More on the Torture Debate

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The debate on the use of torture as a tool of government policy has intensified, generating in the process two highly emotional-charged views. One side insists that, regardless of its reliability, the use of torture degrades us as a nation. The other side points out that, when lives are at stake, concerns about the nation being degraded become secondary.

I had indicated in my previous article that those who defend torture (or enhanced interrogation techniques, as they call it) as a legitimate government tool to save lives are, in effect, espousing the old Machiavellian maxim that, when the stakes are high, the end should justify the means. According to a well-known pundit, when policy is being formulated means need to be evaluated according to circumstances and motives.

As with any guideline, this maxim needs to pass a pragmatic test: means chosen should lead to its objectives without rendering the latter null and void or creating conditions that could be worse than those the means were supposed to eliminate.

The issue has little to do with being either a softie or a patriot in matters of politics. If this nation was founded upon self-evident truths and principles that most of us believe are honorable, then we expect the conduct of our government and ours as a people to be respectable, decent, virtuous, good, and whatever other synonym of honorable one can find. Thus, we need to ask ourselves if a policy of torture—even one that elicits valuable information that may save lives–finds room among these truths and principles and whether it can be implemented without excessive negative consequences.

The immediate cost of relying on the old Machiavellian maxim ought to concerns us all. Its implementation automatically extends a green light to all members of society since there would be no reason—other than arbitrary force—to compel some individuals or groups to adopt this guideline while denying it to others. Thus, any individual may select good and worthy ends (security, health, happiness, wealth, etc.) and then choose any means (action or behavior) he thinks will help him to become secure, healthy, happy, and wealthy in an expeditious and effective manner.

Worthy and highly cherished ends never lack complex reasons for being desired; humans seem to be naturally inclined to desire them. On the other hand, a problem that every society needs to confront is how to deal with its means. From his standpoint, a terrorist justifies violence to attain his end to destroy our way of life which he deems unworthy and ungodly. From ours, we deem his end evil because we believe he employs unworthy and immoral means–violent coercion–as well as because, if the enemy succeeds, our way of life, which we believe to be worthy and godly, would vanish. We now arrive at a stand-off and we have to ask ourselves how we can emerge out of it.

In principle, it is reasonable to believe that the ultimate end of our actions should be life itself. Obviously, there is no purpose in doing anything, worthwhile or not, if we were dead. Hence, securing our lives is the most basic reason and justification for doing everything else, including dying. Yes, when threatened, most of us would defend our lives and those of our dear ones even at the risk of being killed.

Staying alive, however, is a basic instinct no different than that found among lower animals. But humans possess two characteristics that make us significantly different from other animals: in addition to having a higher capacity to communicate among ourselves, we can reason and we can tell right from wrong and good from bad, even in some imperfect manner. These characteristics enable us to fashion an image of the good life; a life that is worth living.

In the end, should we be willing to distance ourselves from other animals we need to realize that saving lives alone cannot be regarded as the ultimate moral end. Any government could save the lives of its people simply by surrendering to another and living in subjugation; or it could decide to eradicate all threats by eliminating its potential enemies. Thus, now we are not just talking about saving lives but about saving a distinctive way of life; a life guided by those principles and values given to us by our Founding Fathers that altogether transform us into something more than just an aggregate of human animals living together.

Our task then is to decide whether placing life as the end of all of our actions without regard to how we live such a life is consistent with our political, religious, and humanist principles and values. Would our distinctive way of life prevail if we were to forsake our principles and values in exchange of merely staying alive? Is this conflict a win-lose situation?

Answers to these questions would condition the nation’s behavior as well as the conduct of other nations, for everyone would receive a tacit permission to behave similarly. If we approve a policy of torture against our enemies, we could not possibly criticize others when they resort to the same techniques on grounds of their barbaric and immoral nature without becoming hypocritical at the same time.

Hence, if merely saving lives should no longer be the guiding principle of government policy, on what other basis could we justify the use of torture? That ours is a superior, more civilized way of life? In what ways are we superior and more civilized than others? That we have attained high levels of education and technology? That we are a military and economic power? That we possess high standards of public health and hygiene? That we dress more civilized?  That we believe in the true God while others are infidels?

What if others were to attain such high levels of civilization while claiming to worship the true God? Would that empower them to do to us what we have been doing to them, now that they are our equals? We have to remember that since no one will be willing to admit that their way of life is inferior to others or that their god is not the true one the rules of the game will be the same for everyone.

Denying torture its moral legitimacy is not a matter of being a bleeding heart or pious; it is a matter of practical realism. Those who argue in favor of torturing our enemies believe that the justification of such means can be limited to combat terrorism. But, isn’t that wishful thinking? The only ways out to combat evil is either to take the high road by using exemplary means or to take the same road as those whom we call evil. If we chose the same means as our enemies, why shouldn’t such cut-throat behavior prevail among states as well as within our society? If our government is bent on using whichever means it deems necessary to attain its desired ends why can’t a politician do the same against his opponent; or a business person do likewise against a competitor; or a lover against his or her rival, all the way down to the school grounds?

But all this happens anyhow, some will say. Yes it does, but in a much more limited fashion because most believe that such behavior is simply wrong. Thus, if we as a society were to lift all moral sanctions and allow this type of behavior to flourish we would be in for, well, nothing less than the law of the jungle and the end of civilization as we know it today. The strong social implications of that old adage–do unto others as you would have others do unto you–would be replaced by its opposite: others will do unto you as you do unto them.

Further, aside from worst-case scenarios that no one dares to experiment with, those who are firm believers and followers of the Machiavellian maxim fail to notice the incredible political contradictions that their guideline leads them into. Those who justify torture as an expeditious and effective means to a worthy end, what moral basis would they have to criticize and seek to stop a physician from performing an abortion in order to improve the quality of life of the patient? And from then on the road widens considerably: Why can’t someone who has lost his job rob a bank to prevent his home from being foreclosed as well as to feed his family? Why can’t another nation send us defective goods that make us sick in order to save on its resources?  Why can’t a government sponsor steroid-laden athletes at the Olympics to attain glory and fame that in turn would motivate and inspire the psyche of its people? Why can’t destitute people living in an internationally abandoned nation become pirates and trade their captives for money? Why shouldn’t we support and trade with regimes that violate human rights solely because they add to our economic well being? Why should we criticize those who invade other nations while following their own narrow national interests?

Where would it all end? Unless we realize that a tainted means sullies the end, and that there is no honor in winning when we cheat, we cannot expect others to respect us. A code of honor, implemented across the board, along with courage and military might does not weaken our security. If we have discovered ways to defend ourselves from beasts in the jungle, there is no reason to think that we cannot overcome human beasts. We have done it already, countless times.

There is no doubt that instilling fear among our enemies can be a useful tool in foreign affairs. But it would be foolish to pretend that this policy is full-proof. When the stakes are high, human beings, whether rational or irrational, don’t fear the barrel of a rifle or death itself, particularly when they find solace and justification in dying.

To contact the author copy and paste my e-mail address and send via your e-mail provider. RicardoPlanas@reasonandpolitics.com