Wednesday, May 19, 2004
Moore on Torture
Moore's Argument, roughly reconstructed
One way of distinguishing between ethical theories is the deontological/consequentialist distinction. Consequentialists believe that an action is right just in case it brings about more good than any other possible action. Deontologists believe that an action is right just in case it accords with some antecedent standard or rule.
Some consequentialists have attempted to argue that deontological-looking standards can be justified on Consequentialist grounds. The Rule Utilitarians believed this. This position, however, is unstable. The problem is that the fundamental commitment is to consequentialism. In the face of this, there appears to be no justification for following rules when some other action would bring about better consequences (where an understanding of the consequences includes the knowledge that the rule won't be undermined as a rule).
In general, we ought to be deontologists. But we should also be aware of, and sometimes responsive to, reasons steeped in consequentialism. This sensitivity should not be confused with the Rule Utilitarian position, or any position which assumes that one kind of reason, whether deontological or consequentialist, is fundamental. Rather, it is an acknowledgment that in our moral lives we encounter a variety of different kinds of situations and that these situations, so to speak, call for different sorts of reasons.
Turning now to torture, on most occasions when we have the opportunity to torture someone we ought not to for familiar deontological reasons. And this is the case despite the fact that, sometimes, torture would have desirable consequences. For example, if we were to brutally torture shop lifters then there is a likelihood that the crime of shop lifting would occur much less frequently. And it might be that, consequentially considered, the balance of goods would be on the side of torture. Still, we ought not to torture shop lifters.
There appears to be, however, a kind of case where consequentialist reasoning would be justified. What I have in mind are cases where a terrorist conspirator has knowledge of an impending attack and we can, through torture, extract that knowledge. In such a case we should appeal to consequentialist reasoning.
In saying this we should acknowledge that the kind of torture necessary is likely to be especially inhuman and brutal. As such, it won't be enough to say that we can, through torture, save one life. We will have to be able to save many. But these considerations, you will notice, are consequentialist considerations.
A few hanging questions
- I seem to remember that Moore had some opinion as to what procedure we ought to follow in these matters, but I can't recall what it was. The torture debate, circa 2002, had some people arguing that judges ought to oversee torture and that it should require some sort of warrant and others arguing that torture ought to be against the law but should be done, extra-legally, anyway. In considering Moore's position relative to Abu Ghraib, this part of his position may be significant.
- Another detail I can't remember is Moore's position regarding innocent bystanders. Would he allow a child to be tortured as a way of gaining information from a parent? If not, then Moore's position may be less philosophically contentious than I thought at the time. It would seem, that is, to fit comfortably into accepted doctrine on self-defense. The terrorist conspirator could be understood as an aggressor and the decision whether or not to torture then would be made largely on grounds of proportionality.
I'm inclined to evaluate Moore's argument more generously now than I was at the time. This may be because I've reconstructed the argument in a form more to my liking, but I don't think that's the entire story. At the time it seemed to me (and this was a line I heard from others as well) that Moore wasn't serious about his claim that, in general, we ought to follow deontological rules. This skepticism was sparked by a suspicion that he opted for consequentialism in hard cases.
As I look at the reconstructed argument, though, the fundamental metaethical point that it makes seems right to me. That point, as I see it, is that different kinds of reasons are appropriate given the complex specificity of different concrete situations.
The ethical point, that the right sorts of reasons for these sorts of cases are consequentialist reasons, also seems less objectionable. Especially if Moore can draw on the resources developed by theorists of self-defense.
In the wake of Abu Ghraib
A committed consequentialist might draw several lessons from Abu Ghraib. If, as seems likely, the revelations will make it more difficult to accomplish a stable Iraq then the consequentialist would have to wonder whether the balance of goods really does weigh in favor of torture. Moreover, since these consequences follow more directly from the advocacy of torture than from the torture itself, these considerations might be thought to weigh against giving a talk like Moore's. However, since Moore is not a committed consequentialist, and anyway lacks the stature to bring about such consequences, these considerations may not weigh heavily on him.
If Sy Hersh's latest installment in the New Yorker is to believed, then the abuses at Abu Ghraib were the end product of a progressive loosening of standards that began at the highest levels and were, initially, confined to the most serious sorts of cases. According to this narrative, torture was initially authorized only in the sorts of cases that Moore would approved of, but once rules against torture had been undermined the practice devolved through the ranks. A committed consequentialist, seeing these results, might revise her opinion of the consequences of the sort of torture advocated by Moore. For Moore, though, things are less clear. Unlike the committed consequentialist he is not obviously required to take responsibility for the moral errors of others, even if their errors are the predictable result of his (truthful) remarks.
As Steve Wagner pointed out, of course, the revelations at Abu Ghraib aren't really revelations to anyone who's been paying attention. So one thing that's happened is that something which was an open secret has become public knowledge. Why might this matter to Moore? Looking only at the internal logic of his philosophical position, it doesn't seem to. But perhaps we should remember that philosophers are also writers and some of their problems are the problems of writers.
There is a familiar image of the struggling writer staring at a blank page with nothing to say. The popularity of this image masks, I think, a family of problems that writers face. These difficulties have to do with not knowing what not to say. One such difficulty lies in figuring out what is well known by the reader and so can go unsaid. Another lies in knowing which things would certainly be mininterpreted if one were to say them.
What I'm suggesting is that, as a writer, Moore would have good reasons not to give the same talk today. The fact that torture practices are now public knowledge would lessen the impact of his talk. Instead of talking about something shocking and different, his would be one more voice saying what everyone thinks they have heard before. Perhaps more importantly, if the talk were given today the audience would understand him very differently. At the time the talk was, in a sense, apolitical. Given today, however, the talk would be interpreted as a partisan defense of the most reactionary elements of the Republican party. I don't know much about Moore's politics, but I'd guess that he sees himself as a moderate and would prefer not to be understood in that way.