Plumb Lines

April 22, 2009

Conceding Too Much?

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 8:59 pm

Megan McArdle suggests that the anti-torture crowd stop arguing about whether torture works, because that isn’t the point, after all:

…when they argue about whether torture works, they’re conceding that torture’s effectiveness is relevant to the question of whether or not we should engage in it.  That implicitly means that if torture becomes nearly perfectly effective, they should change their minds–otherwise, it’s not a relevant criteria.

Conor Friedersdorf responds:

All one concedes by arguing about the effectiveness of torture is that people worth persuading believe — mistakenly or not — that utility is a relevant factor. I happen to think that every American who exerts influence on his or her government is a person worth persuading.

Conor is arguing on utilitarian grounds that we should try to persuade utilitarians that torture is a bad policy. After all, if we fail to persuade these utilitarians that torture is inutile, then we fail to acheive the utilon-maximizing outcome: the end of torture. The risk, as Megan writes, is that it might turn out to be the case that torture really does work in certain situations. I personally cannot say with any high degree of certainty that torture doesn’t work. After all, many of the people who say it doesn’t work and who might know whether it works or not are highly motivated by their (correct) moral intuition that torture is ever and always wrong.

Fortunately, this isn’t a choice we have to make. Jim Manzi rides to the rescue, suggesting that even if torture works tactically, we can still reject it on utilitarian grounds because it doesn’t work strategically:

Let’s assume arguendo that torture works in the tactical sense that I believe has been used so far in this debate; that is, that one can gain useful information reliably in at least some subset of situations through torture that could not otherwise be obtained. Further, assume that we don’t care about morality per se, only winning: defeating our enemies militarily, and achieving a materially advantaged life for the citizens of the United States. It seems to me that the real question is whether torture works strategically; that is, is the U.S. better able to achieve these objectives by conducting systematic torture as a matter of policy, or by refusing to do this? Given that human society is complex, it’s not clear that tactical efficacy implies strategic efficacy.

This is the tack I will take if I find myself in the unfortunate position of trying to convince a utilitarian that the United States should never torture anyone as a matter of policy, with one exception: if the utilitarian in question seems sensible and friendly I will first try to convince her that every form of utilitarianism is deeply misguided. Once she accepts a reasonable metaethics the correct answer to the torture question should become clear all on its own.

David Schaengold


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