Our Utilitarian Times

In James Taranto's blog, Best of the Web Today, there is a story from the London Guardian regarding the probable use of torture to thwart last week's terror plot in the UK (Taranto's piece; the Guardian piece). Taranto agrees that "the claim of torture seems at least plausible" and raises the question
it is possible that thousands of air passengers were saved from murder because British officials acted on information the Pakistanis obtained using brutal methods that would not have been acceptable in Britain or the U.S.

Assuming for the sake of argument that this is so, should those thousands of innocents have been sacrificed so as to spare the British government whatever moral taint came with the Pakistani information?
His answer is brutally honest:
t strikes us that the murders of thousands of civilians would be a far worse "form of defeat" than the moral compromise in which the British government is alleged to have engaged.
Although one would like to hear more about exactly how and why Taranto orders his own moral values in this way, we are not treated to such an exposition--he drifts off, instead, into a screed against Andrew Sullivan, saying of the torture issue only that "these are questions about which reasonable people can differ, and over which reasonable people are necessarily going to have to argue."

It is a remarkably interesting question, however. The Nazis, rather infamously, used all sorts of regrettable methods for abstracting information from tight places. In particular, they learned a great deal about hypothermia by subjecting Jews and other prisoners to freezing temperatures and watching what happened. The data that they collected was very valuable to them at the time, as they were fighting in the freezing temperatures of the Russian tundra at the time, but the same data were eagerly sought by researchers in more recent times who simply wanted to find ways to help victims of hypothermia. There was something of a debate over the moral propriety of using data taken from human subjects against their will: is it really the case that all knowledge is worth whatever cost must be paid to obtain it? This is the question that is also at the heart of the fetal stem cell debate: what sort of a society are we, that we are willing to take steps that will lead to an increase in abortions merely on the off chance that doing so will give us a few insights into the curing of a few diseases? Why are we so quick to take these steps when we don't even know for sure that we will gain the knowledge sought, nor do we know for sure that fetal stem cells are better for this research than umbilical cord stem cells.

The question of the moral status of torture is rather similar. We want some information, and we want it right now. What are we willing to do to get that information? Let us grant, for a moment, that the Jews in World War II and the aborted fetuses enjoy a different moral status from terrorist prisoners. The Jews and the fetuses are, presumably, guilty of no crime and deserving of no suffering, so to torture or kill them is in no way justified. A terrorist prisoner, by contrast, is presumably guilty at the very least of what British Common Law once called "prisoning treason", that is, of knowing about some Very Bad Thing and keeping that knowledge private (in a mental prison, as it were). Indeed, if they weren't guilty of "prisoning treason" we wouldn't be contemplating the use of torture on them in the first place. I've recently finished reading Antonia Fraser's excellent book, The Gunpowder Plot: Terror and Faith in 1605, the history of the so-called "Powder Treason" of 5 November 1605, in which Guy Fawkes and others planned to blow up Parliament, along with King James I and his family, as a blow against the unjust oppression of the Roman Catholic religion. Many Catholic martyrs suffered torture and death at the hands of the authorities because they were suspected of "prisoning treason" when, in fact, they had no knowledge of the plot (see, for example, the life of St. Thomas Garnet, a Jesuit who was falsely accused of complicity in the plot and who went to the gallows for refusing the break the seal of the confessional).

The case of the English Jesuits, all of whom opposed the use of violence to achieve political ends but all of whom were suspected of plotting the violent overthrow of the Crown and, hence, were often tortured, killed, or exiled, raises an interesting parallel. Torture was commonly used in the 17th century to extract confessions and information from prisoners. Sometimes prisoners were merely shown the rack, sometimes they were worked on it, but these are finial distinctions in practice, since both are cases where the state used the either the threat or the reality of severe physical harm to get what it wanted. When this is done by persons who do not represent the state it is called terrorism. Nowadays we have a category that did not exist in the 17th century: "state sponsored terrorism," which blurs distinctions previously clear.

