How can we debate torture?

Not for the first time, Western politicians and security services seem to have vindicated the concerns (some might say obsessions) of anarchists or left-liberal intellectuals. The US Senate report on alleged torture by CIA agents, complete with redactions to provide scope for additional speculation about topics ranging from possible British involvement to how far former President Bush personally authorised ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’, has suddenly pitched (lack of) human rights issues to the very forefront of publicity. That, at least, is good. But not so good is the predictable partisan battle over an area bristling with complex philosophical issues.

We could start on those by asking: Is ‘waterboarding’ torture? One ex-military commentator says ‘no’ partly on the grounds that the US military put recruits through waterboarding as part of their training. That leaves open the question whether the philosophy is to torture your own people in training so that they won’t be so upset about having to torture others later. Hopefully that’s not the thinking, but it would be good to be sure. More generally, the subject of torture exposes the inadequacies of all the standard ethical theories used for the very practical task of judging what is legitimate practice for sake of security as well as being taught to students of especially Western philosophy and even theology. It is not hard for the principle that some actions are wrong (or right) regardless of the consequences to turn into callous disregard of lives that may be lost if a threat is not countered. Yet any attempt to justify your enhanced techniques in terms of saving lives – and, indeed, any other possible consequences – both means making hypothetical judgments and ignoring the corrosive effect on moral culture of torture, if that is what the techniques are judged to be, being allowed at all. As for virtue ethics, can we be sure it has anything to say on this at all? Just when might a virtuous person use torture?

If the current burst of publicity were to prompt a real debate on these and related questions we might have reason to be very grateful to the US senate committee.


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