A Philosopher's Blog

Debating Water Boarding

Posted in Ethics by Michael LaBossiere on April 25, 2009

The debate over whether water boarding is torture or not continues. I will be considering two arguments that are commonly used to argue that it is not torture.

The first is that some intelligence and military personal are subject to water boarding as part of their training. From this it is somehow supposed to follow that water boarding is not torture.

This is, obviously enough, a clear non sequiter: the conclusion does not follow from the premise. Suppose that these people were also put on the rack and burned with hot irons as part of their training. It would be absurd to thus conclude that burning people with hot irons is not torture.

In contrast, it would be much more reasonable to conclude that water boarding is torture. After all, these people are presumably exposed to water boarding in order to train them to stand up to enhanced interrogation (that is, torture).

Of course, someone might reply that their point is that water boarding cannot be “that bad.” After all, if it were that bad, then it would not be used in training. The obvious reply is that rather bad things are often used in training. Further, water boarding does seem to be rather bad indeed. True, I rather be water boarded than branded with hot irons, but just because there are worse things it does not follow that it is not bad.

The second is that some people voluntarily endure more suffering and pain than water boarding inflicts, therefore it is not torture. While defining the limits of pain and suffering are critical to understanding torture, this argument does not succeed. The flaw in the reasoning can be shown in the following analogy:

Some people voluntarily suffer severe beatings. For example, professional boxers and football players are subject to attacks that can wound and even kill them. Therefore, tackling somebody or punching them repeatedly in the face should not be considered assault and battery. However, this is clearly absurd. Just imagine, if you will, someone trying that defense in court: “Your honor, I plead not guilty. Yes, I punched the person in the face over and over. But boxers take that kind of abuse all the time. So clearly, what I did cannot be assault.”

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21 Responses

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  1. kernunos said, on April 25, 2009 at 8:27 pm

    …and some people are willing to fly planes into skyscrapers. Sometimes you have to do what you have to do.

  2. poeticgrin said, on April 25, 2009 at 9:41 pm

    Someone has to be the good guy… if good guys still exist. Wait… do they? Does good exist anymore? And if we aren’t “good” then what are we?

    The world = gray.

  3. Anonymous said, on April 25, 2009 at 11:57 pm

    Well, it can be gray but it looks pretty black and white to me. If our waterboarding of KSM saved thousands of lives by uncovering an attack on L.A. then I would consider the people that were a part of the waterboarding the good guys. If you think that treating this guy to no torture and cable t.v. is being the good guys then go right ahead. I could go to prison with a clean conscience knowing I had saved thousands and not think twice about it. Gould you sleep at night with a clean conscience knowing you let thousands die while treating one terrorist nicely?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on April 27, 2009 at 12:19 pm

      I never advocated treating terrorists nicely. I have no objection to interrogation. My objection is against torture.

      If it could be shown that torturing a person would reveal such critical information and that this was the only possible way to gain such information, then it could be justified on utilitarian grounds. Of course, almost anything could be so justified.

      For example, we could save many lives by having a random lottery in which healthy people would be euthanized and salvaged for parts. Sure, killing them would be a hard thing; but each person sacrificed could save many, many lives. By trading one life for many, we’d be doing good, right?

      So, would you be for that?

  4. kernunos said, on April 25, 2009 at 11:58 pm

    above poster was me-forgot to put in info

  5. magus71 said, on April 27, 2009 at 3:26 am

    It drives me nuts that Liberals always attack smaller probelems before bigger ones. My opinion is that jourbnalists are afraid of the Jihadists they cover in the Middle East. They hope that by portraying them in a good light, they can get stories and not get beheaded.

  6. magus71 said, on April 27, 2009 at 3:33 am

    No one is saying that water-boarding is pleasant. To some, merely being in prison is torture.

