Torture Ethics

In the torture debate, some say that it is always immoral to torture. Others insist that if torturing an evil man can save many innocent lives, it is the only moral option. The disagreement turns partly on whether you subscribe to virtue ethics, utilitarianism, or some mix. Comparing the virtues and flaws of those systems is a centuries old enterprise, unlikely to be resolved in our lifetimes. That’s one reason I think Megan McArdle is wrong when she insists that torture opponents should never argue that extreme interrogation tactics are ineffective. Our society is inhabited by a fair number of people whose primary approach to ethics is mostly or substantially utilitarian. I’d like to convince them to oppose torture, as it is the policy position I believe to be correct, and they influence what policy is ultimately used by our government.

Megan is right that these utilitarians may wind up supporting torture. If I am wrong, and torture is proved to be an interrogation tactic that saves the most lives and thwarts the most terrorism without awful adverse consequences, it makes sense for a utilitarian to favor the practice. I might try to persuade them that their ethical system is incomplete and therefore wrongheaded, but until I successfully swayed them on that foundational question, any debate about torture relying on virtue ethics would be pointless.

Now consider those who subscribe wholly or partly to some form of virtue ethics. Even among these folks, there are some who insist that torture is always an evil practice, and others who maintain that torture is sometimes the most moral alternative available to us. The disagreement among these folks turns on whether immoral acts are always acts of commission, or whether an act of omission can be immoral. This strikes me as an awfully hard question to answer, and one that I haven’t seen adequately debated in the blogosphere, especially if I am right that it is central to the deep disagreements between Americans about whether torture is ever justified.

Why do I say this question is awfully hard to answer? Because I cannot get there by abstract reasoning, and my moral intuition leads me to different conclusions depending upon what hypothetical I conjure.

Do I think it is wrong to steal? Yes. Would I find it morally objectionable if a father refused to steal a loaf of bread, thereby allowing his toddler to starve to death? Of course. I’d find his decision abhorrent.

Do I think it is wrong to rape? Yes. What if a gunman said to a man, “Rape that woman over there or I will kill this hostage.” Would I find it morally objectionable if the man raped the woman? Yes, I think so. If he refused to rape the woman would I judge that he — like the father who let his daughter starve — committed a sin of omission? Certainly not.

These aren’t perfectly analogous situations, but neither are any of the various real life situations to which virtue ethics might be applied. Anyway, even if I am mistakenly missing “the right answer” in one of both of the situations above, the point is that neither my reasoning skills nor my moral intuition allows me to set forth a definitive, consistent standard for when, if ever, an act of omission might be immoral.

What does my moral intuition say about hypotheticals involving torture? Well, my gut says if the choice is the utterly implausible “torture this man or all of humanity perishes,” the most moral choice is torture, whereas if it’s “torture this man or there might be a terrorist attack that kills innocent people” or even “torture this man or there will be a terrorist attack that kills an innocent woman,” the most moral choice is not to torture. But I can’t defend those positions particularly well, especially to virtue ethicists who disagree (in either direction), since I suspect that I’m using a partly utilitarian calculus when I draw those distinctions. The more I think about it, the more I come around to Jim’s assertion that we should be skeptical of abstract moral reasoning on these questions, and that tradition must help guide us.

Are all these abstractions beside the point? After all, they don’t resemble the actual circumstances in which our government used torture. Well, I am on record opposing the specific ways in which the Bush Administration treated prisoners, but I think the abstract debate is nevertheless important. It informs how we’ll treat torture in the future. Again, my preference is that the practice be banned, partly but not only for utilitarian reasons. I’d like to convince those torture proponents who subscribe to virtue ethics to oppose torture too. Are they wrong when they assert that acts of omission can sometimes constitute an immoral course — that there are some things you can’t let happen if you have the power to stop them, and that circumstances of that very kind can sometimes justify torture? Why?