The Torture Report: Further Clarification

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.

2 thoughts on “The Torture Report: Further Clarification

  1. Hi Bob, it's Emma here. I'm posting as anonymous because I haven't got any of the kind of accounts one seems to need.

    Your words reminded me of George Bernard Shaw's writings on vivisection. I bet you are already familiar with them, but the ones here are quite apposite.

    Public support of vivisection is founded almost wholly on the assurances of the vivisectors that great public benefits may be expected from the practice. Not for a moment do I suggest that such a defence would be valid even if proved. But when the witnesses begin by alleging that in the cause of science all the customary ethical obligations (which include the obligation to tell the truth) are suspended, what weight can any reasonable person give to their testimony? I would rather swear fifty lies than take an animal which had licked my hand in good fellowship and torture it. If I did torture the dog, I should certainly not have the face to turn round and ask how any person dare suspect an honourable man like myself of telling lies. Most sensible and humane people would, I hope, flatly reply that honourable men do not behave dishonourably even to dogs.

    …If you cannot attain to knowledge without torturing a dog, you must do without knowledge.


  2. Hi, Emma! Thanks for your comment.

    Shaw paints with a very broad brush, however sympathetic I may be to his conclusions.

    For example, I don't quite buy into his slippery-slope argument to the effect that allowing vivisection of animals would necessarily lead to or justify the vivisection of humans. There are many different ways to draw a line between the two practices, though some are likely to be more plausible than others.

    In any case, the point I've been trying to make is that, contrary to Shaw, an appeal to the good, to “public benefit”, is a valid and important ethical consideration, even if it is not especially compelling in some circumstances when weighted against an appeal to the right, to human dignity, to “good fellowship.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s