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Yesterday, Marc Ambinder asked us to be prepared for the possibility that torture may actually work. In his essay, he drew a lot of heat for making an entirely erroneous analogy that was properly dissected here.

The logic that supported the overall thesis, however, is quite interesting. If torture is wrong, then why should its effectiveness matter?

The answer lies in a very old philosophical question: do the ends justify the means?

If we are to take Ambinder's essay at face value, we can assume that he believes that the ends do not justify the means, at least where torture is concerned. The act of torture is wrong, and the consequences of it's practice are irrelevant, according to Marc Ambinder. Many people on this site believe that, and I respect that.

However, I would assume most people in this country do not share this world view. If the majority thought this way, then I would suppose that a strong majority would flat out reject the use of torture, or preemptive war for that matter. I would assume that most people are more or less consequentialists.

The problem with consequentialism is that, in practice, it is almost always agent focused, in that people tend to act for ends that will reap them some personal gain. For this reason, consequentialism's most ardent supporters are poor judges of what constitutes a desirable outcome, and thus the objectives of it's geopolitical practitioners have almost no ethical basis whatsoever. This is compounded by the fact that, in practice, acts frequently have unintended consequences.

We can see the fruits of extreme consequentialism in the case of the American invasion of Iraq. To begin with, the selection of Iraq as the focus of America's primary post-9/11 adversary came off as agent focused due to the personal animosity George W Bush harbored for Saddam Hussein. Further, the determination of the Bush administration to engage in full scale multi-theatre warfare were likely driven by ego, in the form of Bush's desire to be a "wartime President", and profiteering, with the principal beneficiaries being oil and defense contracting, industries led by the President's family and the Vice President himself, respectively.

Thus, I realize that the evidence does not lead one to conclude this, but let's assume that Tom Ridge's explanation of the events leading up to the war were correct, and accept for the sake of argument that the actors in this case truly believed they had the benefit of Americans at heart, but that they were duped by faulty intelligence, and that they were determined to properly assess the threat level of Iraq toward the US and our allies.

So let's suppose the Administration has received preliminary intelligence suggesting that Iraq could be a major threat in the war on terror. The Administration now seeks to confirm this by any means necessary, so that they can make the correct decision on whether or not to invade Iraq. The method chosen to acquire this confirmation was the use of torture. Remember, in the consequentialist world view torture is a legitimate option if it leads to a desirable outcome, which in this case is confirmation that Iraq is an imminent threat.

Obviously, this method failed.

What Ambinder fails to appreciate in his piece on torture is that, in this particular circumstance, even if someone believes that the ends do in fact justify the means, the acts committed by the Bush Administration, whether through malicious intent or unprecedented incompetence, must be considered unethical since they resulted in disastrous consequences, from the unnecessary deaths of Iraqi civilians and American soldiers, to the squandering of federal resources entrusted to them, to the (presumably) unintended promotion of terrorist activity and the complete deterioration of America's image abroad. There is no "A for effort" in consequentialism. It is outcomes that matter, not intent.

And this particular circumstance is a all that should matter right now to opponents of torture. We don't need to convince the American people that torture is wrong. We just need to show them that the Bush Administration is wrong, and that they should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Ultimately, if we follow the ethical course of action here and prosecute Administration officials, we can achieve the desired ends, which is to deter future Administrations from considering these abominable means.

Originally posted to Alfonso Nevarez on Wed Sep 02, 2009 at 08:18 AM PDT.


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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (0+ / 0-)

    "Philosophy is questions that may never be answered. Religion is answers that may never be questioned." - Anonymous

    by Alfonso Nevarez on Wed Sep 02, 2009 at 08:18:42 AM PDT

  •  Is there ever a case when torture is justified? (0+ / 0-)

    If there were a "ticking nuke" in a city, would torture help identify when/where, to help authorities disable the nuke?

    Or would it make it more likely for the subject to deceive the authorities?

  •  Ambinder has zero background (0+ / 0-)
    In interrogation.  He is uninformed and should be treated as such.

    "Republicans drove the country into a ditch and now they are complaining about the cost of the tow truck"-Jim Cornette

    by justmy2 on Wed Sep 02, 2009 at 09:08:34 AM PDT

  •  Ursula Le Guin wrote a short story (0+ / 0-)

    called "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas."

    Here's how Wikipedia sums it up:

    In the story, Omelas is a utopian city of happiness and delight, whose inhabitants are smart and cultured. Everything about Omelas is pleasing, except for the secret of the city: the good fortune of Omelas requires that an unfortunate child be kept in filth, darkness and misery, and that all her citizens know of this on coming of age.

    That's what I think of when people talk about the means and ends of torture.

    Listen, strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government.

    by Dbug on Wed Sep 02, 2009 at 09:09:28 AM PDT

  •  History holds no examples of torture being used (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    to "defend democracy". But there are many examples of torture being used by colonial powers to suppress rebellions among their subject populations... makes ya think, yes?

    BushCheney Inc. - They lied to me, they lied to you, they lied to our troops.

    by jjohnjj on Wed Sep 02, 2009 at 09:36:47 AM PDT

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