Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Torture and Love

In my philosophy class we talk about love, distinguishing the sort of love we have for our fellow man from eros or romantic love. We define the former as treating people with dignity, respect, and kindness.

With that background I was asked the other day by a student how I reconcile the notion that we owe that kind of love to others with my belief that torture is not absolutely wrong.

This is a fair question and deserved an answer. Here's how, had I had the time, I would have replied:

Our obligation to love is a prima facie obligation. By that I mean that we owe respect and kindness to every individual until such time as the obligation to treat one person with love comes in conflict with our obligation to others who also have a claim, perhaps a greater claim, on our love.

When a man threatens the lives of others, particularly those I have a special obligation to protect and for whom I have a special bond of love, then it would be unloving to fail to do everything in my power to stop him. He has nullified my obligation to treat him with respect and kindness and forced me to choose between loving him and loving those he threatens. The moral course in such a circumstance, the course that I believe is demanded by the obligation to love, is to protect the innocent and to stop those who would harm them.

If stopping the guilty entails doing him harm then so be it, but the harm done should, whenever possible, be never greater than what's necessary to remove the threat. Nor should it ever be something one feels good about inflicting. A government which feels compelled to use "torture" (I use quotes because the definition of torture is so broad as to include almost any kind of incivility - a fact which really renders the word almost meaningless) to save the lives of its people is justified in doing so as long as that's the only reason it's used and so long as it's never continued beyond the point where it accomplishes its purpose.

Love is not a warm feeling toward other people, nor is it sentimentality. Sometimes, as in the case of a surgeon operating in a Civil War field hospital without anesthetics, doing the right thing means causing great pain. Sometimes, as in dealing with modern terrorism, doing the right thing for one person entails causing pain to another.

Perhaps you disagree and would argue that "torture" is absolutely wrong, that there's never any justification for it. Before you commit to such a view ask yourself whether you would condemn a man who saved the life of your child by causing her abductor pain in order to coax him to reveal where his accomplices were holding her. Before you say that the man was wrong to do this, imagine looking your child in the eyes after she has been rescued from people who were abusing her and preparing to murder her or sell her into child slavery or the sex trade, and telling her that you would rather she not have been rescued than for her to be rescued by causing pain to the man who kidnapped, molested and planned to kill her.

Perhaps you could say that to your child, but if not, then you agree that torture is not absolutely wrong. If that's your position then the question that needs to be answered is not "should we torture?" but rather, "how should we define torture?" and "under what circumstances is torture justified?" The sooner we have that debate the better off we'll be as a nation.


Ideas Have Consequences

If you wish to defend the notion of free will how might you do it? Well, Logan Gage tells us, there are some ways not to do it, and these were on display at a recent symposium featuring a number of sociologists, philosophers, and journalists (what were they doing on the panel?).

Gage opens with this summary of the discussion:

Essentially, they all argued that we have an innate sense of free will and that findings in genetics and neuroscience have not undermined it because: (1) sure, genes determine behavior, but not 100%; often the environment contributes to our behavior also, and (2) the number of factors determining our behavior are so many, and the human brain so complex, that we will never be able to pinpoint the genetic and other material causes of our behaviors.

To all this Hoff Sommers asked the obvious question: Sure, genes might not determine all our behavior, for the environment may contribute too, but is that really enough to escape determinism? After all, both my genes and my environment are outside of me and my will?

To this, the two giants of modern social science research-Wilson and Murray-had little to say. I don't believe they understood the full weight of the objection. After all, they seemed to think, we are mere material machines and we know we have free will, so this must all work out just fine.

In other words the problem is this: If God doesn't exist then there's no reason to think that we are anything but an unusual collocation of atoms and molecules. Atoms and molecules obey strict physical determinism so if there's no God then it's very hard to see how we can have the kind of liberty of choice required for moral responsibility.

If we don't have such liberty then it's hard to see how there can be any moral obligation, any deserved praise or blame, or any human dignity. No society that realizes that their materialism leads ineluctably to these consequences can for very long keep itself from unraveling without resorting to tyranny.

This is part of the dilemma the materialist has placed himself in. He wants to hold onto these fundamental elements of a healthy society while at the same time denying the existence of God which is the only ground for them. He also wants to say, strangely enough, that despite the incoherence of his position, it's really theists who're epistemically irrational because they believe in a God they can't see.

This is not to say that free will is an easy concept to explicate - it's not - but it is to say that whatever free will is we have it only if we're something more than mere matter. If there is no God then we're only matter and the idea of libertarian free will is an illusion fobbed off on us by some genetic mutation deep in our evolutionary past. This has been so well explained by atheistic thinkers over the past 120 years that it's hard to understand why so many contemporary atheists seem unaware of this dreary consequence of their conviction.

Perhaps they're too busy chuckling at those silly theists to think through the logic of their own position thoroughly enough to bring the abyss to which it leads into full view.


Hey, Let's Ration Health Care

Charles Krauthammer lays out what he sees as Barack Obama's economic strategy. In order to accommodate the enormous spending to which he has committed the country he needs to solve two problems: How to pay for Social Security and how to pay for Medicare/Medicaid.

Krauthammer writes:

Social Security is relatively easy. A bipartisan commission (like the 1983 Alan Greenspan commission) recommends some combination of means testing for richer people, increasing the retirement age, and a technical change in the inflation measure (indexing benefits to prices instead of wages). The proposal is brought to Congress for a no-amendment up-or-down vote. Done.

The hard part is Medicare and Medicaid. In an aging population, how do you keep them from blowing up the budget? There is only one answer: rationing.

Why do you think the stimulus package pours $1.1 billion into medical "comparative effectiveness research"? It is the perfect setup for rationing. Once you establish what is "best practice" for expensive operations, medical tests and aggressive therapies, you've laid the premise for funding some and denying others.

It is estimated that a third to a half of one's lifetime health costs are consumed in the last six months of life. Accordingly, Britain's National Health Service can deny treatments it deems not cost-effective -- and if you're old and infirm, the cost-effectiveness of treating you plummets. In Canada, they ration by queuing. You can wait forever for so-called elective procedures like hip replacements.

Rationing is not quite as alien to America as we think. We already ration kidneys and hearts for transplant according to survivability criteria as well as by queuing. A nationalized health insurance system would ration everything from MRIs to intensive care by a myriad of similar criteria.

The more acute thinkers on the left can see rationing coming, provoking Slate blogger Mickey Kaus to warn of the political danger. "Isn't it an epic mistake to try to sell Democratic health care reform on this basis? Possible sales pitch: 'Our plan will deny you unnecessary treatments!' ... Is that really why the middle class will sign on to a revolutionary multitrillion-dollar shift in spending -- so the government can decide their life or health 'is not worth the price'?"

President Obama may well be intent on taking us down this road, but let's hope not. It's hard to see how anyone, much less the poor, will be helped by making health care harder to obtain. It's also hard to see how any party that supports rationing care could survive the electoral revolt that would occur among the largest voting block in the country - the boomers.