Friday, November 18, 2005

Thoughts on Torture and Slavery

And so, if all reports are to be believed, we have crossed the Rubicon- we have become a nation that tortures. Forget the "ticking time-bomb scenario"- we have committed an immoral act, and far worse than committing such an act, we have christened it as moral.

This is, of course, a situation in which an "activist" like Noam Chomsky is totally useless. Nearly every statement that the far left makes concerning "'Uhmurika" is an insult. Klauswitz said that the man who defends everything defends nothing. Similarly, the man who finds everyone guilty legitimizes the truly guilty.

This is a situation in which the right needs to recognize a moral absolute, and the left needs to become more comfortable with defending a moral absolute. Torture is morally indefensible- in every case, and every situation. If it is "waterboarding" or ripping out fingernails, or even "stress positions", it is a morally wrong act. As a liberal, it feels good to be interdictory for once- this is something that can never be done.

Torture is worthless as a means for gaining evidence, it is morally indefensible, and it represents the end of moral authority, which the US had hoped to preserve, and its replacement with arbitrary power. As leaders from Nero to Stalin have shown, the two cannot co-exist.

Torture is also, ultimately, wedded to slavery in a marriage of necessity. In the first place, torture is the foundation of slavery; it is the last resort of the slave-owner, and key to the social alienation of the slave. A slave is literally a person who can be tortured. So, even a slave-owner who has never tortured is still a torturer because the key to their authority remains torture.

Secondly, the last resort of the torturer is ultimately either slavery or murder. The tortured can never be untortured, and by being tortured have been removed from society in an irreparable way. Ultimately, most societies that torture have had to resort to murder, in the case of Argentina or the Soviet Union for example, or slavery, in the case of Rome or even Hellenic Greece. This is why the tortured often become the disappeared, and we might suggest that the 83,000 prisoners of the war on terror, by having never been tried, can be considered slaves.

But, every torturer becomes a slave-owner, even if only briefly, by torturing. Torture is definitionally violence inflicted with the victim having no agency to defend themselves. The key aspect of torture is this removal of agency. This is why the torturer will tell the victim that there is no escape and that no one can save them- the individual is alienated from society and their lack of freedom or human agency is what allows them to be tortured.

And so, by sanctioning torture, or even "light torture" we have re-sanctioned slavery, even if we do not have slaves. But, I believe we do.

(Please forward.)

40 comments:

Anonymous said...

Excellent points. (Got referred here from Andrew Sullivan's blog).

Violence is only worthwhile as a last resort (I don't mean the ticking bomb scenario-- I mean defense or others or defense of self) & when it doesn't keep itself in check with specific goals & limitations it will naturally go as far as it can-- the stripping away of human dignity.

No ends is so great that all means should be available-- there is a point at which it contradicts itself & for those who think torture has some practical uses (which it doesn't-- bad interrogation techniques render bad intel) they are negating the very principles that are worth defending.

Anonymous said...

The worst form of slavery is not just physical slavery, where someone must do what is required. It is mental slavery. The effort to take control of someone's miind. That is what torture is for. And in the end, not only to control someone's mind but to leave them with the sense of guilt for having capitulated.

All torture is wrong. Agreed. And it is also wrong to defind torture, to explain it. The action is wrong. And the mental description which tries to erase the wrongness of the deed - that is a sin.

Honestly, I think we need to return the word sin to this debate. Not only is it immoral. It is sinful - both to do torture and to defend it.

Yes, return virtue to its rightful place. And name torture as sin.

Also got here via Andrew Sullivan - not my political leaning, but nevertheless a worthy blogger.

Anonymous said...

I do not feel that there needs to be any logical or moral argument for or against torture. I think, simply, that we should recognize torture for what it is, psychopathology. Isn't a psychopath someone who lacks a normal or sufficient capacity for human empathy, and even takes pleasure in the suffering of others? If we are going to have this discussion at all, then I think it should be clear that anyone who even entertains the prospect of torture may have these tendencies, to some degree or another, and maybe instead of engaging them in serious discussion, we might suggest psycological treatment.

