Torture, Effectiveness, & Consequentialism
I have been meaning to post on the torture memos since last week, but have not had time. For now, I’ll point you to a post of Blackadder’s, which highlights the unconvincing arguments currently being floated to justify the Bush Administration’s use of torture:
The latest meme running through these sites is that while it may be honorable to be opposed to torture on principle, we ought to be reasonable and just admit that torture works. Here, for example, is Jonah Goldberg:
I have no objection to the moral argument against torture — if you honestly believe something amounts to torture. But the “it doesn’t work” line remains a cop out, no matter how confidently you bluster otherwise.
And here’s Michelle Malkin, making the same point:
We need to have an honest debate on interrogation techniques and securing America against attack from radical, committed terrorists. Conservatives should stop pretending that waterboarding isn’t a form of torture that the US has opposed for decades when used abroad, especially against our own citizens. But everyone else should stop pretending that it doesn’t work, and that we would have been safer without its use.
Yet while there is no shortage of confident assertions made over the last few days that ‘torture works’ and that it’s silly to pretend otherwise, the evidence adduced to support this claim tends to be rather thin. Malkin, for example, points to a New York Times story concerning a memo written by Admiral Dennis Blair, Obama’s Director of National Intelligence. According to Malkin, the memo establishes “the truth that waterboarding produced information that saved hundreds of American lives, perhaps thousands.” Blair’s actual description of what waterboarding gained, however, is a tad less grandiose:
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.
Nothing in there about thwarted plots or saved lives. And while getting a “deeper understanding of the al Qa’ida organization” is no doubt important, one wonders whether it might have been possible to gain such a “deeper understanding” without waterboarding suspects hundreds of times.
Ironically, Adm. Blair’s own assessment of the use of torture is exactly the sort of position Malkin condemns as unserious:
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.
One wonders: if the case that torture saved lives is so rock solid, why do its advocates keep having to distort the facts in order to make their case?
Read the whole thing here.
From a Catholic perspective, of course, the efficacy of torture is irrelevant. It is an offense against human dignity whether it works or not. However, the effectiveness of torture does matter in the U.S. because consequentialism and pragmatism are widely accepted approaches to morality. For this reason, it is important for Catholics to make the case against torture on moral and pragmatic/consequentialist grounds.
Update: Michael I. has some additional thought-provoking comments here.