Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Torture and the "Morality" of Efficiency

Modernity (or post-modernity, if you prefer) is afflicted with two kinds of moral disease. Here they are:

1. An unreflective moral subjectivism, which denies the very existence of moral reasons.
2. An all-encompassing instrumentalism about reasons: the only reason to perform (or not perform) some action is because doing/not doing so will bring about certain states-of-affairs.

Combined, these two diseases cause symptoms much worse than either would cause on its own. By denying the existence of moral reasons -- that is, reasons that apply unconditionally, regardless of interests and desires -- modernity has the task of explaining all of morality in terms of those same desires, interests, and preferences. And by wholeheartedly embracing instrumentalism, morality is reduced to nothing more than a preference-satisfying mechanism.

When (1) and (2) are combined, the result is a morality that affirms that the only states-of-affairs that matter are states in which preferences are satisfied. Morality is merely a means to efficient preference satisfaction.

Except, the problem is, doing the right thing is often rather inconsistent with satisfying peoples' preferences.

Consider, again, torture.

According to the New York Times, President Obama's own intelligence director has claimed that

the harsh interrogation techniques banned by the White House did produce significant information that helped the nation in its struggle with terrorists...“High value information came from interrogations in which those methods were used and provided a deeper understanding of the al Qa’ida organization that was attacking this country,” Adm. Dennis C. Blair, the intelligence director, wrote in a memo to his staff last Thursday.
Torture can work? That is -- to put it in terms moderns will easily understand -- torture can sometimes help to satisfy the preferences of the majority of Americans who would like to not die in a terrorist attack? Uh oh!

(And remember, in a democracy, the preferences of citizens count for more than the preferences of non-citizens. At least according to democrats.)

Heh, apparently, the Obama administration deleted Blair's assessment of the effectiveness of torture from the version of his memo released last Thursday. And no wonder! Doing so allowed a legion of morally afflicted left-wingers to control the media with the message that torture never, ever works. Which is why we shouldn't use it.

And if it did work, oh leftist intellectuals? Then what?

What else did Obama delete? This line:

“I like to think I would not have approved those methods in the past,” he wrote, “but I do not fault those who made the decisions at that time, and I will absolutely defend those who carried out the interrogations within the orders they were given.”

Egads, the good admiral is sympathizing with the torturers! We can't let that one out!

To be fair, Admiral Blair clarified these statements recently:
“The information gained from these techniques was valuable in some instances, but there is no way of knowing whether the same information could have been obtained through other means,” Admiral Blair said in a written statement issued last night. “The bottom line is these techniques have hurt our image around the world, the damage they have done to our interests far outweighed whatever benefit they gave us and they are not essential to our national security."
Hm, well good! All things considered, in this instance, torture was ineffective at satisfying the preferences of Americans. Torture was less efficient than other means the CIA could have used to acquire the same information.

Melissa McEwan, the feminist enfant terrible behind Shakesville seems to think this clarification should put the whole "torture question" to rest.
Implicit in [Blair's] statement is the admission that we turned to torture before exhausting every other conceivable strategy for extracting information from detainees, and, if I had to guess, we likely tried nothing else before going straight to torture. Our policy appears to have been based on every interrogator treating every detainee as if there's a bomb about to go off in the middle of Times Square.
Maybe. Obviously, treating every detainee as if he had the disarm code to a nuke hidden in Times Square is an inefficient use of resources. McEwan may be too afflicted with the modern moral malaise, though. If treating every detainee this way is inefficient, how about treating only some of them that way? Or only one?

Someone tell me: what's the appropriate balance? Too much torture, done too openly, hurts the world's image of America, and that's bad (because it detracts from the preferences of Americans.) So scale back on the torture. Brush it under the rug. Have it done in the shadows -- and for God's sake, stop writing memos about it!

But notice what McEwan doesn't say: that it's always intrinsically wrong to torture. Quoting Matt Damon (heh, what a charmer that guy is), the most she's willing to say is this:
'If a guy knows where a dirty bomb is hidden that's going to go off in a Marriott, put me in a room with him and I'll find out. But don't codify that. Just let me break the law'."
That's right. Don't bring the torture into the open. Do it, when the circumstances require it (which means: when it will be an efficient use of resources), but DEAR LORD DON'T LET THE GOVERNMENT TELL ME ABOUT IT.

What a cowardly response. If it's wrong, it's wrong. Legalizing it might make it more likely that torture will be used, or more likely that it will be used inefficiently (although Alan Derschowitz disagrees, and he's smarter than McEwan and at least as liberal.) But, to the modern, that's just something else to be thrown into the preference-satisfaction calculus. It's not wrong to make torture legal because torture is morally wrong. To the afflicted modern, it's only wrong to make torture legal because it might mean that torture will be used inefficiently, and that the preferences of Americans will not be as satisfied as well as they could be.

Monstrous. Morality matters. But it can only matter if we expel the two cancerous tumors eating away at its foundations, this rampant subjectivism and instrumentalism. The future of liberalism depends on this.

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