Rufus said...

Anonymous 2
I absolutely agree that we should return the word sin to the debate. I don't even think we need to quibble about whether or not evil is a metaphysical quality to understand certain actions as innately evil- that is, as wantonly cruel and destructive.

elendil said...

This is a situation in which the right needs to recognize a moral absolute, and the left needs to become more comfortable with defending a moral absolute.

Would the right-winger ever believe anything a left-winger tried to say about moral absolutes? Unfortunately the most common source of 'moral absolutes' for the American right-winger doesn't say much in the left-winger's argument's favour. I've had very little luck appealing to the anyone's sense of right and wrong. Personally find it much more reliable to appeal to the right-winger's self-interest and sense of self-preservation. That is, after all, what I suspect motivates all this interest in 'moral absolutes'.

Rufus said...

Anonymous 1,
Thank you!

I agree that violence is justified when kept in check by certain limitations. Two soldiers on a battlefield shooting each other is acceptable because both has the ability to defend himself. One obvious check would be that inflicting physical or mental violence upon people who cannot do anything to protect themselves from that violence is not acceptable. But, I would agree that self-defense is a reasonable grounds for resorting to violence.

You're exactly right about the ends and means. Aristotle argued that corrupt means will corrupt the noblest ends. I fear that he was right.

Rufus said...

Anonymous 3,

You may be right. In this case, I would suggest that Rumsfeld, Cheney and the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal need to meet with a good therapist as soon as possible.

Rufus said...

elendil,

I have endless faith in the possibility of finding goodness and decency in other people that only runs out in the case of radio talk show hosts.

Anonymous said...

more from anonymous 3:

When I am arguing with someone about torture, it is difficult for me to come up with logical arguments against it, and besides, logical arguments do not seem to have any effect. Likewise, my opponents struggle to come up with logical arguments in support of torture, but their arguments have no effect on me.

After thinking about this problme, I began to realize that some of us feel great empathy for others; some of us feel nothing; most are somewhere in between. Whether a person thinks torture is a good idea or a bad idea really depends more on this inner feeling of empathy, than it does on any kind of rational logic. The logic is merely invented to support the feeling that torture is ok, or that is not ok.

I would like to say that my feelings on torture are based on my Christian upbringing, or my university exposure to the European Enlightenment. But, it is really more, just my inner feeling.

In arguing about torture, the only thing that seems to really get an opponent's attention is my reference to the psychopathology that this kind of thinking seems to indicate. More specifically, reference to the word "psychopath" seems to get a more thoughtful reaction, because, I suppose, people don't want to be thought of as "psychopathic." I think this is a worthwhile train of thought.

And, yes, I would apply this word to Bush, Cheny, and Rumsfeld, at least to some degree. Since this is a complex personality disorder, it can be manifested in many gradiations. And oh, yes, part of the psycopathic syndrome is that the person with this disorder does not otherwise suffer from any kind of obvious psychosis.

Rufus said...

I hope it came across that I agree with you- I think it does indicate a lack of affect to be able to argue for torture- and lack of affect is, of course, a major indication of psychopathy. What worries me is how psychopathology becomes mainstreamed. At what point does the culture become pathological?

elendil said...

... that only runs out in the case of radio talk show hosts.

Hehehe :-) Good one.

I'm sorry, I'm not trying to dissuade you of your assurance of things hoped for. If nothing else, those who have this faith in humanity do good work and motivate others, and I'd never stand in the way of that. Simply that I don't find it very effective to appeal to morality without a threat to one's self-interest. But hey, combining both works well. Then you can hide the self-interest under some self-righteousness to help it gone down smoother.

Anyway, you started off saying that the left needs to become comfortable defending a moral absolute, while the right just needed to recognise one ... being that they would automagically defend it once identified? Can't say that's been my experience. They just deny that its wrong.

