Thursday, November 24, 2005

Voltaire on Torture

One of the greatest documents ever written against torture, and central to understanding why the Enlightenment opposed it, is Voltaire's Treatise on Tolerance. The case in question was the 1762 arrest, torture and execution of the Languedoc peasant Jean Calas, who was accused of murdering his own son in order to punish him for converting to Catholicism. This accusation was made in spite of overwhelming evidence that the boy had simply committed suicide. Voltaire defended Calas in print and made the case a cause célèbre of the time. There is absolutely no question as to what side the founding fathers came down on, whether or not they were slave owners.

Voltaire's main focus here is, of course, against religious fanaticism. However, the important section to me is the first paragraph, which reads as follows:
We soon forget the crowd of victims who have fallen in the course of innumerable battles, not only because this is a destiny inevitable in war, but because those who thus fell might also have given death to their enemies, and did not lose their lives without defending themselves. Where the danger and the advantage are equal, our wonder ceases, and even pity itself is in some measure lessened; but where the father of an innocent family is delivered up to the hands of error, passion, or fanaticism; where the accused person has no other defense but his virtue; where the arbiters of his destiny have nothing to risk in putting him to death but their having been mistaken, and where they may murder with impunity by decree, then every one is ready to cry out, every one fears for himself, and sees that no person's life is secure in a court erected to watch over the lives of citizens, and every voice unites in demanding vengeance.

Note that what makes violence in war acceptable for Voltaire is that the participants have the same danger and advantage, and specifically can defend themselves. This is what is removed in torture. What makes torture so ethically poisonous has nothing to do with what the torture is; water boarding, ripping out finger nails, or forcing someone to stand for 18 hours all have the same effect- namely, you remove the person's ability to defend their own body from violence, and become, in effect, the arbiter of their destiny. You alienate them from human society by making them a person who can be tortured, and from themselves by removing their agency to defend themselves from abuse.

And this is why we have traditionally rejected the use of torture. And why we have to consider the ethical implications of crossing this particular Rubicon.

10 comments:

elendil said...

No, I didn't see this post. Thanks for pointing it out. I see I should be reading this blog more regularly!

I am uneasy with this argument, or at least where you take it. Will this argument work against someone who cares little for an (alleged) terrorist's right to defend themselves? I have seen arguments that terrorists are hostes humani generis, how pirates were once regarded. As I understand it, they were considered to have given up their humanity, and consequently some of the legal protections afforded to people.

Voltaire says later on:
they look upon their brothers who are not of the same religion as themselves, as monsters
which is consistent with my impression that these things happen when people stop regarding the victim as human. So if you want to convince anyone of your argument, you must first convince them that the victim is 'human', or at least human enough to be afforded humanity. Tough call given the sheer inhumanity of terrorism.

I see something else in Voltaire's comment which is more compelling to me. If I am reading it correctly, he makes a direct appeal to his readers' self-interest:
then every one is ready to cry out, [because?] every one fears for himself, and sees that no person's life is secure

This is much easier. No need to convince someone that they are human, deserving of humanity and freedom from injustice. That sort of thing comes naturally. Here we need only (?) convince them that the systems that erode the ability of others to defend themselves can also erode their own.

How would we do that? Maybe point out to them that they are no better able to defend themselves than the current victim? I enjoyed this:
where the accused person has no other defense but his virtue
I imagine the reader thinking to themselves in a rare moment of candor: "Ooh, I'm not so sure the virtue I have is sufficient to defend me from this..."

Rufus said...

Ah yes, that is the counter-argument they keep using. They say the terrorists have given up their humanity. Hmmmm... perhaps one could argue that the terrorists gave up their humanity precisely in attacking those who couldn't defend themselves. That might be an argument for us not to do the same.

elendil said...

An alternative is to point out that a disturbingly large proportion of these cases involve innocent people being tortured. In compiling my blog I've come across many such cases. Unfortunately this argument presupposes that the opposition has the same measure of concern for innocents of an ethnicity different to their own. It has always struck me as cruel that the thing that imbued us with empathy, kin selection, also gave us the inclination not to extend this empathy to those who are not our "kin" (however we might perceive that).

one could argue that the terrorists gave up their humanity precisely in attacking those who couldn't defend themselves. That might be an argument for us not to do the same.

Yes, if only the terrorists had reached the same conclusion, we would not be in this mess now. Ooh, I'm being controversial ;-)

Rufus said...

But, doesn't pointing out how many innocent people are mistakenly tortured suggest that torture is acceptable if the prisoner turns out to be guilty? And then how would we know before torturing them? Better to argue that all torture is repugnant.

As for the terrorists themselves, I find their actions and thoughts totally repellent. But, of course, we should not sacrifice our own humanity in fighting them. Nietzsche warned about staring into the abyss until it also stares into you.

And for reading the blog regularly... well, honestly it's usually pretty hit or miss!

elendil said...

doesn't pointing out how many innocent people are mistakenly tortured suggest that torture is acceptable if the prisoner turns out to be guilty?

Well, I don't believe that, but for pragmatic reasons, I would use that argument if I was faced with someone who did, and I wished to argue from a 'regard for humanity' basis as you suggest. Someone who used the hostes humani generis precedent, for instance.

It's always tempting in a debate to try and attack the edifice from the base so the whole thing comes crumbling down. Unfortunately it takes time, and most people will rarely do you the courtesy of sitting still while I hack away at the foundations of their belief :-)

In our current example, it would mean answering questions like "what is a human?" and "why ought someone have regard for another human?" Very base-level questions. Who knows what complicated memetic structures are involved here? If I have an objective, I find it's better to find the flow of the system and bend with that. I think Lao Tsu had words to say about this approach.

