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’.