Well, I just wanted to let you know why one "leftist" won't be bothering with the moral absolutes. I've had bad experiences with them and they haven't been effective. I wouldn't use them even if I did believe that they were anything more than a way to skip rational argument and bully someone into conforming to your worldview.

Anonymous said...

more from anonymous 3

I have also concluded that on this subject, rational argument is pointless, and so I would skip that too. It is pointless, because from both points of view, it is insincere. Rational arguments are created to support an inner feeling. The inner feeling pre-exists the rational argument and has nothing to do with it. If someone supports a policy of torture, rational argument does not seem to effect them, any more than it would effect a tree stump or a brick wall. But if you suggest, imply, or even accuse them of being psychopathic, it is almost like slapping them in the face. It gets a reaction. And even if a person will not admit that their mind has been changed, I think it may get them to think a little bit more than they have been. It may help thoughtless people think. And it also casts a taint over any defensive reply.

Rufus said...

Anyway, you started off saying that the left needs to become comfortable defending a moral absolute, while the right just needed to recognise one ... being that they would automagically defend it once identified?

Oh, I was just trying to suggest that there's some world class self-delusion going on there. I was more shocked at the inability to recognize an unethical act that is staring them in the face at this point.

Tony said...

If you are engaged in a war, by definition violence against the other party is its essence. Otherwise it's not war, it's diplomacy (as Clausewitz didn't say).

Whether the other party can defend himself is irrelevant. Indeed, it is far smarter to attack your enemy when he is defenceless than armed to the teeth. Why take unnecessary risks?

As for torture, there are two arguments.

One is that it produces unreliable evidence because the screaming victim will tell you whatever you want to hear.

This may sometimes be true but not always. 400 years ago, Guy Fawkes - the Catholic-extremist would-be 9/11-style blower-up of England's Houses of Parliament - was brutally tortured on the rack till he revealed the names of his co-conspirators. Which he did. So torture can certainly work. For good measure, he and they were then tortured to death (hung, drawn and quartered).

The other anti-torture argument is that it is morally wrong, demeans the perpetrator and renders him no better than the Al-Qaeda thugs he is fighting.

This is the only argument that holds any water. But, like some of your other commenters have remarked, I believe torture is simply a mortal sin in the eyes of God.

Therefore, for the salvation your own soul in the hereafter, you shouldn't do it. End of story.

Definition of torture is another difficult area. Consider -

+ Waterboarding - certainly.
+ Sleep deprivation - maybe.
+ But playing Eminem non stop? I don't think so.

Very good original post, by the way. Thought provoking. Think I'll write something myself.

Lorenzo said...

Just a technical point: the Soviet Union also engaged in slavery -- the labour camp system was clearly a form of state slavery.

Anonymous said...

more from anonymous 3

Last night on "HardBall with Chris Mathews," they were discussing torture in terms of psychopathy, which suprised me a little, since I have never heard this public take on it before. But they were just validating my thinking.

Anonymous said...

more from anonymous 3 (Dan)

Last night on "Hard Ball with Chris Matthews," they were discussing torture in terms of psychopathy. I was a little suprised, since I thought I was the only one who has made the connection.

Anonymous said...

These nine Senators voted against the Torture Amendment. Interesting in light of the connections.

Allard (R-CO) - territory open to slavery
Bond (R-MO) - slave state
Coburn (R-OK) - slave state
Cochran (R-MS) - slave state
Cornyn (R-TX) - slave state
Inhofe (R-OK) - slave state
Roberts (R-KS) -territory open to slavery
Sessions (R-AL) - slave stateNA
Stevens (R-AK) - NA

Rufus said...

I still have faith in the people of those states though, if definitely not the leadership. In fact, I would be overjoyed if those nine Senators found themselves, after election time, working at McDonalds.

Rufus said...

Lorenzo,

You're exactly right. The Soviet model was perhaps the largest forced labor system in the 20th Century. I highly recommend Anne Applebaum's study "Gulag: A History". Thanks for the note!

