Monday, January 26, 2015

Can Torture be Moral?

Notre Dame philosopher Gary Gutting interviewed Oxford University moral philosopher Jeff McMahan for his column at the New York Times' Opinionator. The topic was whether torture can ever be moral. McMahan had some interesting things to say on the topic and as regular readers of VP will note, he comes down about where I do, at least on the matter of the morality of torture (For a more detailed explication of my thoughts see here, here, and here). I'm a little more dubious about his views on what the law should say about torture.

At any rate, here are a few excerpts:
Jeff McMahan: I think that torture is almost always morally wrong and that, for moral reasons, it ought to be prohibited absolutely in law. Torture has been used to extract confessions, to terrorize people associated with the victims, to punish presumed wrongdoers, and even to gratify and amuse sadists and bullies. These uses are always morally wrong.

The only use of torture that has any chance of being morally justified is to gain important information. But even when torture is used to gain information, the torturers are usually wrongdoers seeking information that will help them to achieve their unjust aims. And even when those seeking information have just aims, their victims are often innocent, or lack the information sought, or are sufficiently strong-willed to mislead their torturers, so that the torture is ineffective or counterproductive.

Still, both those pursuing unjust aims and those pursuing just aims will continue to be tempted to engage in torture if they can do so with impunity. Hence, torture has been widely practiced, though its use has almost invariably been wrong. This means that the overriding goal of the law ought to be to deter the wrongful use of torture, even at the cost of forbidding the use of torture in those rare cases in which it might be morally justified. The legal prohibition ought therefore to be absolute; for those who think that torture would be advantageous to them will always be tempted to try to exploit any legal permission to use it.
It's this last sentence where McMahan and I part company. There may be instances where torture is not only morally justified, but to refrain from its use may make someone morally culpable. It seems peculiar that McMahan recognizes this but would nevertheless make it illegal to do the very thing he says below that one could be obligated to do.
G.G.: But you do agree that torture can, in extreme cases, be moral. Why do you reject the absolute view that any instance of torture is immoral? J.M.: Torture can be morally justifiable, and even obligatory, when it is wholly defensive – for example, when torturing a wrongdoer would prevent him from seriously harming innocent people. It could do that by forcing a person to reveal the location where he has planted a bomb, or hidden a hostage who will die if not found.

It can be morally justifiable to kill a person to prevent him from detonating a bomb that will kill innocent people, or to prevent him from killing an innocent hostage. Since being killed is generally worse than being tortured, it should therefore be justifiable to torture a person to prevent him from killing innocent people. In cases in which torture is defensive in this way, the person tortured is not wronged. Indeed, he could avoid the torture simply by doing what he is morally required to do anyway – namely, disclose the location of the bomb or hostage.
McMahan goes on to explain that,
I think this is the explanation of why many people who aren’t absolutists about any other moral issue say they are absolutists about torture. They rightly want to avoid giving any aid or comfort to those who seek to justify torture in the circumstances in which it is actually practiced. But there is a dilemma here, for it can seem morally obtuse, and therefore discrediting, to deny that torture is permissible in those cases in which it obviously is permissible – for example, when it would in fact force a kidnapper to reveal the location of hostages who will otherwise die.
There's more from the interview at the link, and I encourage anyone interested in the question of the moral justification of torture and the legal treatment of its practice to peruse it.

One thing that struck me in reading the discussion is that McMahan makes such strong moral judgments. I understand how society may choose to make torture illegal, but on what grounds does McMahan conclude that it's immoral? He states in the passage cited above that,
Torture has been used to extract confessions, to terrorize people associated with the victims, to punish presumed wrongdoers, and even to gratify and amuse sadists and bullies. These uses are always morally wrong. The only use of torture that has any chance of being morally justified is to gain important information...
I have to ask, why are the motives he lists immoral and what is it about gaining important information that makes torture in that instance moral? It may seem obvious that torturing for amusement is immoral, but that's a holdover from an era when morality was grounded in the will of a transcendent moral authority. In our secular age when such authorities are banished from our public discourse, moralists have to come up with a secular justification for the decision to call something immoral, and it's not at all clear what such a justification could be in this case.

After all, if we're merely the accidental product of blind, impersonal evolutionary forces how can we have any objective moral duty to refrain from causing others pain? How can blind, impersonal forces impose a duty on us to do anything?

It seems to me that if we can no longer situate our moral judgments in a divine will then we can no longer make meaningful moral judgments at all. To say "torture is wrong" is simply to express the state of our feelings, to say that torture produces negative emotions in us, and such revelations about our interior states tell us nothing about whether torture is really in any significant sense right or wrong.

Such are the consequences of a rigid secularism. It in effect strips us of the ability to say anything meaningful about anything important.