Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Abu Ghraib Redux

by Joe Miller

I often joke with my students that I became a philosopher mainly by default; being unable to decide on a major, I chose to enter a field in which where I can discuss everything. We philosophers simply stick "philosophy of" in front of any old noun and christen it a new sub-field. So it's not often that I find myself totally and completely speechless. Yet that's how I've spent the greater part of today after having viewed the newest photos from Abu Ghraib. There are 15 new photos available from the Sydney Morning Herald here. Fair warning: these are pretty graphic.

As some of you might know, this is a topic that I've written about before. Unsurprisingly, the question of the legitimacy of using torture came up rather frequently when I taught at West Point. There was a particular urgency and seriousness to these discussions during those rather tumultuous years (my two-year stint began in August of 2001, extended through the initial formulation of the Bush Doctrine at commencement in 2002, and ended in May of 2003, right around the time that we accomplished our mission in Iraq). Cadets in my classes, like many Americans at the time, were angry and looking to make someone pay for killing lots of innocent citizens. Those of us hired to teach ethics and just war theory to 19 year old yearlings (sophomores) had our work cut out for us. Cadets who hear every day the importance of protecting Americans, completing the mission, winning the battle, and taking care of their troops bristled at the thought that POWs have rights even when they may well know where the bombs are hidden. It's a sentiment that I fully understand; my friend and colleague at West Point, MAJ Bill Hecker, was killed by an IED (an improvised explosive device) last month.

Teaching cadets the wrongness of torture is difficult under the best of circumstances. Teaching cadets the wrongness of torture when the course director for the moral philosophy and just war theory course (now the deputy head of the department) is busy writing a paper that argues for the permissibility of torture on Kantian grounds: nearly impossible. The paper, for the record, was a conceptual nightmare; the justifications offered would have legitimized the torture of almost every officer captured in war. As is often said of Kantian applied ethics, the paper bounced between being too Kantian to be plausible and too plausible to be Kantian. But I digress.

The real problem, as I see it, is that the framework that the Army uses for teaching ethics does not actually rule out torture as being absolutely forbidden. Rather, the Army relies on an Aristotelian model of ethics, one in which virtues are defined according to the needs of the profession (Not that the Army explicitly recognizes the philosophical underpinnings of its ethical framework. Most of the Army's scholarship on ethics comes from social scientists and not from philosophers.) So the virtues of a soldier are those traits that enable a soldier to carry out his proper function, namely, fighting and winning wars. That's not a terrible start for a moral theory.

The problem, as I see it, is that said standard may not actually coincide with things like, well, the Geneva convention. Torture, like other war crimes of the jus in bello (justice in war) sort, is morally wrong on the Aristotelian account because torture typically makes it more difficult to win wars. After all, if my side violates the rules, the other side will too and that's rather obviously worse for me. But consider: suppose that nation A is so much more powerful than nation B that there really is no obvious way that B could ever defeat A. In other words, soldiers from nation B could violate every rule of war, and A would still win. In that case, the soldiers of nation A can violate the rules of war without actually impacting their ability to fight and win the wars of nation A.

The problem with the Aristotelian model, then, lies in its semi-consequentialist nature. The Army's virtue-based model considers some consequences (namely, what character traits will make it easier for soldiers to carry out their function of fighting and winning wars), but it entirely ignores one really relevant set of consequences, particularly in the case of torture. Namely, the Army's model neglects to consider the consequences for the people being tortured. See, torture really sucks for the people being tortured. You end up with things like this:

And that's why I've argued that the Army's Aristotelian model really ought to be replaced with a rule-utilitarian approach. The rule-utilitarian will still consider the long-term effects of torture (i.e., will torture make it more difficult to win wars), but it will also include in the calculation such important factors as how likely it is that the person being tortured really does know something important, or even how likely it is that the person is even guilty at all (something that we don't seem to be all that careful about at Gitmo, say). Rule-utilitarianism will also consider how likely it is that torture will actually work and to what extent we will be able to know the answers to any of these questions in advance. It seems likely to me, then, that the rule-utilitarian will say that, given the difficulty of knowing whether torture will actually work in any given case, it's unlikely ever to be justified in a particular instance. Thus, a rule-utilitarian will establish a simple rule: don't torture.