Rufus said...

Dan,

I'm glad they picked up on that too- it's an interesting point.

Hopefully, someone will raise the question about what happens when a government condones psychopathy.

Rufus said...

Tony,

I agree that it's a mortal sin. But, I think it's horrible enough that not doing it is what Kant called a categorical imperative. In other words, I think that ethical people will not torture. Period. This would be similar to rape- something that ethical people in all societies simply know not to do.

So, I think it goes beyond being a mortal sin to being a universal moral imperative.

Thanks for the insightful comments!

elendil said...

Oh, I was just trying to suggest ...

It's okay. My original message had in it something along the lines "but I am probably reading too much into it" but for some reason I deleted it.

Tony, I want to steal a quote in response to you. It goes:
The foundation of morality should not be made dependent on myth nor tied to any authority lest doubt about the myth or about the legitimacy of the authority imperil the foundation of sound judgment and action.

Your argument that torture is simply a mortal sin in the eyes of God does not work for those of us who do not believe in God.

Here is another reason to add to your list -- one that I find particularly compelling. It is often said that we need the option of torture to gain information to protect us from terrorism. However, it is also acknowledged that torture gives the group a bad reputation, and motivates terror against it. I see the deepening sectarian divide in Iraq as evidence of this. The system has gone into a terrible positive feedback, terror motivating torture, torture motivating terror. Someone must abstract themselves from the system, see the big picture, try to stop the cycle.

Note here that I am not justifying terrorism as a response to torture, simply stating it as a fact, in much the same way that I would observe the action and reaction of billiard balls on a table. Like the billiard balls, terror and torture care little for any high falootin concepts of morality.

So, if the objective is to fight terrorism, we must simply ask ourselves: do the pros of information gain outweigh the cons of motivating extremism, and ultimately terrorist actions? You could probably add some other cons, like the brutalisation of this species, if the welfare of those outside your ethnic group concerns you. It seems to me that America has asked itself this question, and made it's decision. Now the entire world will take the consequences.

elendil said...

Kant called a categorical imperative

Full disclosure: I read too much Nietzsche, and we all know what he thought of Kant :-)

I realise what I'm doing here is pointless, surrounded by people with fundamentally different views who at best are right now viewing me with deep suspicion, but I just can't seem to help myself when I see something like this:

This would be similar to rape- something that ethical people in all societies simply know not to do.

Really? So we would expect, then, that that great and venerated handbook of morality and wisdom, the Holy Bible, would never condone the rape of women captured in war, and certainly not formalise the process.

There is a dark place in the human soul, and the sooner we swallow our pride and admit that it is there, the sooner we will be able to put an end to all of this unecessary suffering.

Rufus said...

Don't worry- I'm not viewing you with deep suspicion. Also, for the record, I'm not actually a Christian, although I'm quite familiar with the writings. While I respect the teachings of Christ, I place them in an ethical tradition that includes Aristotle, Lao Tzu, Siddhartha Guatma, Mohammad, Confucius, Augustine, Kierkegaard, and yes, even Mr. Kant. Moreover, I don't take every word of the Bible as necessarily correct or as the word of God.

While I agree that there is a certain amount of cruelty (or perhaps psychopathology to continue that theme) in all people, what worries me is the idea of a state encouraging wanton cruelty to occur as long as it's in their interests.

Most of the classical texts are notoriously accepting of torture and rape. Actually, I think the great historical opponent of torture was Voltaire, who was, of course, an ethical thinker, but far from religious. Honestly, we could really use Voltaire right about now.

Thanks for the comments! And relax- your opinions are more than welcome!

Tony said...

Elendil writes "Really? So we would expect, then, that that great and venerated handbook of morality and wisdom, the Holy Bible, would never condone the rape of women captured in war, and certainly not formalise the process.". He provides a couple of links to shameful verses from the Old Testament - Numbers (31:17-18) and Deutoronomy (21:10-13) - whith authorise you to more or less help yourself to your enemy's women.

