Security vs Principles – a false choice?

The Social Ethics class won’t get to terrorism and civil rights for a while yet, but the question has come up in the first week of Obama’s presidency.  We all heard Obama eloquently reject ‘as false the choice between our safety and our ideals’ in his inaugural address.  Here is what I find interesting about this – what if it is not a false choice?  What if, as a matter of fact, abolishing ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ in fact does make us more susceptible to terror attacks?

Mind you, I am not defending torture.  I think the practices are morally reprehensible.  But my tone with respect to torture is much more deontological than it is utilitarian.  Torture is wrong because it violates the basic dignity of the person – no matter the consequences.  In making what is frankly a more utilitarian argument (arguing that the consequences of standing up for our ideals will be more security than if we don’t), doesn’t Obama weaken the moral point?  It is telling that his own intel team thought his executive order was a bad idea.  

This is the problem with utilitarianism – if you are going to follow the consequences, then you have to follow them.  If it turns out that abolishing torture makes us less secure, Obama will have no moral leg to stand on since his tone has been consequentialist.

Author: Kleiner

Associate Vice Provost and Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University. I teach across the curriculum, but am most interested in continental philosophy, ancient and medieval philosophy as well as Catholic thought, all of which might be summed up as an interest in the ressourcement tradition (returning in order to make progress). I also enjoy spending time thinking about liberal education and its ends.

11 thoughts on “Security vs Principles – a false choice?”

  1. On the radio the other day I heard a remark by someone Obama has nominated for some post (wasn’t paying enough attention), and he made the remark that by living up to our ideals, and taking a stand against torture, we encourage others to be our friends even when we’re not watching. This seems plausible to me: make yourself more admirable, and you might get admired. There will still be terrorist attacks, but possibly less than if you followed the torture strategy. That would also be a utilitarian strategy.


  2. I’m just pointing out that once you admit that the question of torture is a consequentialist question, it is a bit of a moral gamble. The line is not drawn in the sand nearly as firmly as it would be for those with more deontological leanings. (The same could be said of human rights in general, I just don’t think Mill’s utilitarian analysis gives us a firm enough line).

    By the way, I am inclined to agree with his guess about consequences – that there will be more secure if we encourage others to be our friends even when we are not watching. But it is surely possible that he has miscalculated the consequences, that it is not in fact a ‘false choice’. This is not just merely possible – people in the CIA and Pentagon (including some of his own appointees) seem to think he has misjudged the consequences.
    And for the utilitarian to misjudge the consequences is, in some sense, to be in moral error.
    I’d have preferred a more politically dangerous remark – something like, ‘It does not matter what the consequences are, we ought to stand for our ideals.’ It is at least possible that Obama has made a promise that he cannot keep (that we stand up for our ideals AND that we be more secure). If it turns out that way – and if he is as utilitarian as he and his administration has sounded – then will he reverse course and start torturing again?


  3. Kleiner, this is minor, but you misread the Newsweek article you provided. Obama didn’t overrule his intel team. Rather, he went against the advice of some Bush-appointees in the intel community, like Hayden and McConnell.

    I agree, however, that Obama runs the risk of weakening his argument by framing it within a consequentialist context.


  4. Oops, you are right. I did not read it carefully enough and he was overruling Bush appointees. Anyway, I think the concern stands.

    Related note: reports that a released Gitmo prisoner is now an Al Qaeda leader in Yemen. It might well be the case that the Bush administration was morally wrong on Gitmo and torture, but correct in predicting consequences (that is, correct that those heavy handed tactics in fact made us safer). If it does turn out that way, what will Obama say? Striking a more deontological tone would give him a moral argument.

    This issue came up in a Democratic primary debate. The candidates were asked if they would use torture if they knew that by torturing they could prevent an imminent terror attack on US soil. I forget who raised their hand and who didn’t. In a sense, the question was asking – are you a utilitarian or a deontologist? I do recall that Hillary said she would not, and the moderator made a big thing of how Bill Clinton, when recently asked a similar question, said he would.


  5. “Related note: reports that a released Gitmo prisoner is now an Al Qaeda leader in Yemen.”

    This point is getting a lot of traction in the right-wing blogosphere. I’m not sure what to make of it–the fact that the Bush administration has let dangerous terrorists go free means Obama should keep innocent people detained?

