Since it is such a sensitive issue, I want to be especially careful in the language I use to discuss torture. Reading over yesterday’s note, it seems I could have drawn the point more precisely.
Here’s some of what I wrote:
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.
Efficacy can be ethically relevant, at least when it is efficacy in doing good things or preventing bad things.
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.
What I mean by this is that an appeal to the efficacy of torture may be more than just a strategic move by people with a lot to hide: it may be an appeal to a legitimate moral value pegged to the good.
In arguing against torture, it will not do to exclude from consideration an entire category of value that is well recognized in other situations. It is as much a mistake to exclude the good from consideration as it would be to exclude the right, reducing the debate entirely to the terms of utility or efficacy – a mistake to which many apologists for the CIA seem to be prone.
This is not to say that an argument in terms of the good is especially compelling in the case of torture, but that brings me back around to the main point of yesterday’s note: contrary to the narrative I kept encountering in news accounts and commentaries, the conclusion of the Senate report regarding the uselessness of torture is itself an ethical argument, one that speaks directly to apologists’ calculations of utility.