Friday, November 25, 2005

The Moral Case Against Torture- With Nazis!

Over at his similarly titled blog entry, Kevin Drum relates a frustration with the discussion of torture:

.Over at Unfogged, Ogged picks up on my biggest frustration with the current state of the torture debate: namely that it's almost impossible to convincingly make the moral case against torture to anyone who's not already predisposed to think it's immoral. Stripped to its core, I realize that the only real argument I have against torture is "But don't you see that it's wrong? Don't you?" And that's just immensely frustrating, because if you don't see it then I have no ammunition left.
Well, no, not if you aren't willing to assert any sort of universal basis for morality and/or ethics. You can't call something "wrong" if you can't define "wrong" in a way that both you and the person you're talking with agree on. That's made difficult by the fact that, for many, their moral outlook is less a case of conscious decision and philosophy than a learned set of sometimes-contradictory rules.

That's one of the reason why political theory and philosophy are important, so that you can precisely define where you stand and what your assumptions are...and, more importantly, correctly identify the same stances and assumptions in your opponent or listener. Most people's rule sets do roughly follow some sort of moral and philisophical guideline, even if it's contradictory and they're unaware of it. If you know those guidelines, you can get past Kevin's barrier.

I wish I could do better. In the end, though, the strongest argument I can make is the one Dick Durbin made: if you didn't know better when you hear about U.S. practices in the war on terror, you'd think we were talking about Nazi Germany or Stalin's Soviet Union — and a big part of the reason that we judge those regimes to have been immoral was because of their use of routine, state sanctioned torture. Is that really the company we want to keep?
The unstated problem with the comparison between the United States and Stalinist Russia or Nazi Germany is that although people (almost) universally find the latter two morally outrageous, they very rarely can agree as to why, outside of the issue of genocide. Some hate them because they're (supposedly both) socialist, some hate them because they're totalitarian, some hate the nazis because they're fascists (and define that as extremely right-wing), some hate Stalin because he's internationalist, some hate the Nazis because they're nationalists... there are simply too many possible reasons to hate both that extend far beyond "they killed a lot of people".

That matters, because on those things that they don't consider as important or as objectionable, they aren't going to accept any attempt to equate the United States with, say, Stalin's Soviet Union. Someone who believes the ends justify the means, but disagrees with Stalin's ends (or even the degree of violence , without condemning the act itself) are simply not going to accept the comparison. They'll believe that since the United States cannot be equated on some grounds, the United States cannot be equated, PERIOD.

It's like the idea that Vietnam and Iraq can't be compared because one is jungle and the other is desert. Yes, that IS a difference- the point of contention is whether it's a substantial one. Since that meta-debate is rarely acknowledged and never engaged, it means that you end up with the same old situation...

...two people yelling past each other.

Edit: Although I can understand why Avedon Carol would say "just keep repeating 'torture is wrong'", I'm deeply skeptical as to whether it'd help. It's far more likely to simply cause others to dig in their heels, and considering that the pro-torture position is the easy one, that's not likely to win any converts.

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