That's not to say that some act of torture might not at some time be morally permitted, or perhaps even morally obligatory. If we really do have the person who knows where the nuclear bomb is hidden and we really do know that, then yes we probably torture him. But we should torture him knowing that what we are doing is illegal, and we should then expect that whoever did the torturing and whoever ordered the torturing go to prison afterward. After all, torture is serious business and it's a serious wrong. Cracking down on any instance (even if it's a justified instance) helps to ensure that it is not used in situations in which it is not justified (and those will, if we're honest, vastly outweigh the instances in which it is justified).

UPDATE: Salon has published several more photos here. These are particularly graphic (i.e., unlike the Morning Herald photos, these are shown completely unedited.)


Blogger Rick said...

Weren't these soldiers already tried and convicted? Didn't everyone agree that what was done was wrong?
I'm sorry to bring this up from an objective point of view but I see one photo that actually depicts abuse in action. The one of Grainer(I think) punching the guy in the back of the head. OK 2 if you count the dog (which I do not). The bloody cell might be the same cell that the other photos referenced in relation to a shootout (no evidence of torture). A guy with a bag on his head holding a box (no evidence of torture). A guy hanging upside down from his bed...not restrained (no evidence of torture). A prisoner on a stretcher with a hand on his back (no evidence of torture). One prisoner receiving stitches it appears (medical treatment is not torture). why does he need stitches? Maybe because he bangs his own face against the wall like this other guy here (no evidence of torture). A guy in the shower throwing up (no evidence of torture). Another guy with a bloody face (no evidence how it got that way, maybe he bangs his face on the wall{does the wall face east?}) Dead guy with an eyepatch (CIA's fault). Guy with butt sores (did he fall on the gound in the prison yard full of rocks and dirt?) Two guys cuffed together, one with sores on arm (was he fighting with the butt sore guy and fell also?) and the I'm a rapesit (misspelled)photo where we play stack the naked Arabs. Degrading? Yes. Torture? Don't think so.
Personally, I think putting an 18 yr old who got caught selling weed in prison with murderers and rapists who are just itching to ass rape him and make him their bitch is more abusive.
Do I condone wanton torture? No. Do I think there may be some justification for it in certain situations? Yes.
As a rule: no torture. As a better rule: don't take pictures stupid!

3:23 PM  
Blogger Joe Miller said...


There is pretty good evidence that (a) the abuse was far more widespread than just the 8 enlisted reservists tried so far, (b) that people all the way up the chain of command knew about, condoned, and perhaps even ordered such activities, and (c) that the things going on at Abu Ghraib are going on at Gitmo, in Afghanistan, and in the various places where we have been, well, outsourcing torture.

I agree with you about putting pot smokers in prison with rapists is pretty horrible. But that strikes me as a bit of a non sequitur. It doesn't follow from the fact that we do bad things to people who really didn't do anything wrong that it's therefore okay to do really horrible things to people who may have done something wrong. (And the "may" part is important, especially considering the many reports that would indicate that a very high percentage of the people we have detained in military prisons are not actually terrorists at all.)

Sure, there might well be instance in which torture is justified, and I'm willing to grant that fact. I'm not a Kantian, after all; I'm fine with saying that consequences might well justify otherwise pretty horrible behavior.

My worry, though, is that certain practices are bad enough that it's a good idea not to allow people to think that they are okay. If people think that those practices are okay (even if they really are okay only in very limited circumstances), then odds are good that they will do such things even when they ought not. That's why I support a blanked rule that says that theft is wrong even though I think that it was probably okay for Robin Hood to steal from the king. Robin Hood's case is unique enough that we can deal with it on an individual basis.

I suppose that I'm really acting on something like the truism that difficult cases make bad law. We should make laws that apply to the normal run of cases. If we need to break that law--genuinely need to--then okay. But the lawbreakers will then have to accept punishment for having broken the law.

4:55 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

Joe, I really do agree with you. I'm just playing my role as "designated disagree-er". My argument was along the lines of Motesquieu's justifications for slavery. Making up possible arguments off the cuff. Oh, damn is it Montesquieu or Rosseau?
Anyway, I still don't see the point in releasing more photos.

10:10 PM  

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