Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Ends and Means

a contrapuntal essay

The problem of using "ends justify the means" logic to defend torture is that virtually every war criminal believes some threat is strong enough, or some perceived "good" important enough, that the atrocity committed is justified.

At Reason, Jim Henley shreds the utilitarian argument for torture (via The Edge of the American West, where dana does a good job exposing the "ticking timebomb" scenario as a fantasy for "thought experiments," not a real situation for the real world). Henley presents the familiar "you have a terrorist in custody who knows where a bomb is hidden, and many innocent lives are at stake" scenario. But Henley twists the hypothetical's rules:

"But you’re also sure this particular terrorist is a pervert! And he tells you that if you’ll rape your own child in front of him, he’ll tell you exactly where the bomb is and how to disarm it. And you’re sure that he will, because your intelligence is that good in exactly that way."

Henley then exposes

"the real misdirection of the ticking bomb scenario. It’s always presented as a 'What would you do?' dilemma, but in truth it has nothing to do with you. The proper question is: 'What should we allow officials embedded in the security bureaucracy to do with impunity? What shall we let their bosses order without legal repercussion?'"

I'm reminded of John Howard Yoder's What Would You Do?, where Yoder exposes some of the assumptions within the "If a violent person is attacking your family, wouldn't you use violence to stop him?" question? Conflating some of Yoder's ideas with some of my own, here are some assumptions inherent to that question.

One assumption: Your violent defense will be successful. If a violent person (presumably armed) is attacking my family, why on earth would I assume that I could violently defend them? My attempt would likely fail, and quite possibly make things worse.

Another assumption: A violent defense is your only option. Could I consider sacrificing myself to save my family? Could I try mount a distraction to allow my family to escape? Could I try talking to the person?

Another assumption: This hypothetical can be used to justify a large-scale war. That's absurd. Even assuming you are using this hypothetical to justify a defensive war, the more accurate hypothetical would be "If a violent person were running through a crowd to try and hurt your family, would you throw a grenade into the crowd to stop the person?"

Literature offers exploration of ends and means, too.

In John Fowles' The Magus, Conchis is ordered by a Nazi to bludgeon a man to death; if he doesn't, a whole crowd of innocent people will be executed. As Conchis approaches the man, the man speaks the word "eleutheria," the Greek word for freedom. Conchis sees in this Nazi resister "every freedom, from the very worst to the very best." He sees that:

"I was the only person left in that square who had the freedom left to choose, and that the annunciation and defence of that freedom was more important than common sense, self-preservation, yes, than my own life, than the lives of the eighty hostages."

In The Magus, Fowles presents an existentialist dilemma: Conchis rejects utilitarian reasoning in order to assert his own "freedom."

I've written about utilitarianism in Graham Greene's The Quiet American before. Fowler finds Pyle's utilitarianism abhorrent. Pyle is willing to sacrifice many lives to his value of democracy; he sees these lives as acceptable "means" to achieve an "end." In order to stop Pyle, Fowler contributes to Pyle's death: in other words, Fowler is willing to view Pyle as an means, too. He weighs Pyle's life against the lives that Pyle would be responsible for taking in the future, and makes a utilitarian decision. Of course, the fact that Fowler and Pyle are rivals for the same woman complicates the simplicity of this decision.

Literature also offers us an example of the ethical way to respond to torture and following orders. In King Lear, while the sadistic Cornwall is poking out the eyes of Gloucester, one of his servants objects, trying to make his master stop. From his lowly position, this is an act of disobedience. But he sees an atrocity being committed, and attempts to intervene rather than be complicit. He is unable to help Gloucester, and he is killed for his troubles; perhaps, however, he saves his soul. And if I were ever to direct King Lear (I'd like to imagine the twists of chance and life that would lead that to happen, but I can't), I know how my production would have Gloucester appear during this scene:

image from Wikipedia

(This is closer to what I would like my contrapuntal writing to be. Instead of a unified, developed thesis, one idea leads to a somewhat related idea and so on, finding unexpected connections and not developing a point in a systematic direction, but exploring it in a flexible way. I'm not where I want to be with it, but I'm getting there).


--this post grows out of a frustration with seeing "It works" used as a justification for torture, as if the effectiveness of great cruelty justifies great cruelty (or, if you prefer, you can replace "cruelty" with ILLEGAL ACTS). If you are trying to stop a window salesman from knocking on your door once a month, kicking him in the stomach is cruel (and illegal) regardless of whether "it works."

--perhaps I should explain: I would not use images of Abu Ghraib in a production of King Lear to try and make a political point (which would be both incoherent and obvious). It would be an aesthetic choice to connect with the audience. It would be an attempt to make the cruelty of the scene (and play) familiar to the audience, rather than distant.

1 comment:

  1. Nicely counterpointed. Another variation is that torture is most often used as a form of terrorism by governments against some or all of their own people. In that case it is most effective, and most vile.