rights at the same time. He speaks of "a greater good" as thought that cultural bromide actually meant anything. The Islamists are also supposedly working for "a greater good" but simply saying that something is better doesn't make it so. It is for this reason that the Islamists are wrong. And for the same reason the advocates of torture are wrong. A concept of rights cannot exist if they are applied selectively. From the standpoint of rights, there is no greater good. There is only the individual. The minute you say that it is okay to sacrifice people, any people, then you surrender the whole concept of rights.

But admitting the supremacy of the individual in the conceptualization of human rights is the antithesis of socialist thinking. The whole premise of the welfare state and of the large part of liberal politics is that the great mass of people which constitutes society, the aggregate statistical faceless mass of humanity has the priority. What socialists cannot and never will be able to answer is how human rights can be granted to a mass of people if individual rights are not guaranteed. The reason they cannot answer this is because it is an impossibility. Society is only the sum of all the individuals which constitute it. If you negate the rights of any individual, then the entire mass loses their claim to those same rights. And if in a civilized society, we have a right to our lives, a right not to face torture, even when we are accused or convicted of a crime, then all human beings must have that right, regardless of whose side they're on. If we remove that from one group, we remove it from all.

That is why, the socialists in trying to remove God, have only found another shapeless idea which they call Society to mount in its place. That is why, despite the inevitable truth that there is no god, the socialists cannot embark on providing a reasoned alternative to morality by religious fiat. Because the best thing they have to offer is morality by social fiat, by the domination of popular opinion or the relativistic cadence of nationalism and what is called pragmatism. And it doesn't take one long to see how weak a proposal that would be. No, to truly embrace a morality based on reason, reason must be it's foundation. And reason dictates that human rights, if they are to be valued at all, must be inalienable for all, or inalienable for none.

Until our so-called advocates of reason recognize, embrace, and proclaim this then the great rally against the enemies of reason will ultimately fail, and we will collapse into one of two fates. Theocracy or Socialism. Both absolute in their power. Both rooted in the same ethical system, namely altruism. And both doomed to stifle freedom and intellectual advancement. The only way to avoid this is to recognize the primacy of individual rights. And to be prepared to err on the side of reason.

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