Tuesday, November 15, 2005

So many topics, such a torturously small space...

* The GOP of the Dubya era, a paradigmatic case.

* Left-wing activists and right-wing activists are equally extreme? Nonsense.

* The eighth or ninth weirdest dinner ever in the history of our country: Arianna and Ahmed Chalabi, Iranian spy and possible prime minister of Iraq.

* I've fallen and I can't get up.

* Torture, yay or nay? Philosophy students (and law students) are often presented with ethical conundrum(s) like: would you kill an innocent person if that would save a hundred other innocent people? Would you kill the baby Hitler if you could? A train will surely collide with a mini-van with four kids stuck on the railroad tracks. You can pull a lever to alter the train's course so that it will instead collide with a single unemployed man on the other tracks. Would you do it? Would you torture to extract information if that means saving innocent lives?

These are difficult questions. My ethical positions aren't very developed, but what's there tends towards the utilitarian side (I'd kill baby Hitler), even if I'd have a hard time altering the course of the train so that one person who would otherwise have lived would die at my hands, even if it means saving six other people. By far the easiest question is torture. If I know I can extract information that will save innocent lives, I'd do it. Waterboarding and water torture? Gruesome, but yeah. Desecrating religious items? Sure. Electro-shock? If it guarantees that lives are saved, I'd find someone to press the button.

I know I sound like Dr. Evil's sadistic twin. But I'm not persuaded that torture is never allowed simply because it violates human rights or is otherwise "immoral". As with most arguments based on some abstract notion of human rights or morality, these arguments proceed by simple assertion. The lofty liberal rhetoric of human rights is problematic because, absent a foundational document, "rights" are just a set of political preferences couched as absolutes. "Health care is a universal right," I've heard lefty activists say, as if by the simple assertion of something as a "right" all debate ends. What if you don't think that to be the case? What's the authority for suggesting that health care is a "right"?[1] I bet most activists won't have a good answer.

Think of law developed on unlawful search and seizure, where improperly obtained evidence by the state is inadmissible in court. This doctrine was developed to prevent police abuse and lower the probability of wrongful convictions. But what happens if we live in a world with Minority Report-like pre-cogs, who can predict with absolute certainty whether an imminent crime will take place? You'd be in a world where no innocents are arrested, and guilty party are always identified as such. Wouldn't the entire set of protections we've erected against police abuse -- Miranda rights, exclusionary rule, etc. -- be superfluous? You'd simply have a set of laws where citizens are left alone by the police unless the pre-cogs peg you as a criminal. Then you are done. The criminal court system would be useless, and our 4th Amendment rights totally inapplicable. The constitution would be amended in a pre-cog world. The point here is that your rights are defined and limited by the world you find yourself in. Most rights are essentially contingent, not universal. So while the moral case against torture is interesting, the contingent rights of prisoners wouldn't to my mind outweigh the supposed benefits derived from torture -- saving innocents.

But does torture save lives? That is to say, are there real-world benefits to torture, and do those benefits outweigh the cost? That seems to me the more interesting question. And considering the evidence, I strongly believe torture should be banned because it's wildly ineffective. John McCain, himself a victim of torture, gave the Viet Cong names of the Green Bay offensive line as they sought the names of people in his squadron. In this week's Newsweek, McCain pens an eloquent and strong case against torture, suggesting not only that torture is against American values, but that it doesn't lead to useful information and has instead served primarily to foment worldwide hatred of American policies. The ever-lucid Matthew Yglesias also mounts a pragmatic case against torture.

Banning torture (explicitly) is one of the many steps we can take to rehabilitate our image in the world. (Impeaching Bush/Cheney would help, too, but I'm not counting on it.) The cost isn't that high. If torture worked so well, we'd have Osama and Zarqawi's heads on sticks. And if we truly need to resort to torture in special instances, just hand the guy over to the Mossad.

[1] The liberal rhetoric of rights, as it relates to health care, labor, abortion, and so on, hasn't been all that effective politically. Why not instead discuss why Americans would be better off with expanded health care coverage, the ability to have abortion if necessary, and laws that protect worker safety and a floor for wages? A case for why something is good in the concrete generally beats out than why something is necessary in the abstract.