31 August 2009

Does it work for you?

"Of course, Behaviourism 'works'. So does torture. Give me a no-nonsense, down-to-earth behaviourist, a few drugs, and simple electrical appliances, and in six months I will have him reciting the Athanasian Creed in public."
W.H. Auden


In the latest round of debate about enhanced interrogation techniques, we are once again subjected to the completely irrelevant debate as to whether EIT (a.k.a. torture) "works." As Auden observed, of course it does.

As the so-called Cheney memos show, and even the Washington Post reported, high value detainees such as Khalid Sheikh Muhammed provided a great deal of actionable intelligence after being subjected to waterboarding and other such techniques.

Unfortunately, too many (mostly on the political right) repeat this triumphantly, as if the end truly does justify the means. That's dangerous ground to tread upon. It is also, it would seem, an accepted line of reasoning on the other side, though. Why else continue the now utterly absurd denials?

From a purely moral perspective, the question of whether or not EITs work, by itself, has absolutely no bearing on whether they should be used. There are two questions which are relevant, it seems to me, assuming there is already general agreement that torture, per se, is immoral.

First, we must decide whether we consider EITs such as those used on a handful of terrorists, including KSM, meet our definition of torture. Whether or not they worked does not answer this question. If they are not torture, we might still object, but not based upon our moral opposition to torture.

Second, we must recognize that the most difficult moral decisions often involve not a single moral choice, but a requirement to balance competing moral imperatives. It is legitimate to disagree on the proper balance, but that is not the debate I've been hearing.

Those who triumphantly point to the results of EIT sessions are not really celebrating the breaking of wills or spilling of secrets, I don't think (or at least I don't hope.) The reason they seem so cheered by these successes is that the information gleaned resulted in saving American lives.

That (saving lives) is the competing moral imperative which enables them to believe these methods (again, if we assume them to be torture) are acceptable to practice under certain circumstances. The responsibility to protect innocent lives, they reason, outweighs the prohibition on torture.

It would seem then, that by continuing to deny the effectiveness of EITs, those opposed to their use are tacitly accepting the moral calculus by which the other side justifies their use.

But both sides avoid the debate.

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