Plumb Lines

May 4, 2009

In Defense of Moral Reasoning

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 2:57 pm

Sooner or later, the media and the blogosphere will stop talking about torture, either because everyone’s tired of hearing about it or because we’ve taken some concrete steps towards justice. Though I’d be grateful for any reason to stop talking about it (I really would much rather talk about bicycle design), I do hope we “move on” legitimately, with criminal prosecutions and a truth commission, not just because it’s something we did in the past that we’d rather not hear about, like incinerating Hiroshima. Whether fatigue or genuine resolution ends the torture debate, however, I hope when it’s all over we remember that moral reasoning is important.

Of course I am sympathetic to E.D.’s feeling that this is a debate we shouldn’t be having. If torture doesn’t seem obviously wrong to you,  your moral intuitions and instincts have gone deeply astray. Since this is a debate we are in fact having, however, and since we want to avoid as far as we can accusing torture advocates of bad faith, what we have to fall back on is moral reasoning. When an intelligent person asks in good faith why torture is wrong, and is obviously conflicted about the answer, it is crucial that we be able to explain why torture is wrong.

What moments like the torture debate reveal about our culture is that a moral prohibition we think to be unshakable can be as brittle as a glass window. The first dark passion — passion for revenge on the terrorists, maybe — that throws a stone will shatter it. If we lose our ability to articulate why torture is wrong, our prohibition against it may stand for a while, but the first time it’s really tested, it will break. Too many Americans have asked Jim Manzi’s question — why, after all, is torture wrong? — and not hearing a good explanation, have decided that it isn’t. Fortunately, not all.

David Schaengold

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2 Comments »

  1. “What moments like the torture debate reveal about our culture is that a moral prohibition we think to be unshakable can be as brittle as a glass window. The first dark passion — passion for revenge on the terrorists, maybe — that throws a stone will shatter it.”

    Very well said, David. As Orwell said, “the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.”

    Comment by Matthew Schmitz — May 4, 2009 @ 3:17 pm

  2. You’re absolutely right, David. My frustration is mainly with the constant search for nuance when it strikes me as very basic and apparent that torture is wrong. However, this frustration should not be confused with my desire to also see the proper steps taken to avoid this in the future, which does indeed require that we examine, discuss, and ultimately lay the groundwork for truth and consequences.

    Excellent post as always.

    Cheers!

    Comment by E.D. Kain — May 4, 2009 @ 4:21 pm


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