... we should not sacrifice our own humanity in fighting them. Nietzsche warned about staring into the abyss until it also stares into you.

If I recall correctly, the next sentence after that was "... and he who battles monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster". It's the tagline on my blog. I had always got the sense that the "monster" to which he refered was nihilism, although it's not clear because the quote is one of his proverbs given without context.

But you are right, the notion is fitting here, and the warning well-founded. I've noticed a profound change in the way that I relate to the world since having become involved in this work. There are good reasons why is only updated every fortnight or so.

Rufus said...

Oh, I understood it was just rhetorical. But I worry that the pro-torture side (Not to be confused with the right though. Many of the most vehement opponents of torture, such as John McCain and, of course, Andrew Sullivan are conservatives) would wiggle out if given the option that the guilty could be tortured. And part of the point of calling this a moral imperative is to suggest that even torturing Hitler is an immoral act. It is the act, not the subject of the act that matters.

Questions like "What is human?" and "Why ought someone have regard for other humans?" are quite meaningful. And this is the hardest part of the issue. We're dealing with people who have, in some cases, done unspeakable things. Most would agree that they should be removed from society, some would say forever. But, not tortured. That's an unspeakable thing in itself.

I've noticed a profound change in the way that I relate to the world since having become involved in this work. There are good reasons why is only updated every fortnight or so.

It is a very trying time. Where is humanity? What will become of civilization? What is worth defending and why? Yet, this too shall pass.

elendil said...

But I worry that the pro-torture side ... would wiggle out if given the option that the guilty could be tortured. And part of the point of calling this a moral imperative is to suggest that even torturing Hitler is an immoral act. It is the act, not the subject of the act that matters.

I see what you are saying. However, I remain of the opinion that simply labelling something a 'moral imperative' is not going to convince anyone who doesn't already consider it to be wrong. They're the ones that we are after. As I stated before, the most common source for moral imperatives for Americans doesn't say much in our objective's favour. Kant's categorical imperatives seem to me to just be transcendental values without the vengeful God and fire and brimstone to back them up.

In thinking about this last night it occurred to me that not everyone in the opposition is going to be thinking about the issue in any real depth. I've always considered moral absolutes to be at best heuristics, at worst a way to bully someone in lieu of sound logical argument. However I can imagine a place where a majority says "this is absolutely wrong", perhaps because they've thought through it. If it's a sound majority, the rest will be coerced into conforming to this view, or will adopt this view as an "if most people think it's true" heuristic.

I find that deeply unsatisfying. I would much prefer moral decisions to be made on the basis of rigorous thought and rationality. But life is short, and we are all too busy gossiping about our neighbours and saving up for big-screen TVs. I recognise that for the many moral questions that we are faced with, we often resort to taking the consensus view as the best guess. For the most part it works well.

It is a very trying time. Where is humanity? What will become of civilization? ... Yet, this too shall pass.

I want to show you a picture I found very profound. When I first saw the Hubble deep field images my friend's television was on mute, and so I assumed those millions of little specks of light were stars. But when they zoomed in to the larger picture, I was astonished to find that what I had thought were solar systems were in fact entire galaxies.

In my day job as an ecosystem/evolution mathematical modeller, I watch my simulated systems get severely damaged and destroyed because they did not conform to what was best in their best interests. It is unfortunate that the system does not have the intellect to abstract itself from its situation and organise for what's best, but in its cruelty the selective mechanisms are also kind. The destroyed system will be replaced with another, and perhaps it will fare better than the first.

Being an inhabitant of this little rock, I have an emotional attachment to it and would like to see it succeed, humans and all. But in my pessimism I consider the deep field image as an almost infinite sea of possibilities. There's a good chance that somewhere out there we (as in life, complex systems, whatever it is that "we" are) will succeed, and all the failed experiments will have passed away from suffering to peaceful oblivion.

elendil said...

It is unfortunate that the system does not have the intellect to abstract itself from its situation

Maybe this abstraction was what Kant was on about with his categorical imperative!? You have given me a lot to think about :-)

Ah, the internet. Turn a Nietszchian into a Kantian with a few clicks of the mouse.

Rufus said...

One of the things that Mencius said that I've always found fascinating was that nobody would see a child about to fall into a well and not rush to save the child. Perhaps this isn't true of sociopaths, but otherwise I think it holds up.

I guess the ideal would be a society in which everyone wrestles with these questions and comes to their own conclusions, and then discusses them, and comes to an agreement. I don't think it's out of blind obedience that most people believe that things like rape, murder, and torture are immoral, but out of empathy, and perhaps, ideally, rationality.

Kant believed in God, but he believed that we could come to moral beliefs by a sort of cognitive self-determination. If we search our feelings, we find certain things to be forbidden and others allowed. In the absense of a God, or at least a God that we all can agree upon, this seems like a reasonable basis for ethics. Buber's idea of the Other- that we have a responsibility to each other simply in recognizing that the Other is a separate, sentient and mortal being, seems equally valid to me.

As far as evolution goes, I suspect that most of us find it psychologically distressing to do something wantonly cruel or destructive to other human beings because the species seeks to protect itself.

I still like Nietzsche, but he has his limits too.

Rufus said...

Those Hubble pictures are beautiful, incidentally.