    Again–war is not a pleasant thing. There are much, MUCH worse things happening–THAT ARE LEGAL and few are bothered by these events. If people were to see a person get shot in the head, in a real life situation, it would leave a longer lasting psychic scar than water-boarding ever would.

    Anyone who would not splash water on someone to save people’s lives (what if one of these people was your daughter or wife or husband?) is immoral. They have no moral strength.They want the easy way out, to run away and make someone else do the dirty work, then they can sit back and be critical. Like poeticgrin says, the world is gray.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on April 27, 2009 at 12:13 pm

      People are bothered by war; but for most folks in the West, war is a distant thing. It is something you see on the news or the web. But this does not make war any less terrible.

      I’m against war as well. When kids try to settle their disputes by hitting each other, we scold them and tell them to act like adults. But, we accept war as a means of conflict resolution. We really need to get beyond that.

      Of course, the problem with violence is that it is not defined by the best people but by the worst. So, we have to be prepared to fight those who elect to use violence unjustly. But, it is still a bad thing despite its unfortunate necessity.

      Well, if simply splashing water on people would save people, then go for it. However, for water boarding to be acceptable it would have to be shown that it works and that morally superior means are not available. Also, it would have to be shown that those being saved are worth saving.

      I’m with Socrates on this issue: if I have to become an evil man in order to preserve my life, my life is no longer worth preserving. I cannot change the fact that someday I will die-that is inevitable. But what is within my power is to live well and not yield to evil.

      Also, for folks who are Christians, the choice should be easy and obvious. Why trade heaven for a few more years on this earth?

      It doesn’t take moral strength to do wicked things. Not doing them when they are ever so tempting is what requires strength. It is easy to get angry, easy to hurt others, and easy to give in to evil. Sticking to what is right even when it costs dearly is the hard thing.

      The world has shades of gray, but these do fade to white and darken to black.

      • magus71 said, on April 28, 2009 at 6:53 am

        Well if Christians really felt there was nothing worth fighting for, there probably wouldn’t be anymore Christians.

        It takes moral strength to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and to admit that it’s possible that none of your choices are easy. It takes moral strength to discipline a child; it’s not pleasant, but you have to do it. It takes moral strength to walk into a rehab program on your own.

        You say sticking to what is right even when it costs you is the hard thing. But saying that people shouldn’t have water poured on them when they have information that will clearly save people’s lives, IS NOT RIGHT, NOR IS IT HARD. It’s easy to say that. Because we’re here blogging from the safety of our desks.

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on April 28, 2009 at 1:03 pm

        But why the willingness to do terrible things for the slight possibility of a short advantage in a short life in this vale of tears? Why risk your soul on such things?

        True, abstract speculation and reality are often distinct. However, the advantage of abstract speculation is that it allows us to distance ourselves somewhat from a purely emotional response and to look at matters more objectively.

        True-water boarding a helpless victim is easy. But it is not the right thing to do.

        If it could be shown that it worked reliably and more effectively than other means, then it could be justified on utilitarian grounds. However, the evidence for this is lacking. I’m not going to condone something I know to be wrong in the he hope that it might work.

  7. kernunos said, on April 27, 2009 at 8:22 pm

    “I’m against war as well. When kids try to settle their disputes by hitting each other, we scold them and tell them to act like adults. But, we accept war as a means of conflict resolution. We really need to get beyond that.”

    Ummm, we cannot get beyond war until we get beyond the other vices of man. War is not begot unto itself. It is caused from some other problem and has gotten to the point of war with no other form of recourse worth it for one side or the other.

    As for other means other than torture for getting pertinent information? you have given no alternatives. Ask nicely? Deny cable t.v.? Try to debate them into utter boredom? We are lucky we have men of action to resolve these issues for a philosopher would be debating till the end of days and not even know the end was quickly approaching.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on April 28, 2009 at 1:14 pm

      I’m not an interrogation or intelligence expert, but what I’d suggest would be the non-torture interrogation methods. Examples would be those that the police legally use. Those seem to be effective in many cases.

