Torture, privacy, and desired ends

Two related news items of interest to students of social ethics:

1) News that under the Bush administration used waterboarding over 200 times with some 9.11 suspects.  My view: While I am far from the first in line to defend the Bush administration, I reject almost out of hand the notion that Bush was simply ‘stupid’ and Cheney simply ‘evil’.  Rather, I think they were totally utilitarian (typical of DOD folk) in their thinking.  I am inclined to believe, as Cheney suggested late yesterday, that they did get good information from the waterboarding.  If they didn’t, why keep doing it?  Why, after 199 times, would you do it a 200th time?  Would you be banking on it finally work that last time?  That seems absurd.

In other words, I am growing increasingly suspicious of Obama’s nice sounding claim that we should ‘reject as a false dilemma the choice between our values and our security’.  What if it is not a false dilemma?  What if torture (and waterboarding is clearly torture) makes us safer?  Then what will Obama do?  

2) The Supreme Court will be hearing a privacy case where a high school student was strip searched since the school believed she had pills (prescription strength ibuprofen).  The school’s attorney has argued, ‘If we are serious about having a drug free environment, then we are going to have to violate privacy on occasion’.

This is a useful admission.  Perhaps we can generalize both situations to this:

If X is sufficiently desirable, then it is morally permissible to violate important value Y.  Plug in for X either ‘security’ or ‘drug free schools’.  Plug in for Y either ‘respecting human rights by not torturing’ or ‘respecting privacy by not using invasive search procedures’.

I am no utilitarian, so in neither case will my view be driven entirely by the consequences.  I’ll sound more deontological here than I really am (I am most drawn to virtue ethics), but my vote is: that looks like a really unattractive general moral principle as it invites using others as mere means to one’s ends.  I say no torture no matter what the situation.  I think there are some moral values (like the dignity of the human person) that are absolutely inviolable. But that might be too strong, since I am not a pacifist …  So perhaps we just need to work out the  above general moral principle in order to sort out just how desirable X would have to be and also how important a value Y could be while still being suspended.  In just war theory, for instance, some theorists appeal to ‘supreme emergencies’.

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.

20 thoughts on “Torture, privacy, and desired ends”

  1. “Why, after 199 times, would you do it a 200th time? Would you be banking on it finally work that last time? That seems absurd.”

    It’s equally absurd to believe that KSM or Zubaydah would only give a little bit of information after each waterboarding. Why wouldn’t they just spill the beans after, say, the tenth time or so?

    CIA officials were probably getting KSM and Zubaydah to talk, but most experts (including the Senate Intelligence Committee who has seen countless classified info on this) conclude that no actionable, valuable information was extracted from torture. KSM and Zubaydah were probably just saying anything to the CIA to get them to stop the waterboarding.

    Moreover, the CIA is NOT trained to waterboard. They are not interrogators; that job should be left to the military and to the FBI. The fact that much of the torture was meted about by the CIA and contracted security groups is an absolute scandal.

    To subject two detainees to nearly 300 instances of waterboarding in one month can be construed as nothing else but an exercise in sadism. It’s obscene and I want to see some Bush administration officials in jail for this.


  2. To be clear, I am NOT defending the practice or the Bush administration here. It is morally despicable and, in my view, NEVER justifiable. Jon, I believe, is a utilitarian, so he is theoretically more open to potential moral justifications of such tactics than I am!

    It does not seem absurd to me that one would only get a certain amount of information each time. Presumably one can only sustain the interrogation for so long. Afterwards, the prisoner might regain their resolve. Plus, they might have had a lot of information to give, so perhaps this would take a lot of interrogation events. If one were to believe (and it is not absurd to believe so) that the ‘world has changed after 911’ and that every potential threat must be treated as actual because of the enormous consequences, one could see how a utilitarian could quickly get carried away and move into a grayer area than traditionally understood ‘actionable intelligence’.

    Cheney is now asking that some documents be declassified, as he clearly believes that quality intelligence was derived from waterboarding interrogation. I recognize that there is not unanimous agreement on this point. But I am much more inclined to attribute to the Bush administration wrong-headed utilitarian/technological thinking rather than ‘sadism’.

    My question, though, is more for us and for Obama. What if, as seems possible if not likely, the security or rights question is not a false dilemma? Let’s take Cheney out of it, since he is so polarizing. Condi Rice is a really smart person, and she seems civil and decent and cultured. But she seems bent on the notion that this is a real dilemma. Again, I am always skeptical of politics that thrives on calling the other side ‘evil’, ‘sadistic’, or ‘stupid’. Rice might have been wrong, but not because she is evil or stupid.

    The politics of name-calling cover over the more important moral debate. Here is my worry: once you accept the utilitarian line of reasoning, then you are subject to the actual facts of the matter. That is, if it indeed turns out that things like waterboarding make us safer, then you have to morally justify such things. Obama seems utilitarian on this point, but there are some reasons to believe that the facts are not on his side. Hence Cheney (also utilitarian) making claims like ‘Obama has made America less safe’.


