Column on Torture and Pragmatism

Torture and Pragmatism

Tibor R. Machan

Torturing someone involves inflicting pain and misery on the victim in the hope of obtaining something he or she is unwilling to give up. The purpose can vary from simple cruelty, as when youngsters on the playground torture one of their kind to see the reaction, to seeking information from the victim that may save the life of some innocent person.

The current concern with, for example, water boarding falls within the second category. In either kind of cases torture as a rule must be avoided. That’s just part of civilized conduct. But is it always morally wrong? In very rare cases it would not be. This is when it’s used against someone whose information could save innocent people from carnage. In a civilized society, however, there is no room for torture as official public policy, even when someone may deserve to be punished for a vicious crime or fails to help the authorities to rescue innocent victims. This latter is, of course, the sort of situation when it is most tempting to make official use of torture. Nonetheless, it would be wrong to make use of the method even then.

It is a basic feature of a civilized human community to prohibit the use of physical force against someone other than in certain rare cases of defending innocent people. No offensive use of physical force is justified. In the current debate about whether the Bush administration’s authorization of the use of water boarding was morally–and should have been legally–wrong, the case against torture stands, as a general principle.

What is odd, however, is that the practice is being attacked by people in President Obama’s administration since the president has quite often explained that he is a pragmatist and eschews ideology, by which he must mean that he has no principled objection to any practice if it achieves a worthy purpose. That is what is meant by “pragmatic,” the refusal to be bound by principles and caring only about results. So if some uses of water boarding yielded valuable information that might be used to rescue innocent victims of terrorists, the Obama administration would have no basis for objecting to it. The central tenet of pragmatism is never to discount anything as a method for achieving some valuable goal. It if works, it is then permissible. This is one reason why granting former Vice President Dick Cheney’s request to make public all the information on the uses of water boarding could be important. For if water boarding did in fact yield valuable information, then by the pragmatic approach advocated by President Obama it could be considered proper. And then the criticism of the Bush administration on the basis of its use of torture would fall apart since by their own standards Obama & Co. would have to approve of torture if it works.

Of course, one problem with pragmatism is that it makes it permissible, morally and politically, to use whatever policy one likes or believes might be of some use. Ahead of time it is never possible to know for sure if a policy is going to work–that remains to be seen. The point of a principled–if you wish, “ideological”–approach to actions, private or public, is that it uses what we have learned in the past to form certain general principles that would guide our conduct at least until they have proven to be unworkable. For example, the dictum “Honesty is the best policy” is based on the widespread experience that lying gets us into trouble while honesty doesn’t. No, this is no absolute guarantee against a different outcome in the future but it is a good reason, nevertheless, to avoid lying. Whenever a politician or indeed anyone proclaims to be pragmatic, the most reliable expectation from that is that the person wants no principles to constrain his or her actions. Carte blanche! And the plausibility of this stance comes from the fact that now and then, under very strange, exceptional circumstances, general ethical or political principles will not work. But as the saying goes, “Hard cases make bad law,” meaning, exceptional instances should not be generalized.

One thing is for sure–you cannot claim to be a pragmatist and also uphold a principled stand against water boarding or other forms of torture. For by your pragmatic outlook, if water boarding or torture may work to some benefit, you should use it. So it looks like the pragmatic critics of the Bush Administration’s policies vis-à-vis torture, including President Obama, have no basis for their objections. Since ahead of time no one can know whether water boarding is going to work in this particular case, why not use it then?

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