The Torture Report: Efficacy v. Ethics?

There’s not a lot I can add to the conversation of this past week about the CIA torture report that came out of Sen. Feinstein’s committee.

I did note, however, that many politicians and commentators fell into a narrative about the report according to which the question of whether torture worked has no bearing at all on the question of whether torture is ethically justifiable.

On this account, torture is wrong because it is a gross violation of the dignity of a human being, treating a person as a mere thing. This was brought to a point by the psychologists involved in developing the CIA interrogation program, with their talk of “learned helplessness”: they set out explicitly to break the will of the one being interrogated, destroying the very basis of moral personhood.

he Senate report maintains that the CIA program yielded no useful intelligence: the fact that agents of the United States used other human beings as mere means toward the ends of gaining intelligence is shown to be a mockery, since that end was never attained. In fact, many argue, the means served only to push the ends further out of view.

That said, a number of commentators have hastened to say that even if the program had yielded useful intelligence, even if it had saved lives, it would remain a gross ethical offense, something in which Americans – or indeed human beings generally – ought not to engage.

It is here that I pick up the tacit premise that efficacy has nothing whatever to do with ethics.

In fact, those who appeal to the claim that torture worked and that the CIA used it to save American lives can be seen as those with the most to lose and the most to hide, which may give many the impression that an appeal to efficacy is a trick played by scoundrels and double-dealers rather than a genuine ethical argument.

It is only with this tacit premise that I would like to take issue.

Efficacy can be ethically relevant, at least when it is efficacy in doing good things or preventing bad things.

In the language of the good, an act is evaluated by it’s consequences, whether it makes people better off or worse off.  In the CIA program, some people are made much worse off, many of them for a very long time; if, as a consequence, it makes many people even a little better off, or prevents them from being made much worse off, then it might, all else being equal, balance out the equation, or even tip it to the side of the good.

In the language of the right, an act is evaluated by its intentions, especially the intentions toward other moral agents.

It seems to me the difficulty we face in assessing the CIA’s use of torture, as with many other matters, is that both kinds of ethical language are relevant to understanding the moral qualities of actions and practices. We cannot so easily write one or the other off as merely irrelevant.

It is entirely possible to acknowledge that torture might work in some instances, that might actually lead to some good outcome, on balance, but to maintain at the same time that it is ethically monstrous as a focused assault on the dignity of human beings.

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