Moral Simpletons Redux
Previously I commented on the infantile morality of many on the left over the issue of abortion, particularly the ‘double-standard’ argument that says:
“If men get away with x, why can’t women do it? If rich people can get x, why shouldn’t the poor do it?”
I argued that instead of relaxing moral standards so that everyone can freely sin without shame or legal penalty, those who have indeed been guilty of getting away with offenses against people and society should somehow be held to account for it.
Now I face a different, yet equally infantile moral logic from some – I repeat, some – on the right. This time the issue is torture.
Many on the right would like to see some form of torture, called be a different name, to become legally and morally acceptable for the United States to practice on captured individuals who might know something that might save some lives. When faced with criticism – such as the argument that torture is intrinsically evil and cannot be permitted – sometimes the reaction is to point to what the enemy has done as if it holds moral relevance.
Someone recently thought to ask this question, for instance:
“Given how much you rightly hate torture, why did you oppose the removal of Saddam Hussein, whose prisons engaged in far more hideous tortures?”
Where to begin?
In the first place, the word ‘hate’ in this context is awkward and out of place. When we form moral judgments about policies and behaviors, we certainly shouldn’t be motivated by emotions as extreme as hate.
More importantly, however, and assuming I did oppose the removal of Saddam Hussein (as if that’s what the Iraq war was all about, end of story), what bearing would it have on what I think the policies of the United States ought to be?
We do not set our own standards of conduct and morality according to what the most evil guy in the room is doing. This is the argument children make when they want to rationalize the naughty thing they did, and it is what left-liberals do when they want to rationalize the naughty things they do. In my experience thoughtful, intelligent conservatives are usually less prone to it than thoughtful, intelligent liberals, and that is why it is disappointing to see conservatives fall into the same trap.
Moreover, to oppose torture is not to simultaneously insist that all torture, everywhere in the world, must be stopped immediately through preemptive invasions and regime changes costing millions of lives. I am deeply opposed to sweatshop labor and the violation of workers rights in places such as China or Brazil, but it would be irrational to insist that all trade with these countries must stop tomorrow because of it.
My suspicion is that the person who asked this question understands these points well enough, but is attempt to twist the ‘left’ opposition to torture into a hideous and easily ridiculous position. And this is one of the central problems of political discourse in all times and places.
Finally my opposition to torture is based on a Christian perspective of at least fulfilling the minimum of ‘love your enemy’ by not torturing them, as well as the more recent Catholic perspective of always treating people as ends, and not means – even when it is hard to do so. The ends do not and cannot justify the means, and giving up that perspective has been among the hardest mental and moral adjustments I have ever had to make.