Tuesday, June 14, 2011

For the sake of our gravest desiderata

     I occasionally write for the Mission Viejo Patch. One of my colleagues on the Patch (the admirable Mr. Shripathi Kamath) recently posted a brief discussion of the “ethics of torture” in which he seemed to argue for the moral necessity of torture under special circumstances. (See The Ethics of Torture, June 10, 2011)
     I joined in the discussion, which was a mix of the good, the bad, and the ugly (mostly good though).
     Eventually, I posted the following:

G: There are occasions in which opting for the use of torture (on, say, a captured terrorist) will increase the chances of acquiring information – specifically in cases in which such information possibly would prevent moral disaster (e.g., the detonation of a nuclear bomb in a city)
—then (and I take this to be Shri’s core insight) it is morally odd (and by no means incontrovertably wise) to adopt an absolute prohibition/condemnation against the use of torture, for such prohibition would seem to allow moral disasters—situations even more regrettable (from a moral perspective) than the instance of torture.
     Philosophers have long known that, in contemplating extreme circumstances—as actually arise in, say, the setting of national leadership—paradoxes (I use the term somewhat loosely) emerge. Thus, for instance, Gregory Kavka* once argued that, to bring about the morally best outcome, it may be necessary for some individuals within a society to become morally corrupt—in order to act under special circumstances in a manner in which no decent moral being would act (namely, by retaliating against a nation’s nuclear onslaught with a reciprocating [and pointless] nuclear onslaught, for the sake of effective deterrence).
     A utilitarian (of a classic variety) always acts to bring about the greatest happiness for the greatest number. But it would seem that, in doing so, he or she will be obliged on occasion to violate individuals’ rights (e.g., one will sacrifice a healthy hospital orderly in order to save three patients by employing his healthy organs). But if everyone were a utilitarian, and if that were known, then everyone would live in fear of becoming the next utilitarian sacrifice to “the greatest happiness”—and this would ipso facto lower the level of happiness in society considerably.
     Thus, paradoxically, a utilitarian would not seek that everyone be a utilitarian.
     Many years ago, some philosophers began considering morality and moral principles from two perspectives: from the individual’s perspective and the perspective of a moral being who has the opportunity to decide on the rules and practices that would be adopted by everyone in society. Arguably, one would be in a much better position to maximize happiness (or minimize violence, pain, etc.—or, indeed, to achieve any overarching goal) if one had the latter perspective and could somehow enforce it or cause individuals to act accordingly. (Example of such theorizing: John Rawls’ mid-50s essay, “Two Concepts of Rules.”**)
     It seems clear that no society can flourish in which free and informed members are permitted acts of violence (including torture) as means to their goals, however noble. On the other hand, arguably, a community can together reflect on that general perspective mentioned above and in this way see the wisdom or desirability of permitting torture for cases such as G above.
     In a sense, we already approach some matters in this fashion—or at least some of us individuals do. I would argue that no large society (perhaps there should be no large societies!) can survive (and thus flourish) without a military and a substantial army. Further, no large army could function if it allowed its soldiers to exercise moral autonomy. And in fact, actual armies (certainly ours) operate in a manner that discourages autonomy among individual soldiers. (Unsurprisingly, we are not very honest with ourselves about this.)
     I have generally refrained from applying my usual demand (of persons) that they exercise moral autonomy in the case of soldiers (and other classifications) exactly because of this recognition that, as a matter of practical fact, no military can function if it encourages precisely the sort of character that, normally, we hope to instill in our children.
     So my perspective (here) parallels Kavka’s.
     I am somewhat of a communitarian, and so I (in some sense) hope that my fellow-citizens will be moral and will encourage virtue in their children. I would be pleased by the prospect of a society in which the norm among individuals is moral seriousness and the attending of one’s moral character. In such a society, individuals would be encouraged (presumably by their parents, but perhaps also by “society itself”) to achieve moral autonomy—i.e., the ability and disposition to act with moral seriousness and own responsibility for themselves and their actions. (Please excuse my informal language.)
     But I don’t see how a large army could function (especially during time of war) were that autonomy to be permitted or encouraged for soldiers qua soldiers. And so one confronts a kind of dilemma.
     And, for me, the dilemma is mitigated or alleviated by that higher perspective that sees the necessity of soldier non-autonomy relative to our society’s gravest desiderata. That is, that perspective is in some sense compelling, from a moral perspective. It is as compelling, perhaps, as the need for the condemnation of torture.
     I offer the above with no slight tentativeness.

   *Some Paradoxes of Deterrence (Gregory Kavka, 1978)
   **Two Concepts of Rules (John Rawls, 1955)


Shripathi Kamath said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Shripathi Kamath said...

Thank you for the mention, Herr von Traven.

But more so for taking the time to understand my ramblings, and more importantly, to teach.

That is generous compensation for the abrupt and uneasy silence I have been subject to from heretofore friends, foes, and acquaintances for being The Despicable Advocate for Drive-Thru Torture.

It was news to me that I had become such a thing.

There are times when I wish I would have chosen to let a thought go unexpressed.

This is no longer one of those times.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad. The thinker, no less than the author, will always be dragged down by his audience. It's like death and taxes. BvT (RB)