Is there an absolute moral law against torture? The torturers in the daily news try to confuse our thinking about their crimes. They suggest that their behavior was right because it was justified by circumstance, and was "for the greater good". They seek to cast doubt on universal standards of conduct that most people and governments have agreed on for more than a generation. The torturers want us to abandon--or at least question--the absolute and universal moral standard for judging torture wherever it occurs.
Follow me below to a metaphorical ringside seat at an important fight:
This is the latest and most visible of the conflicts betwen these two,
On the one side we have:
"Torture is Always Wrong"sponsored by Rule of Law
On the other side of World Arena,
"It Depends" (on the situation, and what you mean by 'torture', and who ordered it)'sponsored by WorldWideWeapons, Inc.
Be careful here, "Depends" blows a lot of smoke and throws sand in the eyes of the crowd, so folks get confused which side to cheer for.
OK, enough boxing metaphor.
The Cheney PR Tour was blowing lots of smoke about situational ethics when I started writing this piece a couple days ago. Hunter's diary of frustration sent me looking for an absolute standard for ethical behavior, based on what we already know for sure about humans and torture. My background is in biology and psychology, not philosophy, so my opinions are based on my observations of humans in their wild state--including introspection--and reading reports of investigations made by others. My conclusion: There is an absolute, biologically-based moral law against torture; and it comes from our ability to sense what another person is feeling--our ability for empathy.
Torturing another person requires that the torturer have greatly diminished or absent empathy. In that way, torture is similar to murder, rape, war, child abuse, theft, and other crimes that hurt people.
Empathy is the ability to sense what another person is feeling. It's a rare talent in nature, limited to dogs, some apes, and us. Empathy has been shown to exist in newborn babies, and is therefore part of our genetic code and not a learned behavior. Of course there is individual variation; some people are born with more than others. And the ability can be nurtured and developed by parents, and by a society that supports greater empathy. A few people are born without much empathy; they have trouble in life, and cause even more trouble for others. Of course, that doesn't bother them much. Overall, empathy is a valuable trait, even a defining trait for being fully human. It has helped mankind cooperate, take care of each other, create civilizations, and survive as a species. Empathy, like love, is a force for growth.
In contrast, Lack of empathy is destructive to society and is often seen in severe mental illness, war, criminal behavior--and in torturers. It's not hard to conclude that inflicting severe pain and distress on another person--face to face--requires suspension of whatever empathy one has. Most of us couldn't do it; our empathy would cause us to feel the pain and torment of the victim.
Is empathy universal? Sure. Other societies are composed of human beings with a genetic code essentially identical to ours. Like ours, their babies are born with empathy. Each society, through its members, chooses its values, and among those is how much to respect and cultivate empathy. The decision to torture corresponds directly to that choice. If the society cultivates empathy, torture will be rare. If the society suppresses empathy, torture can flourish.
The most universal and ancient moral injunction is The Golden Rule, "Do not do to others, that which would be hurtful if done to you." The Golden Rule exists in some form in every religion, creed and prescription for good living that I’m aware of, western and eastern. This principle is probably so universal because it helps build society, and because it is based on our biologically determined trait of empathy.
So, yes, we have a biologically-based universal injunction against torturing people. Hunter said he was sure that torture is, 1. Illegal and 2. Immoral, but expressed frustration with the distractions used by torturers to throw us off the track of their crimes. Maybe reviewing what else we know about torture will help us to maintain our focus on the crimes committed in our name.
We know with certainty that torture is also,
3. Ineffective at getting useful information. Ineffective at changing the mind of the enemy.
4. Dangerous to the U.S. because it creates more terrorists who are justifiably angry at us. Dangerous to our military if captured.
5. Harmful to the tortured, the torturer, and to civilization itself.
6. Expensive, because after creating more enemies through torture, we spend more on armies and weapons to feel safe.
7. Irreversible. How can we ever live peacefully on the same planet with those whom we have tortured?
8. Forever, Its terrible effects last a lifetime in the victim --(and the perpetrator). The effects of torture spread to others in the society, and are passed on to future generations.
Those who know these facts and continue to torture are mentally ill (i.e. psychopathic) and/or criminal (i.e. sociopathic).
Summary: We are (almost) all born with empathy and a biological inhibition against torturing others. Torture destroys people and society and violates our laws and our basic biological/human nature. Nothing good comes from torture and it is therefore universally banned by civilized people--without exception.
We have reviewed the evidence supporting what we already knew in our gut to be true. Now, when a Bushco torture enthusiast tries to distract us from his or her crimes, we, remember and respond with the following:
Torture is universally and absolutely, morally and legally wrong in and of itself. It produces no accurate information and benefits nobody. Torture cannot be justified or excused by its purpose or goal; it cannot be justified by the identity of the torturer or the victim, nor by the relationship between them (e.g. race, nationality, sex, tribe, clan, political party).
Torture can neither be justified by the torturer being ordered to do it, nor by the known or suspected past deeds or feared future acts of the victim or the group that the victim represents.