Though I am a Catholic, I abhor the Old Testament. It is riddled with immoral exhortations such as these.

The one thing I regret about Jesus Christ is that he didn't dissociate himself from it.

However, go through the four gospels and you won't find anything that a moral person - Christian or otherwise - cannot agree with. Not only did Christ teach that we should love our neighbour as ourselves, but he personally never stole, raped nor killed.

What a difference from Mohammed and his Koran.

Christ would not have condoned torture.

Rufus said...

Well, Mohammad led an army from Medina to reclaim Mecca. But, I think the same could be said for the Koran as for the Bible- that it shouldn't be judged solely by its handful of "shameful passages". It's one of the most complex books I've ever read. But, there's a lot more to it than rape or torture.

elendil said...

I abhor the Old Testament...However, go through the four gospels and you won't find anything that a moral person - Christian or otherwise - cannot agree with.

It is true that the New Testament is a lot more moral than the old, and though I've been atheist for some time, I still value some of the teachings like the tithe.

If we restrict it even further to the four gospels (thus carefully avoiding all kinds of dubious things that Paul said) the only things that remain are the invention of eternal torment (all OT refs to "hell" in the translations are actually "sheol" in the Hebrew) and what may or may not be a bit of racism from Jesus. Even if the latter is true, it's not a big deal. He was a product of his culture, and, well, nobody's perfect ;-)

Most of my issue is with the NT is not crimes against morality, but crimes against logic. But that's a story for another time.

[Jesus] never stole, raped nor killed. What a difference from Mohammed and his Koran.

Yes, it's true that Jesus was a lot less violent and immoral (by our standards) than Mohammed ... It's also true that I'm prettier than John Howard. I don't think anyone would see the latter as a very compelling argument for the power of my feminine charms, so I'll leave you to do the extrapolation on the former.

Tony, I think you've proved my original point. You've obviously used your intrinsic niceness and your intellect to reach the conclusion that raping women is wrong. Although Deut is presented as the word of God, a 'moral absolute' if you will, you have made what I would consider the right decision. You have overruled the 'moral absolute' with intellect and your empathy.

If we can go one step further, and consider your empathy a form of self-interest (e.g. "it would pain me to have anything to do with a woman being raped"; or "I would be ashamed to do this"), then my original point stands.

elendil said...

what worries me is the idea of a state encouraging wanton cruelty to occur as long as it's in their interests.

As I understand it, theoretically, the democratic state is meant to be a representative of the interests and desires of its constituents. I'll concede that it doesn't work perfectly in reality, but it seems to me that in this case, with the exclusion of a minority like you, that is exactly what the state is doing. Perhaps it stands to reason that the state would be less moral than its constituents, because the people are imbued with empathy directly, but the state must receive its empathy from its constituent parts, diluted as it is by the other forces that direct its actions.

I've been very cynical here (thank you for putting up with me), but I wonder if I betray my philosophy with my actions. I have taken a position of moral skepticism, but my motive for doing that is to get to the heart of the issue, so that I can make the world a more pleasant place. If appealing to one's sense of morality is an illusion, it is a persistent one, and one that I can't seem to abstract myself from. I don't think I really want to. I'm much happier when I know that others are happy too.

Ah, Voltair. Voltaire said something like "all you need is a library and a garden". Add a bottle of red to that, and I'll agree that he was truly a wise man :-)

Rufus said...

You saw the post on Voltaire's attack on torture, no?

http://gradstudentmadness.blogspot.com/2005/11/voltaire-on-torture.html

jakejacobsen said...

I understand where you guys are coming from but this feels like a closed loop conversation.

You throw the word torture around very easily, yet, what is torture. To me it's most music produced today but that's another day.

Allow me to introduce another word into our shared lexicon. Interrogation. How would you extract information from a hardened terrorist? No really? You guys are full of condemnation and high falutin' quotes, how about some practical advice for our man and women actually in the field, right now.