      I am also not opposed with harsh methods-provided they stay within the realm of the morally acceptable.

      In addition to my moral objection to torture, I am also opposed to it on practical grounds. Inflicting torture levels of pain does not reliably yield accurate information. Rather, the historical data reveals that torture mostly just gets people to say whatever they think will stop the torture.

      Effective intelligence operations can be run without torture. For example, consider how the Allies ran their intelligence operations in WWII. Contrast this with the Axis powers who did use torture.

      So, if we torture, then we put ourselves in the with Nazis, Stalin, and the fascist Japanese. The people who tortured Americans were often executed for war crimes. I think that shows what we should think of using torture.

      • kernunos said, on April 28, 2009 at 9:00 pm

        I suppose these reliable police methods would work with someone willing to strap a bomb to themselves. What are these techniques? You really think we didn’t torture in WWII. Just like we didn’t execute on the battlefield to keep our baggage light at times. Just like when we threw explosives into caves on the island takes in the pacific not knowing whether there were women and children in their too. Where have you been reading about WWII?

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on April 29, 2009 at 10:26 am

        Well, take a look at the manuals for interrogation (police and military).

        Whether they work or not is an empirical question. The evidence is that they have worked. Also, these methods would tend to yield more reliable information than torture. Historically, people will say almost anything to end the torture. As I argued in my book, if torture works then we can take the witch trials as conclusive proof of the existence of witches and the devil. After all, people confessed to being witches under torture. So, if it works so well, then we should accept their claims as true, right?

        Yes, we did some bad things in WWII. However, torture was not the standard method of gathering intelligence.

        Yes, people did bad things during WII. But, we recognize the bad things as being bad. The fact that we have not been angels doesn’t mean that it is okay to torture now.

  8. kernunos said, on April 27, 2009 at 8:58 pm

    Here is a video showing you that just asking doesn’t work.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on April 28, 2009 at 1:15 pm

      Of course just asking doesn’t work. But there is a vast array of methods that come after asking but stop short of torture.

      • kernunos said, on April 28, 2009 at 9:02 pm

        How do you know you can stop short of torture to get what you want. We still have not defined the line of torture. This sounds like when defining when life is conceived or what constitutes global warming. the ever shifting paradigm of the Left.

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on April 29, 2009 at 10:29 am

        History shows that effective intelligence can be gathered without using torture. Most intelligence is gathered through friendly (or bought) contacts, observation, and so on.

        There is not, nor need there be, an exact line between torture and non-torture (see the line drawing fallacy as to why). But, we can make the distinction, even though some techniques will fall in the fuzzy areas.

      • kernunos said, on April 29, 2009 at 3:21 pm

        Unfortunately the left seems to make the decision by whatever is politically expedient at the time.

  9. magus71 said, on April 29, 2009 at 11:26 am

    Yes, there are other ways of gathering intelligence. And we use other ways in 99% of the cases.

    As far as using the term “torture” as a replacement noun for “water boarding”, I realize that people are trying to have an affect here. I also realize that most of the time, it’s me speaking against the over-valuation of semantics. Usually I take the point of view: “We get the point; enough with trying to slice and dice words and paragraphs.”

    But “torture”, even if it’s the category we want to place water boaring in, elicits images that simply don’t apply.

    It’s like calling Drag Racing, “driving”. In both cases there’s a fellow behind a steering wheel of a car with a engine. But one car is driven by a professional and the car is designed to take off virtually as a rocket on wheels. The other car is driven by an 80 year old woman who at any time could run into a sidewalk at 23 mph, rolling to a stop in front of the local corner store. Both people are driving, but the effects and potentialities are quite different.

  10. kernunos said, on May 3, 2009 at 8:24 am

    Ah, good ol’ Condi and no teleprompter either. She has such a sexy mind. Oh, and she speaks about water boarding here. A little long but still good.


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