  3. Clay: I was told otherwise by my professor in a international relations class, “Terrorism and Counterterrorism.” I don’t believe I misheard heard, but I may be wrong.


  4. One more point: it is worth noting how carefully crafted the torture responses were in at least one (but I think two) Democratic primaries this past season. When asked if a Presidential exception should ever be made to a no-torture policy, almost all candidates (if I recall correctly) remarked that it should not be permissible ‘as a matter of policy’. In other words, they left the door open to presidential exceptions. Hell, by making it a ‘policy’ (even if a highly classified and shadowy one), the Bush administration was actually being a bit more ‘transparent’ than Hillary or Obama would have been!
    Both then downshifted to the ‘it doesn’t work anyway’ argument. But, again, what if that is not true? I just don’t believe that people like Bush and Cheney, much less Condi Rice, are simply ‘sadist’. Rather, they seem to have thought this a useful means to their summum bonum (security). Once you start thinking this way, Cheney seemed actually reasonable when he remarked that ‘once Obama gets in the White House he will see things differently’. After all, once you cede the utilitiarian moral ground, then if it turns out that it DOES work, then you have absolutely no reason to not torture! Who the hell knows, we might still be torturing, not as a matter of policy but on the wink of presidential exceptions!
    The person with the greatest moral clarity, by far, regarding torture was McCain.


  5. When I was in my last year of High school before leaving for the Army, a friend of mine was also going to the Marines. His MOS was to be an interrogator for the Marine Corps, and I know the Army also has investigators and Officers when investigating sometimes practice interrogation. The CIA is a matter of resources, they do what they do because they can, while the military is dealing with the groundwork of operations.

    It can also depend on the definition of interrogation. Waterboarding is one thing, firing a side arm into the air to frighten someone into telling you where snipers are is another, but both can be viewed as interrogation due to the method and desired affect.


  6. Kleiner, to your last sentence, there is no doubt in my mind Clinton was probably doing just that, before the age of youtube and braindead bloggers who post photos and videos to ‘brag’ (look at me, I can terrify a bound up naked man! What a badass!) made these kinds of things more of an issue.

    As to the issue of sadism, I agree somewhat due to experience, though I knew a number of sadists in the military who threw pop cans full of rocks at children, or gave them bottles of ‘gatorade’ that was actually urine, or tortured animals for kicks and giggles. Hence, I can believe the slim possibility that someone would have gotten high enough into the service to conduct such operations and be sadistic, but the Executive Branch is simply too detached from this issue logistically to have been acting out of emotion or ‘desire’ (sadism might be considered as such). Considering the nation is in a state of war, memos or orders or whatnot that would be signed off on to permit or condone these activities could have been out of efficiency in the process, and leniency for the forces (letting them do what they feel they need to, and with an inexperienced military leader in any sense, the line between ethical or unethical would become incredibly blurred as “200 waterboarding sessions” becomes a number and the information seems important enough to be worth it).

    To the point of utilitarianism, this situation is probably pretty likely, simply doing what appears needed to be done by someone who is over his head with the situation. However, another part of this could be statement torture. If a method appears to be ineffective yet is supposed to be severe, you pick an individual or two and subject them to horrific amounts of the method in order to send a message to the rest of the inmates. Many people claim this very method is a justification for the Iraq war. We needed to react (I agree this far) to an attack regardless of the accuracy of the intelligence in order to show the world we aren’t to be trifled with.

    I think this line of thinking applies to the utilitarian argument, though I could be wrong. I’ve read and listened to many fellow vets who think waterboarding isn’t torture at all and isn’t that bad considering the “consequences of not doing it.” Of course, they also don’t consider sleep deprivation and being subjected to horribly loud rock music (used for a lot of cultural and biological reasons) as torture either, which is why utilitarianism is such a dangerous slope to climb and appears too politically convenient as a dodge.


  7. I think there are cases were torture is justified. (Typical scenario: ticking bomb in Chicago, person with knowledge, etc.) The background assumption has to be that torture would work — I really don’t know whether that’s right or not. But if it is right, and you could save 10,000 (or even 13) lives by torturing someone, why wouldn’t you? Out of respect for human dignity? What about respect for the population you are allowing to be killed?


  8. By the way, I’d like to offer this as a limit on torture: a subject may be tortured only if everyone on the torturing end — authorizer, executor, attending medical personnel — submits to the same harm being done to them afterwards. That way they’d have to be pretty damn confident that it would really save lives, and they’d have to care enough about those lives to warrant the torture, and they’d try to inflict as minimal da,age as necessary.


  9. Not knowing the hearts of others, I don’t know if the particular interrogators were sadistic or not. They might well have been. Those particular men and women involved in Abu Ghraib look like good candidates for sadists. But we are asking the question on the policy level and the moral level. I think Blood and Ashes is right, from a policy point of view people are too removed to be driven by sadist tendencies.

