Monday, November 28, 2005

torture and question-begging

Charles Krauthammer has an article in which he argues against the McCain "torture" amendment. He makes a very good point in the last couple of paragraphs, showing that McCain himself doesn't really believe in the amendment, but overall, I think he made a weak argument as can be seen by Ramesh Ponnuru's response:
I still resist Krauthammer's conclusion, because the example seems to go a lot further than he suggests. Doesn't his bomb end up blowing up any categorical moral prohibition? If we're talking about saving a city, for example, would it be permissible to torture the terrorist's innocent elderly mother or infant child to get him to talk?

It can't be the case, can it, that this example serves as a succinct proof of consequentialism in ethics? If it isn't, then we're left with the idea that what we can do to someone we're interrogating depends on his guilt and the gravity of the situation.
The position that Ponnuru describes is, of course, highly suspect. Surely there are acts (such as torturing an infant) that are universally morally wrong, no matter the need. But is torture one of these universally wrong acts? I have argued before, here and here, that is not.

By comparing torture of a guilty terrorist to the torture of an innocent baby, Ponnuru is begging the question. But to be fair, Krauthammer and others, by the way they put their argument are inviting critics to beg the question in this way. They start out: "Yes, torture is bad, but suppose..."

I put it differently: torture is just another form of violence. It has moral rules of application similar to beating, killing and other forms of violence. A moral society outlaws these things. We find violence in general to be morally repugnant. But a moral society also recognizes that sometimes violence is the right thing to do. Sometimes killing is a moral imperative, just as sometimes torture is a moral imperative.

Killing an innocent baby is universally wrong. Killing a murderer is not. Similarly, torturing an innocent baby is universally wrong. Torturing a terrorist is not.

Torture, like other forms of violence, is something that is so wrong in so many circumstances that we tend think of it as generally wrong. Torture for gain, for revenge, for entertainment is horribly wrong, just like beating or killing for gain, revenge or entertainment is horribly wrong. But just because torture is often wrong doesn't mean that it is always wrong.

What Krauthammer and others appear to be arguing is that torture is an evil that is sometimes necessary. I would argue instead that torture is an act of violence that is sometimes evil and sometimes good.

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