    All this point does is underscore the Bush administration’s failure at Gitmo. The evidence is in such disarray at Gitmo that innocent people remain detained and actual terrorists get released.

    Perhaps the Yemeni in question was innocent at his capture, but was radicalized by his experience at Gitmo. They may not be terrorists coming in to Gitmo, but they may be coming out. Again, though, that is no reason to detain these people indefinitely.

    All that aside, I think the thrust of your argument is right–Obama should not restrict the debate over torture to utilitarianism.


  6. Of course Gitmo has never been about guilt or innocence, because it has been about future acts rather than past acts. Listening to Joe Biden this weekend, no one thinks that everyone still at Gitmo is ‘simply innocent’ in the sense of not being dangerous. It is not like we are holding Mary Poppins there, you know. Biden was clearly concerned about releasing some of these people.

    But, as you say, it does not change the point. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, (and this looks like a good assumption and one that the Obama administration is making) that some of the Gitmo prisoners are in fact dangerous – even if we don’t have a crime to charge them with now. The utilitarian argument might be this:
    Since we have good reason to believe that some of these prisoners will return to terror networks if we release them, it would produce more pain than pleasure to release them (because the pain of a potential terror attacked far outweighs the pain of the potential terrorist being held without charge).

    Of course the Rule Utilitarian (and I think Mill is that version) might say – as a rule it is better to not detain people without charge, because societies that follow those rules have greater overall happiness even if there are a few exceptions.
    But then you get right back to Bush’s ‘the world has changed’ argument. That Rule Utilitarian argument might have worked when the exceptional cases involved a murder or two, but not when those exceptional cases might involve WMD terror attacks.

    Long story short — I think the Bush administration was, with respect to Gitmo and torture, clearly morally wrong. But I don’t think the wrongness depended on improper utilitarian analysis. In fact, a case could be made that they got the utilitarian analysis right (we’ll see, I guess). From my point of view, the moral error was a result of relying on utilitarianism in the first place. So I am concerned to hear Obama strike a similar ethical tone (at least in ethical theory).


  7. Random aside: I told Jordan just today that you–for whatever reason–remind me of a character from Marry Poppins. I think it’s your dress. So it’s funny to hear you reference the movie ha ha.


  8. Actually I think Kleiner’s appearance makes him seem like he should be teaching at the school from the movie “Dead Poets Society”. Although the I do see the comparisons to Mary Poppins. Dick Van Dyke wore a similar hat and the movie depended on the use of umbrellas.

    One must remember that Dick Van Dyke was a simple chimney sweep with a cockney accent. However, I must defend Harrison Kleiner, because he is MORE than a simple chimney sweep.


  9. Ha! Does that mean I do have a cockney accent? Well, I rather like the comparison with Bert (Van Dyke’s character). But is this all a ploy to get me to dispense more spoonfuls of sugar in my classes, just to help the ‘medicine’ go down?
    By the way, I am not too proud to admit that I love Mary Poppins – the character, the movie, the songs. I even cite her in my assignments: ‘Well begun is half done’ (though she is quoting Aristotle who said that first in his Politics). ‘Feed the Birds/Tuppence a Bag’ is a standard bedtime song I sing to my kids, a beautiful song in both form and content. I wish Mary Poppins was a role model for more people. She should be, being practically perfect in every way and all that.


  10. Maybe spoonfuls of sugar would be a good idea. I have noticed that many students have a hard time swallowing the information provided in your classes. You try very hard to be fair, but I suppose the nature of philosophy itself (asking questions) is bound to ruffle people’s feathers.

    Do you like the comparison to Bert because he can play the drums, harmonica, accordion, and trumpet at the same time? Bert is not a person that Plato would have let into the Republic.


  11. “Feed the Birds” was Disney’s own favorite song. The Sherman brothers, who wrote it along with every other great Disney song, said that in tough times Walt would hang with them, drink a whiskey, and then finally say, “Play it for me.” And they knew it meant “Play ‘Feed the Birds.'” And they would play it, and he would get that far-away look and grow misty and blubber. Then he would inhale nitrous oxide. No, wait, I made that last bit up.


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