Category: Blog: a weekly comment on an Ethical issue
Created on Saturday, 18 April 2009 18:05
Published on Saturday, 18 April 2009 18:05
Can we ever justify torturing terror suspects in order to protect the innocent?
How can a country with such strong democratic ideals as the USA stand accused of torture?
There is something supremely ironic that a nation which was born out of oppression – the oppressive rule of Britain, a country hundreds of miles away – should sanction torture as a legitimate method of interrogation, especially when that nation has, in its foundation document, a commitment to certain “inalienable rights”.
But that is what the US stands accused of today. Not only did the Bush Administration deliberately imprison people in a portion of Cuba called Guantanamo Bay, so outside of the jurisdiction of US Courts, but it pretended that “rendition”, whereby terror suspects are seized and then moved to foreign countries where torture is allowed, and certain practices like “washboarding”, where suspects had watered poured over their faces in an experience which is said to simulate drowning were not part of US practice. The Administration lied about torture: it tried to pretend that the rule of law was being upheld.
Of course according to Utilitarian ethics, there is nothing necessarily wrong with torture, or lying. The greatest happiness principle states that if the welfare of the majority is best served by sacrificing the rights of an individual, then it’s tough on the individual. No clearer example can be given than the treatment of terror suspects. After all, if by using such practices as washboarding, sleep deprivation, confinement in tiny spaces, one suspect reveals information that saves hundreds of lives, the net happiness gain is enormous.
But consider what is lost. First, as Bernard Williams pointed out in his critique of utilitarianism, moral integrity is lost. Whoever does the torturing loses their integrity because most people’s moral feelings would not allow them to inflict wanton pain on another human being. But also the integrity of the US is lost: they can no longer claim to be morally superior to those who murdered thousands on September 9th 2001 as the twin towers collapsed. Either you live by the law, or you don’t.
Rules-based ethics does better here. A Kantian would argue that torture breaks all three formulations of the categorical imperative. It cannot be universalised, because I cannot rationally assent to the idea that you can torture me if you think I’m a suspect. To do so guarantees pain will be inflicted on the innocent: if you can get the information by a legitimate route, such as investigation , then why torture me? The second formulation, the principle of ends, states that you must never treat humans as a just a means to an end, but as an end in themselves: with rights, dignity and respect. Making the inmates of Guantanamo Bay a means to the end of US security, irrespective of their rights and dignity, is to do something deeply wrong, according to Kant. And we could never rationally assent to a law legitimising torture (the third formulation) because it means that I must be willing to be tortured by a Government who disapproves of me.
In an age where different moral theories are competing it is important that rational principles win. Utilitarianism is rational, of course, and empirical (we can measure the happiness gain), but it can also have immoral outcomes unless we become rule utilitarians like J.S. Mill. If you read the evaluation quotes in the section on Utilitarianism, you will see that some philosophers argue we should be rule utilitarians most of the time, until two principles conflict, when we should become act utilitarians.
Would this have saved the Guantanamo inmates from torture? Or do we need a more absolutist approach to ethics, and say that some things are never justified?