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Today is Blog Against Torture Day 
29th-Mar-2008 06:22 pm
Or, so several folks I've flisted have informed me.

Most of the original things I had to say I posted in response to their posts.  So, I won't repeat all those points, here.
Instead, I want to pursue  line of thought I've had since reading everyone else's comments.  catalana pointed out that she was interested in morality, not law.  That got me thinking.

I consider it immoral to tell lies.  Sometimes, it is also illegal (perjury, for instance.)  However, I "lie" all the time.  I tell someone I'm fine after he's stepped on my toe.  I tell my mother I'm happy to do something for her, whether I am or not.  I tell lies of omission even more often, for simplification, for time constraints, for the sake of being polite ...

So, why am I so calm about how easily I transgress my moral code?  Before all this discussion about torture, I would have said that I was committing a smaller transgression on order to avoid a larger one -- I say everything is fine because it's not so un-fine that it's worth distressing the poor guy who has apologized -- and I know I will be fine in the end.

But now, I think I am so calm because the consequences of my transgression -- to me and to others -- are immaterial enough that I don't agonize over the issue.

So, what if I up the ante?  How do I feel about killing?  Easy - it is immoral.  Period.  (These are my moral standards I'm discussing, here, so I can be as adamant as I choose.)  And, yes, that means I am against capital punishment, which, as a form of killing I must find immoral. 

But I was all for the execution of Timothy McVeigh.  I heard a politician put it thusly:  There are certain crimes for which capital punishment is the correct response -- treason, killing law enforcement officers, and habitual, serial murder.  "Correct" because these are three circumstances in which the punishment of death is commensurate with the crime and the crime's affect on society.  Or to put it another way, the only way to prevent recurrence of the crime is to end the criminal.  These three cases indicate such a high level of depravity that rehabilitation or redemption is improbable.

So, here I have something I consider immoral (being  "correct" does not make it "moral") that I am willing to condone as expedient., Under limited circumstances, with caveats up the wazzoo, but still, condone.  This makes me extremely uncomfortable.  Rightly, so.  So uncomfortable, in fact, that I would likely change my stance were I the potential executioner.  Does that put me in denial?  Very likely.  I haven't figured out what to do about it, yet.

So, now we arrive at a higher ante still -- torture.  For me, this is immoral.  There are no exigent circumstances under which I could condone it.  For one thing, I don't think it is as expedient as capital punishment, for instance.  So it is harder to imagine a circumstance where I could justify its use.  Without that, though, I consider the consequences of legal torture to be so negative that to condone it at all is the denial.  Unlike capital punishment, which at least does solve problems on some level, torture merely creates new problems without solving the old. 
What did I learn from this line of thought?  That the larger the stakes in terms of consequences of the action, the less easy it is to condone the action, and the easier it becomes to declare it categorically immoral.

That doesn't say a whole lot about the immutable nature of morality, does it? It might, though, explain why so many of us have trouble articulating our thoughts -- we're dealing with a subject of infinite shading, and all of us are at different  places on the spectrum.

I think this "day to blog" deal was a ... um... character-building exercise.

Let's not do it again, for a while, ok?
30th-Mar-2008 02:04 am (UTC)
"But now, I think I am so calm because the consequences of my transgression -- to me and to others -- are immaterial enough that I don't agonize over the issue."

Ding ding ding! In my personal moral code, the consequences of actions are the major factor in determining whether something is moral or immoral. Intentions count for something, but they count for less than effect.

The consequences of torture? Overwhelmingly bad. So bad that any good that may come from getting valuable information by that means cannot possibly outweigh the bad.

"I think this "day to blog" deal was a ... um... character-building exercise. Let's not do it again, for a while, ok?"

Okay by me.
30th-Mar-2008 04:54 pm (UTC)
"Intentions count for something, but they count for less than effect. "

Well, I see your point, and I agree in spirit. You, however, are much more willing to put things in absolute terms than I am. I think both intentions and effect matter; and I can think of different situations whether either might count more than the other.

Both bad intention and bad effect = bad.
Both good intention and good effect = good.
Good intention and bad effect = ??
Bad intention and good effect = ??

No matter how you slice it, the last two options contain both good and bad, which is a lot of gray area.

Like Catalana, I am willing to allow for the possibility that the effect of torture might in fact matter less than its purpose (intent) -- I simply haven't come across such a situation yet, and don't really think I shall. For that reason, I am unwilling to make it an accepted policy; I have ample proof that others are less fastidious than I.

31st-Mar-2008 11:56 am (UTC)
I think maybe you're reading my statement as more absolutist than it was.

I agree with your intention/effect list. Considering "Good intention and bad effect", however, the effect is more important than the intention -- for those affected by the action. As the old saying goes, "Boys stone a frog in sport, but the frog dies in earnest." Whether you intended to have a bad effect, your action caused it, and you're still responsible for cleaning up the mess you caused.

I have such a strong opinion on this particular combination of intention/effect because I see so many disastrous results from the failure to consider the possible consequences of an action; and so many people who think that "I didn't intend to" means they have no responsibility for cleaning up the mess their actions caused.
30th-Mar-2008 04:16 am (UTC)
There is a question posed in the book, Starship Troopers, that goes something like this, "When is it acceptable for society to take an action that is not acceptable for a member of that society?". Your points regarding execution and torture touch on this concept. I don't know the correct answer.

Another concept I remember related to your post from a discussion on karma and the Law of Three. In this discussion, it was said that the effect of an action comes back three-fold: in intent, in effect, and in perception. (I'm a bit unsure of the last one, it has been a long time.) I know this isn't the classical view, but it made sense to me at the time.

In addition to the immorality, torture is highly unreliable. The victim will say whatever they think will make the torture stop. This includes making things up if they don't know anything.

As a member of the military, I have a special relationship with killing. I hope and pray that my oath to defend the Constitution, my oath to obey my superiors, and my personal moral code never come into conflict.

For the record: I support execution under limited conditions, I do not condone torture, and I support the ethical and humane treatment of all prisoners.
30th-Mar-2008 05:02 pm (UTC)
Yeah, it's that "unreliable" bit -- it makes me sick to think this country is even debating the issue. If it were more reliable, at least I could see the gray. As it is ...

"Starship Troopers," like much of Heinlein philosophy, sounded good while reading, but left me uncomfortable in thought afterwards. I was much happier with "Harsh Mistress." He asks the same question there, but comes up with an answer: Never. What is not right for the individual is not right for the society, and there is consequential karma in either case. Both society and individuals may decide to proceed, but each will also deal with the karmic consequence.

That, to me, sounds much more like "Walden" - "civil disobedience" is done deliberately, knowingly, purposefully, and with the responsible acceptance of consequences.

As Heinlein posited: TANSTAAFL.

For the record: your stance is very close to mine, except I do not support execution. I tolerate it in some limited circumstances, so far. I balance on one foot, however, poised to switch directions when I finally sort out how I feel about it.
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