Simple Ethics

Originally posted on Half an Hour, November 29, 2007.

Responding to Keith Burgess-Jackson, The Logic of Torture.

I'm not sure about the ethics of giving people the arguments they need in order to defend torture - a practice that is universally condemned, except, it appears, in some certain political circles - but I'll bet they're not good.

In any case, this superficial and facile argument is an example of simple ethics at its worst: poor and shallow philosophical reasoning used to defense the indefensible. It would be nothing more than an annoying exercise, except that it appears that some of the readers of this site really believe some of this nonsense.

let's begin with the ridiculous division of the world of normative ethics (ie., ethics that tells you what you should or ought to do), deontology and consequentialism. The presumption here is that there are only two reasons for saying an act is wrong: because it breaks some rule, or because it has negative consequences.

The supposition that "deontologism is a hard position" displays a naive misunderstanding of rule-based theories. In the first place, it ignores the basis for the formation of rules altogether: rules may be based on religious beliefs, on agreement or contracts, or on practicality. Moreover, there may be many rules or few rules, and rules will interact with each other in often subtle ways. Far from being a "hard position", deontology enables a wide variety of ethical positions raging from strict theologically-based ethics (such as the Ten Commandments) to variations on the social contracts described by people like Rawls (justice as 'fairness') to forms of hedonism ('I do it because I feel like it').

The core of Burgess-Jackson's argument comes from the provision that there are "degrees" of consequentialism in most ethical position, thus suggesting that most people will have to admit reasoning such as the following: "When an act of torture is wrong, it is wrong solely because, qua act, it fails to maximize the good. When it maximizes the good, it is not wrong." Even if we agree that ethical theories divide neatly along a range, as he suggests (implausibly), his depiction of consequentialism is naive at best.

First of all, there are many ways to describe consequences. When we consider a specific act, the consequence may be only the damage it directly causes, indirect harm, intentional and unintentional harm, the influence it creates in other people, the example it sets, and more. It is naive - and wrong - to calculate the consequences of an act simply in terms of the number of lives lost or saved.

Secondly, there are many things that can have consequences other than *acts*. The position described by Burgess-Jackson is known generally as 'Act Utilitarianism' and is contrasted with 'Rule Utilitarianism'. The problem with Act Utilitarianism is that it focuses on short-term and immediate consequences, with no thought at all regarding the example it sets, or the utility of having a rule in general. In some cases, the importance of a rule to society is so great that no matter how justified a particular violation may appear, it never outweighs the rule itself, because the consequences of losing the rule itself would be devastating.

We have many rules like that in society, of which the sanction against torture is one. One argument for such a rule is that people require security in order to be able to function in a society. The possibility of torture, however slight, undermines that sense of security, with enormous consequences to society as a whole. Society itself cannot function without the non-arbitrary application of rules, as Solon, so long ago, argued in Athens.

Third, the consequentialist defense of torture is inherently contradictory. Torture is the willful inflicting of pain and suffering, thus creating a consequence that is, by most anybody's definition, a 'harm' or a 'wrong'. In other words, torture *itself* is one of the consequences we would like our system of ethics to avoid. The consequentialist position must begin with the *presumption* that torture is wrong. That is why consequentialist defenses of the act seem so, um, tortured.

Look at this argument, for example: "The best policy might be to prohibit torture (having carefully defined it), while allowing as a defense the claim that it was necessary to save many innocent lives." We can see the weasel words already creeping in to even the broad statement of the argument. We're going to 'carefully define it' (thus allowing some acts to escape the letter of the law). We're going to allow a 'claim' as a defense (rather than the 'fact' - because the 'fact' is essentially unprovable). We're going to save only 'innocent' lives (because the life of your church-going civilian defense contractor is worth so much more than that of the poor uneducated Palestinian boy who grew up in a shack and one day threw a stone).

Citing Hume, Burgess-Jackson suggests that one cannot derive an 'ought' from an 'is'. What should also be mentioned is that Hume did not accept that anything simply 'is'. Our understanding of cause and effect, our understand of diety and the divine, our understanding of the self, and even our understanding of the world - all these for Hume are "fictions", created by "habits of the mind". Hume himself argued that morality is a sense, an "impression" that we get of right or wrong.

That's why it appears so subjective. There is indeed nothing concrete on which we can pin morality - not even 'consequences', which were the target of Hume's harshest sceptical attacks. In the end, the best argument against torture is the one we all feel inside, that feeling of sickness at the idea of torture, and an especial revulsion toward the one who would suggest, through whatever dissembling, that torture can be defended.

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