    Perhaps these distinctions will help advance the discussion:

    1) Intrinsically evil actions are evil per se, independent of the intention and circumstances. They are evil no matter what may come of them as they are incapable of being ordered to the good.
    Example: the intentional killing of an innocent human person is always wrong, no matter what the situation, broader intent, or consequences.
    Note: the quality of being ‘intrinsically evil’ is not necessarily a matter of gravity. Some non-intrinsically evil actions might actually be more grave than an intrinsically evil action (for instance, the Catholic Church argues that contracepted sex is intrinsically evil, though certainly less grave than involuntary homicide). Of course some actions, like abortion, are both intrinsically evil and morally grave.

    2) Evil acts that are not intrinsically evil, but evil by their motive or consequence. These are actions that could potentially be morally permissible, but turn out not to be.
    Example: Imagine someone who burns down a building as a way of collecting insurance payments. He does not aim to kill anyone, though he recognizes that this exists as a possibility. Burning down a building, as an action per se, is not intrinsically evil. What makes the action wrong in this case is the motive (insurance fraud/theft) and the circumstances (the likelihood/possibility of innocent life lost).
    Note: one can see how the doctrine of double effect would get introduced here in order to justify certain actions.

    Assuming these are decent looking categories, we might recall Chesterton claim that, ‘Men do not differ much about what things they call evils, they differ enormously about what evils they will call excusable.’ So, the question is whether torture is intrinsically evil or not.

    It looks like Huenemann wants to say torture is evil but not intrinsically evil and so occasionally (very rarely) possibly justifiable. I am inclined to take a harder line stance, the intentional coercion of the will through violence violates the integrity of the human person and so cannot be ordered to the good, no matter what the consequences. But to speak of the consequences, I am inclined to follow Gaudium et Spes (and its subtle appeal to Plato) that such actions ‘poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury.’ At any rate, I reject the ethics of ‘proportionalism’ (to which Huenemann clearly appeals) under which virtually any kind of human act could be justified under the right circumstances.


  10. I looked it up, it seems that the CIA was given an executive order from 2002-2009 that allowed it to use “enhanced interrogation techniques”. Obama canceled the order on April 9, 2009.


  11. The following doesn’t bolster my claim that the interrogators were sadists (I think that’s evident enough in the fact that they waterboarded a guy around-the-clock for a month!), but it does address Kleiner’s claim that they used these techniques because they’re effective.

    From an AP article:

    “You keep thinking, ‘Maybe one more time, and one more time,” Rejali said, explaining how interrogators ramp up their methods even as their effectiveness wanes.

    If such tactics are unreliable, why would CIA officers, Justice Department lawyers and the White House all sign off on seven days of sleep deprivation, locking detainees in wooden boxes, forced nudity and simulated drowning?

    The answer, Rejali said, is the same one that explains so much in Washington: bureaucracy.

    “The correct answer for a bureaucrat is always to torture, even if you know it doesn’t work,” Rejali said. “Nobody wants to be the guy who could have done something and then didn’t do it.”

    The stress CIA officers were facing is clear from the Justice Department memos. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed taunted his interrogators when asked about planned attacks: “Soon, you will know.”

    Tensions were high, the country was in the midst of one war and on the brink of another. “And we suspended the whole idea of quality control,” said Jack Cloonan, a former member of the FBI’s Osama bin Laden unit. When interrogators asked for permission to ramp up their interrogations, Washington signed off.

    “They’re suits, They’re sitting at desks in Washington trying to find a way to allow things to happen, to provide a legal basis,” Cloonan said. “It has nothing to do with the effectiveness of these techniques.”


  12. Interesting, Jon, and a plausible way of explaining the ongoing use. I’ll hold off on judgment until I see the classified material Cheney now wants made public to see what he thinks he got out of it.
    Of course, since my argument is not consequence based anyway, it makes no difference to me if it works or not. It makes a difference to anyone out there with proportionalist and utilitarian leanings. Since Jon is one of those, I can see why he might be invested in proving that torture doesn’t work! :)
    Huenemann, to give credit where it is due: that is not my distinction, it is from the Angelic Doctor. Surprise!


  13. Another article on just how complicated it will be to sort out if these methods were effective or not.

    Interesting bit from the article: ‘Even President Obama’s new director of national intelligence, Dennis C. Blair, wrote in a memorandum to his staff last week that “high value information came from interrogations in which these methods were used,” an assertion left out when the memorandum was edited for public release.’


  14. Another take from an FBI agent.

    “One of the most striking parts of the memos is the false premises on which they are based. The first, dated August 2002, grants authorization to use harsh interrogation techniques on a high-ranking terrorist, Abu Zubaydah, on the grounds that previous methods hadn’t been working. The next three memos cite the successes of those methods as a justification for their continued use.

    It is inaccurate, however, to say that Abu Zubaydah had been uncooperative. Along with another F.B.I. agent, and with several C.I.A. officers present, I questioned him from March to June 2002, before the harsh techniques were introduced later in August. Under traditional interrogation methods, he provided us with important actionable intelligence.”


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