Sunday, September 15, 2013

Idle Thoughts -- Torture and Bentham

Evaluate the question of torture used as a last resort in a national security crisis : What would Bentham recommend ? Would you agree? Why or why not ?

Good teacher! Make it current, hit right in the middle of the controversy. Keeps interest high.

I did a blog post about this back when the Bush administration was actually torturing people. Let me look that up first.


A few years ago I had an argument with my youngest daughter, the only other family member interested in politics. Her point, as info is declassified, we will see that torture was necessary and did save us. My response, no my dear, we will see that torture hurt us and the government used "classified" to cover us its failures. Cheney's famous memo that would prove torture worked was finally released. It proves that by torturing Zubaida [spelling?] we got info which allowed us to travel back in time and arrest Padilla even before Zubaida was arrested, much less tortured. Wow! the necromancer's had it right, torturing people gives you magic powers!!

Note: a necromancer is the most evil of wizards or magicians. They do magic by working with the dead, or even by killing people. The Witch of Endor in the Bible is an example of a necromancer.

In other words, as expert, professional interrogators all stated at the time, torturing people gets you false and inaccurate information. You get much better results by using traditional interrogation methods, not including torture.

So, Bentham's arguments notwithstanding, why would you ever use torture when you know it doesn't work? A Benthamite might answer, well, maybe it doesn't work but it makes people feel good and that's the only important thing, isn't it?

I have to add, I know of one case in which torture use was actually justified and I'll explain that after we go through the rest.

I'm not really sure just how far Bentham would actually go. Would he really recommended we do horrible things to people as long as it made many more people feel good? That is what his calculus says, but would he really do it?

To be clear, that IS what his calculus says we would have to do. No matter how wrong it seems to the rest of us, it isn't really wrong at all, as long as it results in more happiness than it does suffering.

Obviously, I strongly disagree. 1. I reject the concept that people feeling happy is inherently moral. I'm not saying it isn't desirable, but I am saying that there is nothing moral or not moral in happiness in of itself.

2. While most Americans strongly supported torture at the time it was being practiced, now a majority of Americans wish we had never done it. How do you calculate present happiness against future guilt ? Bentham attempts to allow for that in his elaborate calculations, but, again, it's all guesswork. Who could even have predicted that the Americans who so eagerly embraced torture would, only a few years later, reject it?

And if someone had predicted, who would've believed it? Consider my position on the Iraq war. I and quite a number of my friends were bitterly opposed to it, at a time when the vast majority of Americans were strongly supportive. I said at the time to a number of people that they would regret their support for the war. I said, "The day will come when the American people will ask, how did we get into this mess?" Only the people who already agreed with me accepted this opinion. The others were sure they would never regret their commitment to the war. And I did not see that we would regret our support of torture.

Let me conclude with my example of a real world case in which I am convinced torture was justified. The argument that was made at the time of US torture by its supporters was, well what if there's a ticking bomb, don't we need to torture person to make him tell us where the bomb is? The problem with that argument was, they could not point to a single case of that actually happening in the real world. That means the argument was, well we might have to torture someday, so we can go ahead and torture all we want to now. By that argument, any person can say, I might have to kill someone someday. Therefore, it's okay for me to kill as many people as I want now.

But there is a real case example, which has nothing to do with terrorism or world politics,in which torture was justified, in my opinion. German police had arrested a kidnapper. He had kidnapped a young boy and demanded ransom. The police knew the boy's life was in danger, but the kidnapper refused to tell them where he was. The police officer in charge of the case actually went to court to get permission to use torture against the man under these extreme circumstances. The moment the man saw the individual who was prepared to torture him and saw the instruments of torture, he confessed to the police where the boy was held. Sadly, the delay had been too long. The boy was already dead. The fact is, had the torture been threatened earlier, the boy would have lived.

But please note some important points. The police knew that this man was in fact actually guilty. He wasn't denying that he had the boy and that the child's life was in danger. Also, he wasn't doing this for religious or political reasons, which can inspire people to make incredible sacrifices, and endure incredible suffering. He was doing it because he was a moral egoist. He wanted money, so he saw nothing wrong with kidnapping and even killing a child, as long as it made him happy when he got the ransom. In other words, the idea of him experiencing any suffering would immediately make him confess. He was only in it for his own benefit. The moment it began to hurt him, he would stop.

This is a totally different motive from that of true believers in either political or religious systems which command that they sacrifice themselves to the cause, especially when you consider that many of them expect go to heaven as an ultimate reward.

The fact is, torture doesn't really work, except in extremely rare, very special circumstances. The show 24 made it always work. It was magic! Many Americans actually pointed to this fictional television show as proof that torture must work. This is the same thing as saying, a safe falling on your head can't hurt you. I know because Donald Duck dropped one on Daffy Duck and all that happened was that Daffy flattened into a pancake shape, went quack quack quack for a while, and then popped back to normal.

But remember, according to Bentham's calculus, as long as it makes enough people feel good, we are morally obligated to do this awful thing. We must inflict this useless suffering upon our fellow human beings, Bentham's calculus says so.

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