As the Obama administration settles into its role in the White House, the issue of whether “advanced interrogation techniques” used by the Bush White House has resurfaced, with many calling for a formal investigation of the former President and his subordinates. The debate largely centers around two key disagreements: whether certain techniques, like water boarding, constitute torture, and whether torture is sometimes morally justified.
The first question is philosophical insofar as we must first define torture before we can classify specific acts as torture. But the second is quite clearly a debate about normative theory, and explicating this will be the focus of our discussion here.
On the one hand, some former members of the Bush administration have made the argument that aggressive interrogation techniques, including water boarding and other acts defined as torture by the Geneva Conventions, led to the recovery of invaluable information that saved American lives. For the sake of discussion, we will simply grant that this is the case. This amounts to a consequentialist justification for acts of torture. If the suffering of one individual, and even the negative sentiment toward the U.S. that followed once it was revealed that the U.S. was engaged in such acts, is outweighed by the benefits of avoiding massive casualties that were made preventable by the acquired information, torture is justified in a given case.
On the other side, opponents of the former President, as well as human rights groups, have joined together to advance the argument that certain actions are never acceptable, regardless of what consequences might follow. This is an appeal to the rights of persons, whether terrorists or not. If persons have inalienable rights, like freedom from torture, simply because they are persons, torture would not be justified even if valuable information was gained and this information did save peoples’ lives. For the strict deontologist, certain rights cannot be violated, regardless of consequences.
To be fair, the ethical debate is more complicated than this, and one can grant that persons have certain rights in most cases while also holding that those rights can be violated when the consequences tell in favor of doing so. One must be willing to accept the negative aspects of a view like this, but it probably best captures the format that our own government utilizes in these types of cases. Our social morality is both deontological and consequentialist. U.S. citizens have rights that are largely inalienable, but sometimes we violate them for the sake of exceedingly desirable consequences.
Perhaps the best next step in resolving this issue is for each side to consider the theoretical underpinnings of their view, and see if they agree with the position that they are defending. Do people like Dick Cheney really think good consequences justify horrific acts? Does Nancy Pelosi really think that certain rights can never be violated, no matter what the cost? More importantly, what do you think? It’s unlikely that our elected leaders will realize that this debate is about theoretical ethics, but that certainly doesn’t mean you cannot do so.
About the Author
Elijah Weber is a graduate student at Bowling Green State University. He holds a Master's degree in philosophy from Colorado State University, and Bachelor’s degrees in sociology and philosophy from Chapman University. He currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife Laura, his son Brandon, and two cats.