Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Talking about Torture: Philosophical bridges in dialogue Part 1

I really should be reading my International Investment Law textbook but my mind is still rather fuzzy despite the time of the day and I'm hoping this will clear whatever remaining cobwebs so I can get down to actually reading the dang book.

As promised yesterday, I want to briefly highlight and discuss how axiomatic choices can make for secular positions that are nonetheless highly divergent in their conclusions. One of these positions in recent times has been that of torture. In particular, whether it is ethically permissible to ever use torture and if so, under what circumstances. From them, we try to fit it within the system of a liberal democracy (or any system that respects human rights because the lack of respect thereof simply means there is no bar to torture) and further within the rubric of the rule of law (the idea of the supremacy of law in the system and those rules as a constrain on arbitrary power).

So we can start first with the deontologist (moral absolutism) and contrast their perspective with act consequentialist. For the purposes of this discussion, it would suffice to say that the first term refers to the notion that principles are fixed and do not deviate simply by virtue of the situation and circumstance at hands. Thus if it is a moral good to tell the truth or not to kill or not to torture that those principles and prohibitions are absolute (as a grotesque simplification, Kantians would argue that since consequences simply cannot be controlled by the individual but only intentions can, then only intentions matters from an ethical perspective).

On the other hand, act consequentialism (or act utilitarianism) looks purely at the consequence of a particular act to determine if something is good or bad. Generally speaking, the position thus adopted can be loosely described as “the greatest good for the greatest numbers” and can be described as the ultimate form of situation ethics. These two ethical positions are both entirely subjectively (and to their proponents objectively) valid but their conclusion varies diametrically.

But on to building bridges: assuming now that one as a deontologist wishes to persuade someone of the consequentialist bent that the prohibition of torture ought to be absolute, how would I go about doing so? Since the ethical premises are different, trying to persuade the consequentialist through deontological means is going to be fairly useless. Nonetheless, I can adopt a form of consequentialism to make that particular argument. One of the charges laid at the feet of consequentialism and utilitarianism has been that nothing is prohibited if the circumstances were right. This might be true of act utilitarianism in that only the immediate consequences of the act matter BUT is in no way true from the viewpoint of rule utilitarianism. In rule utilitarianism, one calculates based on whether the harm of promulgating a rule outweighs the good, it seeks to take not just the immediate consequences but also the long term repercussions and it also tries to aggregate all likely scenarios so as not to let a truly aberrant situation skew the weighing. Thus for example while an act utilitarian will be hard-pressed to say that he would not shoot (or torture) an innocent person if it would save the lives of a entire town (or country etc.), a rule utilitarian can accept that such situations do exist but as a rule we ought not to do so because of reasons such as undermining the trust of the citizens in the system, the unlikelihood of such a situation outside of 24 etc., the backlash one would get from other members of society (or international community).

But personally, I think the situation is harder the other way round i.e. persuading a deontologist on ontological grounds why there should be no absolute prohibition on torture but merely a conditional one. That however will have to wait till tomorrow as I am absolute knackered by Tuesdays.




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