The Gunpowder Treason, as well as other plots against the English government of the 16th and 17th centuries, was discovered in part through the routine use of torture of private individuals by the state. In the case of many Jesuits, the torture was applied to innocent persons, but the argument was sometimes made, just as it is sometimes made now in defense of the death penalty, that the sacrifice of one or two innocent persons is justifiable in pursuit of the common good, particularly when such sacrifices wind up saving many other innocent lives. There is an old chestnut in moral philosophy, a thought experiment in which we are supposed to imagine a sherrif in a small town where a woman has been raped. The townspeople are growing restless as the perp remains at large, and they want justice done quickly. The sherrif realizes that if he does not catch the rapist soon there will be rioting in the streets. We are supposed to imagine that he knows with a high degree of certainty that this rioting will occur, and that it will result in many deaths and serious injuries. We are then asked whether it would be "worth it" for the sherrif to just pick some itinerant stranger at random and frame him for the crime, thus providing a nice show trial for the townspeople and avoiding all the mayhem. Our intuitions are on trial here: on the one hand, we value justice, which says it is unacceptable to punish an innocent person for a crime he did not commit. On the other hand, some folks urge us to make utilitarian calculations like this all the time: if it will result in a better payoff, why not do it?

That is what is being urged in the contemporary debate over torture. On the one hand, our intuitions tell us that torture is wrong. Not merely because we may wind up torturing innocent persons, just as the English crown tortured innocent Jesuits, but because torture is per se an affront to human dignity in so far as it objectifies persons and renders them instrumentally rather than intrinsically valuable. For the Kantian or the Socratic, there is no way to justify the use of torture. For the utilitarian, however, there may be. The utilitarian can point to the possibility of a very favorable outcome, just as James Taranto points to the possibility of saving hundreds of lives by torturing a few terrorists. As utilitarians, we also have available the possibility of ranking the value of innocent persons above and in some cases way beyond the value of terrorists, thus making the calculations even easier.

The fact that so many people are comfortable with this sort of reasoning, and with the reasoning in favor of stem cell research, demonstrates that we live in remarkably utilitarian times. If we are utilitarians, questions about the value of knowledge become easier to answer. The value of knowledge lies in the amount of happiness it produces in the long run. Suppose, for example, we could forever eradicate heart disease from the human condition, but only after three years of research on aborted fetuses. That would be roughly three million abortions, but if we are talking about forever eradicating one of the biggest killers on the planet, then we're talking about saving many, many millions of lives over the long run. The utilitarian says "Go for it". What if, instead of fetuses, the research required the sort of research that the Nazis did to obtain their hypothermia data? Again, the utilitarian might find justification for saying "go for it". To be fair, not all utilitarians would reason this way. Some would say that "human dignity" is also a value that is important to safeguard, and they would claim that this value must be put into the calculations of what ought to be done. It is hard to see, however, how the short term suffering of a certain number of people can seriously be weighed against the long term benefits, which would presumably last for thousands of years. Folks who support fetal stem cell research have no principled reason to oppose the use of unwilling human subjects in scientific experiments, even if those subjects are bound to die, just so long as the research promises something as astonishingly helpful as the eradication of heart disease.

Fortunately for the rest of us, no scientific program could ever hope to promise such a thing. Indeed, there is very little that it can promise, even on a very modest scale. That doesn't prevent shills like Nancy Reagan going around making political hay out of opposition to fetal stem cell testing, however, because many folks these days have a utilitarian streak as wide as their own egos.

In the case of torture, there is a tendency to think about the possibility of the loss of innocent life as outweighing by far the temporary suffering of a few despicable human beings. We are not the 17th century British, after all: we aren't talking about putting people on the rack, ruining them for good and basically ending their meaningful human existence. We're talking about sterile needles under the fingernails, or sleepless questioning for days on end, or sodium pentathol. Isn't that a price we're willing to pay?

