Inspired by this thread
over in H/A. (For those who are worried, I'm steering this in a different direction than that thread. Don't want to be committing intellectual theft, after all).
Let me start us off with a few quotes, taken from David Luban's "Liberalism, Torture, and the Ticking Bomb."
We can see why liberals abhor torture. Liberalism [note: liberalism with a capital L, i.e. the sort of Enlightenment political philosophy espoused in the West from John Stuart Mill onward] incorporates a vision of engaged, active human beings possessing an inherent dignity regardless of their social station. The victim of torture is in every respect the opposite of this vision. The torture victim is isolated and reduced instead of engaged and enlarged, terrified instead of active, humiliated instead of dignified. And, in the paradigm case of torture, the victorâ€™s torment of defeated captives, liberals perceive the living embodiment of their worst nightmare: tyrannical rulers who take their pleasure from the degradation of those unfortunate enough to be subject to their will.
Liberalismâ€™s insistence on limited governments that exercise their power only for instrumental and pragmatic purposes creates the possibility of seeing torture as a civilized, not an atavistic, practice, provided that its sole purpose is preventing future harms... The ticking time bomb is proffered against liberals who believe in an absolute prohibition against torture. The idea is to force the liberal prohibitionist to admit that yes, even he or even she would agree to torture in at least this one situation. Once the prohibitionist admits that, then she has conceded that her opposition to torture is not based on principle. Now that the prohibitionist has admitted that her moral principles can be breached, all that is left is haggling about the price...
The ticking time-bomb scenario serves a second rhetorical goal, one that is equally important to the proponent of torture. It makes us see the torturer in a different lightâ€”one of the essential points in the liberal ideology of torture because it is the way that liberals can reconcile themselves to torture even while continuing to â€œput cruelty first.â€ Now, he is not a cruel man or a sadistic man or a coarse, insensitive brutish man. The torturer is instead a conscientious public servant, heroic the way that New York firefighters were heroic, willing to do desperate things only because the plight is so desperate and so many innocent lives are weighing on the public servantâ€™s conscience. The time bomb clinches the great divorce between torture and cruelty; it placates liberals, who put cruelty first.
Since the English Bill of Rights 1689, English Common Law has been pretty adamant about protecting people against "cruel and unusual" punishment. In the United States, we have this nice little derivative of that idea in the Eighth Amendment, which the Supreme Court (excepting wacky old Antonin Scalia) has pretty plainly interpreted as meaning "don't torture people under any circumstances."
In many senses, torture is fundamentally incompatible with the Liberal tradition which Americans hold dear: it is the embodiment of violent, tyrannical power over the free, independent individual; it is the absence of due process of law, innocence until proven guilty; it is the "nasty, brutish and short" part of human nature at its very worst. And yet if there's anything that the hub-bub on the torture memos proves, it's that the American moral revulsion at torture is pretty shallow. Americans, by and large, seem rather tolerant of the idea of tortureâ€”as long as it's used on the right people, at the right times.
Consider American television and film (see this thread
for a good list of recent films and shows). Overwhelmingly, when torture is displayed in the media, it is NOT used to demonstrate state power, or to terrorize, or even to extract confessions. It is almost always used to gather intelligence
. And not just this: the majority of this media gives us the "ticking time bomb" scenarioâ€”a situation where one man has the information to stop a major catastrophe, and only torture will get that information out of himâ€”even when in real world conditions such a situation is functionally impossible
. Of course, when an American tortures, he gets the information he wants almost instantaneously; when a foreigner tortures an American, the American is usually able to resist. (Interestingly, this reflects Liberal conceptions of free will and responsibility: the American, naturally, is able to maintain his free will even in the face of forces trying to break it, while the criminal/terrorist chooses
to give information to stop pain). The American media has increasingly come to portray torture as the ubiquitous last resort: paradoxically, defenders of the law must ultimately break
the law in order to protect the greater good.
What the hell is going on here? Why is it that Americans (and Britons, I supposeâ€”we do share the same law philosophy after all) are so willing to torture despite the fact that our legal and moral philosophies should
find torture abhorrent? Is there something built in
to our Liberal (or Common Law) traditions that allows us to find torture okay in some circumstances, and impermissible in others? And what is the media's role in this? What is it about film and TV that makes it easier (or harder) for us to tolerate torture?
(Bonus questions for those who support torture under any circumstances, even "ticking time bomb:" why? How do you reconcile this with your American values?)