Saturday, December 15, 2007

Does Intention Matter?

Upon request, Kevin Drum receives a conservative argument as to why it's okay for America to torture in the war on terror. He reprints it without comment (I, as you will see, am not so generous):
I want our side to win. Or maybe more accurately, I don't want our side to lose....As with any other form of violence, motivation is everything. A cop shooting a murderer is not the same as a murderer shooting an innocent victim, although both use guns, and at the end, someone is bleeding and dying.

You'd be amazed at how many people find these things nearly equivalent. A leftist I know sees no difference between a Palestinian child dying from a stray Israeli bullet during a firefight, and an Israeli child dying when a Palestinian terrorist puts the barrel of a gun to the kid's forehead and blows his brains across the back wall of the child's bedroom. In his two-dimensional perception, the only important factor is that both resulted in a dead child. Avoiding true moral analysis and motivations allows him to skirt the concept of "evil," a term which makes many liberals intensely uncomfortable.

John Kiriakou said that waterboarding a terrorist stopped dozens of attacks. Dozens. Not attacks on military targets, but attacks on innocent non-combatants.

That was the motivation.

The terrorists who torture and kill our prisoners (never something as benign as waterboarding) don't do it because they need information to save innocent people. They do it because they like it, because they want to hurt or kill someone.

At some point you have to decide if a known terrorist having a very bad day (after which he goes back to a hot meal and a cot) is more of a moral problem than allowing a terrorist to blow up a building full of people.

Yes, it's good if we do it, when it's for the right reasons. So far, it's been for the right reasons. And no, it isn't good when it's done to us, for the reasons it has been done to us. Get back to me when some enemy tortures one of our soldiers in order to save innocent lives.

Got it?

There are two issues that spring to mind upon reading this argument.

1) The unidentified conservative draws a contrast between America, which tortures to save innocents, and the terrorists, who do it "because they like it, because they want to hurt or kill someone." This is a tempting argument. But ultimately, it is intellectually lazy. Certainly, there are brutes among men -- people who simply like to cause pain. But when it comes to vast, multi-national organizations, motivation is never that simple. The world is not made of cartoon villains. Ask anybody -- from the Klan to the Gestapo to Al Qaeda -- if their intentions are good, and they'll answer yes. They'll say they are building a better world. They are saying they are saving their people from damnation and imperial domination. They'll say they are purging society of the infidels and the undesirables. People don't cackle in corners about their plan to bring darkness and evil down upon the world. Everybody comes with good intentions.

A hypothetical I heard used was if Iran captured and water boarded a downed American airman to figure out if the U.S. was planning an invasion. Surely, innocent lives are at stake. They could claim good intentions. They wouldn't be lying. But neither would it be enough. Water boarding is not something civilized societies engage in.

2) Nonetheless, motive does matter. It is different; torturing someone to save innocent lives versus doing it for thrills. And we can evaluate different proffered motives dispassionately -- we don't have to simply agree with an assertion that a motive (establishing the caliphate, sending a message to the queers) is good.

But motive isn't all that matters. Nobody seriously disputes this, because nobody (I hope) disagrees that there is some outward limit to what we can do under the moniker of good intention. Can we water board suspected terrorists in order to save lives? This man says yes. But that isn't the only question at issue. Can we water board suspected terrorists without knowing whether it will save lives or not? Can we torture people who we're not sure are terrorists (and in some cases, we find out later are not)? All of these are moral questions raised by the current torture regime.

Or let's press the issue further. Can we dip their fingers in acid? What if they still won't talk? Can we dip their family members' fingers in acid? Can we sodomize their sons with spiked bats? If we do so, does it matter that we went in with pure souls?

Intention only gets you part of the way. There are still boundaries which an ethical society cannot cross, no matter how noble the heart and no matter how righteous the cause.

1 comment:

PG said...

The conservative argument, unsurprisingly, also assumes that a society remains static. I think we will be a different society upon declaring that torture is OK when we do it, and for our cause, and I think we will be a society that is more likely to have people who don't feel moral revulsion at performing these acts. Once that moral revulsion is gone -- the sense of "I have to do this, but I hate doing this, it's horrible" -- we're in trouble.