Why Counterfeiting Is Wrong (And Why Torture Is, Too)

Why is counterfeiting wrong?

Or more precisely, why is the belief that counterfeiting legal tender and then using to to buy stuff is wrong compatible with anything other than a spooky theory according to which certain pieces of paper (or metal) are magically able to exude monetary value? I don’t mean to be snide, but it strikes me that such questions are reasonably analogous to those at the basis of Jim’s challenge to non-pacifist opponents of torture.

Counterfeiting is wrong, of course, not because of the intrinsic properties of the pieces of paper involved, but because the practice of using as legal tender only those pieces of paper (or metal) that have the right sort of causal history is the very basis of modern economies. And in the same way, torture is wrong not because pacifism is true but because the practice of drawing bright lines to distinguish wanton cruelty from necessary evils is what makes human society the remarkable thing that it is.

Why doesn’t that answer seem sufficient?

As Jim suggests, I suppose it has something to do with the desire for a reason why the lines are drawn in one place rather than another; the decision not to torture is, after all, supposed to be different from the restriction of automobiles to the right side of the street. But then the natural response is that we have absolute prohibitions against torture and inhumane treatment because wanton cruelty is wrong, and that conduct on the battlefield isn’t governed by similarly strict laws not because it’s “OK to inflict (the most extreme imaginable) violence when the guy is totally helpless in combat”, but because laws regulating conduct on the battlefield are extraordinarily difficult to formulate and enforce.

Jim asks why “suddenly upon [an opposing combatant’s] saying the words ‘I surrender’, any serious violence beyond confinement becomes wrong”; the obvious answer, though, is that such violence is wrong because he’s surrendered, and that what sets off humans from other animal species is our recognition that, except perhaps when it is a matter of punishing someone pursuant to a conviction in an impartial court of law, killing people who have surrendered themselves is an immoral thing to do. That combatants sometimes resemble people who have surrendered, and that certain things that can legally be done to combatants look an awful lot like other things that can’t legally be done to prisoners, are much better arguments for restraint on the battlefield than for mass execution of prisoners of war.