Cops interrogate criminals, soldiers interrogate terrorists or enemy combatants. Can interrogation turn into torture? Of course. Look, I live in Chicago if you think I haven't seen horror stories of interrogation going to far, well, you don't know this city very well.

But is it always wrong? I don't think so. I also find the comparison to slavery a bit bizarre. Dehumanizing, yes, slavery? I just don't see it.

Anyway, you guys are having a good chew on the subject here, but, are you possibly overreacting?

Rufus said...

Jake:
I understand where you guys are coming from but this feels like a closed loop conversation.

Well, the idea of a moral imperative is that it is a closed loop. "X is wrong. So don't do X."

You throw the word torture around very easily, yet, what is torture. To me it's most music produced today but that's another day.

Torture is the use of physical violence on a defenseless individual in order to extract information or inflict punishment.

Allow me to introduce another word into our shared lexicon. Interrogation.

But, you're just changing the subject. Nobody has said that we should stop interrogating people.

How would you extract information from a hardened terrorist? No really? You guys are full of condemnation and high falutin' quotes, how about some practical advice for our man and women actually in the field, right now.

I really shouldn't have to explain to you how military and police officers interrogate subjects without the use of torture. This is the norm and it has been the norm for centuries now. Torture has traditionally been forbidden. Which is a norm that I'm saying should continue. My advice for the soldiers would be to interrogate without the use of torture, which is what they've always done. And I'd venture to bet is what the vast, overwhelming majority of them will do anyway.

Cops interrogate criminals, soldiers interrogate terrorists or enemy combatants. Can interrogation turn into torture? Of course. Look, I live in Chicago if you think I haven't seen horror stories of interrogation going to far, well, you don't know this city very well.

Yes, people do torture, and they probably will again. We're simply saying that the government should not condone the use of torture by its representatives. Period. We should not legalize torture.

But is it always wrong? I don't think so. I also find the comparison to slavery a bit bizarre. Dehumanizing, yes, slavery? I just don't see it.

I phrased it in a provocative way to get a discussion going about the ethical implications of torture. It's an old teaching trick. And I think it's worked.
What I was saying is that torture and slavery exist on a continuum and that it's hard to have one without eventually resorting to the other. But, yes, I believe that it is always wrong. Maybe we just disagree on that.

Anyway, you guys are having a good chew on the subject here, but, are you possibly overreacting?

Perhaps. Could you be failing to react fully?

Peter Porcupine said...

Carleton - How interesting that your objections to torture do not exend to radio talk show hosts. Except for Al Franken? Mine do not extend to liberal bloggers...

BTW - If you want to reintroduce the word 'sin' into your discourse, be careful - it's likely to go other places you may not want it turning up.

Rufus said...

Carleton - How interesting that your objections to torture do not exend to radio talk show hosts.

It's not interesting- I said absolutely nothing of the sort. I object to anyone being tortured and never said otherwise.

I said, jokingly, that I have little hope of finding decency in talk show hosts. But, that's not the same thing at all as saying that I don't object to their being tortured, and your inability to read closely is not my problem.

Please, stop embarassing yourself. I can't stand Al Franken, I was raised Catholic, so I'm quite familiar with the concept of sin, and you just have no idea what you're talking about. You should have more self-respect than to go onto a public forum and spout off like an alcoholic illiterate teenager. But, you don't. And that's sad.

Good day!

Rufus said...

Mine do not extend to liberal bloggers...

And Wow! How completely morally bankrupt do you have to be to say you're alright with someone being tortured if they have different political opinions than yours?! How totally lost do you have to be?

Anonymous said...

Why should we forget the ticking bomb scenario?

And as for it never working, that isn't what Sen. McCain (who opposes it) said, is it?

Rufus said...

Sigh.

Rufus said...

At some point, I will post about the ticking time bomb scenario, and why it has nothing to do with the question of whether or not torture is an immoral act. I've already posted on McCain and why, no, torture didn't "work" in his case either.
Otherwise, I just don't feel like feeding the trolls.

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