If you're a utilitarian, it is difficult to find any justification for saying "no" to torture. If you're tempted to say that humans are per se valuable and that torture is an affront to that value, you are still trapped, since the killing of the innocent persons that the torture is intended to prevent is also an affront to that value, and the latter affront is a far greater one than the former.

Why should we resist this line of reasoning? Why should we not all be utilitarians about torture? There are many ways to approach this question, and mine is a highly personal one; I suspect that it will not be shared by very many others. My response lies in a rejection of the "pleasure principle", the foundation of much utilitarian thinking. This principles holds that human happiness consists fundamentally in an affective state that is directly related to the seeking of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. On this account, martyrdom as such is morally bad, since it involves the willing sacrifice of one's own life in pursuit of a putatively higher principle. St. Thomas Garnet chose to go to Tyburn rather than break the seal of the confessional, and if human happiness consists in an affective state directly related to his physical well being then he purposely chose pain over pleasure, which, according to utilitarianism, is morally wrong. Clearly a Thomist cannot endorse anything like this kind of principle, since Thomists are in a theoretical line that goes through Augustine to Aristotle to Plato to Socrates when they claim that the good for human beings is independent of their physical well being. Socrates famously held that even a man on the rack can be happy, just so long as he understands the Form of the Good, because on his account that's what happiness consists in (that is, human happiness just is understanding the Form of the Good). Aristotle found that rather hard to swallow, but endorsed a modified version of it in the tenth book of his Nicomachean Ethics, and both St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas held that human happiness depends upon a rational relationship with God rather than on material flourishing.

If you thought, however, that I was saying all of this by way of suggesting that torture, being the mere physical affliction that it is, cannot interfere with a person's "true happiness" and, thus, is justified, then you are seriously mistaken. The idea is quite the opposite: when we torture evil people, we become like them in using violence to obtain what we want, and while that may certainly harm the evil people in a physical way it harms us in a fundamentally more important way--it harms our own human condition by being an act that is contrary to the Form of the Good. This ought to be obvious, since we regard terrorists as evil precisely because of the fact that they are willing to use violence to achieve their ends even when non-violent means are available to them. As good persons, we cannot rationally justify the use of torture to obtain what we want, even if the refusal to utilize torture results in the physical suffering--or even death--of innocent persons. The Thomist is committed to the possibility that the avoidance of physical suffering does not necessarily justify literally anything, since the Thomist does not believe that physical well being is the foundation for human happiness.

In short, the rejection of torture requires a deep theoretical committment that many people are not prepared to make, if only because they are not fully aware of the theoretical underpinnings of their own moral psychology. A large number of people are what we might call "folk utilitarians", that is, they have an intuition that the pursuit of happiness is not such a bad idea, and that happiness is nothing if not an affective state. For such people there is little more that needs to be said about the matter and, indeed, I suspect that even reading tons of Plato would not change their minds. In particular, it is difficult to get people to see that one can regard the pursuit of happiness as essential while rejecting the idea that happiness consists in physical well being or in an affective state related to physical well being.

So I remain unconvinced that the case for torture is clear and obvious in these dark days. It is particularly difficult for me, a Catholic, to endorse the use of torture, in light of the suffering of the English Catholics at the hands of a cruel police state, but even apart from that I have to think that there is something that separates me from the terrorists, and it is not merely the fact that I don't know how to make an IED out of fertilizer. The difference lies in the fact that there are certain things that I will not do in order to achieve my own ends; terrorists, especially suicide bombers, seem to be willing to do literally whatever it takes to achieve their ends, because they, like many of those who oppose them, are utilitarians at heart: the end justifies the means.


Malcolm Pollack said…
Thanks, Dr. Carson, for this thought-provoking post. This is an extremely difficult issue, and making it more difficult is the question of how the state, as opposed to the individual, should approach it.

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