by Valtin | 5/26/2008 03:47:00 PM
The following represent some preliminary thoughts I have had on the question often asked, does torture work?

It depends what you are trying to accomplish with it.

Does it yield reliable information? No.

Does it ever give anything other than desperate fictions from the tortured? Yes

Alfred McCoy explains how torture used on the individual is unreliable, yet perpetrated upon thousands it can supply a small amount of real information. (In my work with torture victims, I certainly have personal knowledge of individuals who have broken under torture and revealed information or given up names to their captors.) But the latter technique is very expensive, especially from a moral/political point of view. It turns the population against you, and degrades the country that uses it. The use of torture always blows back into the society that uses it.

Historian Alfred McCoy explains how torture used on the individual is unreliable, yet perpetrated upon thousands it can supply a small amount of real information. (In my work with torture victims, I certainly have personal knowledge of individuals who have broken under torture and revealed information or given up names to their captors.) But the latter technique is very expensive, especially from a moral/political point of view. It turns the population against you, and degrades the country that uses it. The use of torture always blows back into the society that uses it.

Torture is effective -- short-term only -- in terrorizing a society, as a form of mass societal terror and repression. This is why the U.S. uses it... make no mistake. But long-term... as pointed out just above, it turns the victims and their families against you. You can, as in Algeria, win the battle of Algiers, so to speak, and still lose the entire war and be driven out of the country, as happened to the French.

I don't like the "torture is ineffective" argument, personally. I find it is a utilitarian argument, not a moral argument. The truth is more nuanced than a simple yes or no, so susceptible to the passions of the moment (as after 9/11). Would torture be okay if it did reliably produce good intelligence? This is really the internal logic of the "ticking bomb" scenario writ large.

Would we allow cannibalism if we found it could help feed the poor and hungry around the world? We could just allow cannibalism upon the very old and the terminally ill. Why is this unacceptable to us?

Would slavery be tolerable if it produced an efficient economic system? (The latter was truly argued for some time in U.S. historical circles. See this link.)

If we argue the merits of torture upon utilitarian lines, we end up in endless debates while those being tortured continue to suffer an unending hell, while the powerful parties of the imperial land contend over whether or not their suffering is palatable enough for them.

We must end torture now. Not because it doesn't work, and not because it may, someday, backfire upon the society that conducts it. Torture must end because in the collective consciousness of humanity it is seen as evil, as destructive of common human bonds, a universal anti-moralism that eats into the very core of spirit and soul, and antithetical to the communalistic ethos of men and women striving together to survive in the world.

It must become part of a categorical imperative beyond the vicissitudes of socioeconomic or national struggle. It is anathema. It is like murder, the murder of mankind.

Also posted at Invictus

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4 Comments:


Blogger Ahistoricality on 5/26/2008 4:58 PM:

The "utilitarian" argument against torture actually goes well beyond simple short-term effectiveness. The essence of utilitarianism is about providing the maximum benefit for the maximum population: utilitarianism (at least the liberal versions I'm familiar with) is entirely capable of justifying fundamental rights like freedom from torture (due process, etc.) on the grounds that, as you point out, the very existence of torture produces a huge negative effect on the freedom (and therefore happiness) of the population.

 

Blogger Valtin on 5/28/2008 10:57 AM:

You make a good point, especially as utilitarianism is a philosophical and political point of view and/or system.

Perhaps I could have called the approach to torture I critique "naive utilitarianism".

Still, even arguing the utilitarian approach such as you describe it, i.e., "on the grounds that, as you point out, the very existence of torture produces a huge negative effect on the freedom (and therefore happiness) of the population", is something I avoid.

One could argue endlessly over whether the happiness of the population were better or not from U.S. use of torture. And what if portion of the population will get sampled on this? And what if torture didn't produce a huge negative effect on the society, would that justify it?

I'm arguing for a position that avoids the partisan entanglements of the utilitarian approach, as it bogs down the struggle against torture, making the latter a matter of statistical examination, rather than a categorical imperative.

 

Blogger Ahistoricality on 5/28/2008 2:46 PM:

It's worth noting (and then I'll stop defending utilitarianism as such, because I'm not really a consistent one, myself) that "happiness" in the utilitarian sense is closer to the (almost Nietzschean!) sense that true joy doesn't come with smiles all the time, but rather comes with the freedom to do what you want even if it's self-harm, but that your freedom (including your collective freedom as represented by a government) always stops before harm to others begins.

My most fundamental objection to torture comes on procedural grounds, following the argument of Cesare Beccaria: The state has no right to punish a person before they are convicted of a crime, and torture is, by definition, punishment. (Also, the freedom from self-incrimination should apply.) After conviction, torture would clearly be forbidden as "cruel and unusual" since it involves the deliberate infliction of mental and physical pain.

 

Blogger Jeremy Young on 5/28/2008 3:32 PM:

Beccaria is an interesting guy and a very astute and underrated thinker. I'm very glad he was against torture -- and was one of the very first Western thinkers to take that position -- and his arguments against it are sound.

His arguments against the death penalty, on the other hand, are questionable. And I say this as a staunch death penalty opponent.