I’ve said before that our public discourse concerning political and ethical issues lacks a certain philosophical foundation. The categories and distinctions philosophy provides can prove tedious, but they offer an important common language that we can use to dissect current issues. They allow us to distinguish between issues that are multi-layered and nuanced.
One of the philosophic distinctions missing in political discourse is the concept of inherently disordered acts. Instead of looking at acts in and of themselves, we tend to look solely at their consequences. In this way, our ethics has succumbed to a purely utilitarian outlook. Acts are good if they have a positive outcome – if they bring more pleasure to a larger amount of people – and acts are bad if they have a negative outcome.
For example, in the common discussion of torture, or enhanced interrogation methods, we normally focus on the outcome of the torture. Of course, there is lingering idea in most people’s minds that torture is unpleasant and that this may be a reason for disliking it; but the real determining factor is whether or not torture is effective.
If the pro-torture faction can prove that torture has in fact had positive results – like leading us to Osama – then they are one step closer, perhaps the final step, to demonstrating that torture is justifiable. And the faction opposing torture allows itself to fall into the same argument. It usually spends time trying to convince the public that torture has not had any tangible positive results, as if this is the reason we shouldn’t do it. Yes, it’s unpleasant; but it is really un-justifiable because it doesn’t provide us with anything that a more pleasant means of interrogation can’t.
The discussion should begin with the act of torture – or, more precisely, with the specific act in question, i.e. waterboarding. We must determine whether the act, in and of itself, can ever be performed. If not, then the debate is over. Period. If so, then we can move to questions like the need for torture, or the outcomes of the act.
Until we get back to the original discussion at hand, we aren’t really “doing ethics;” instead, we’re dealing with a form of mathematics, like economics. Just as a business deal is positive if it provides a profitable outcome, so too with moral acts. But this isn’t ethics. Ethics deals with humans as humans, as capable of understanding the world in a non-utilitarian mode.
Perhaps the problem is that a materialistic view of the world only allows for a utilitarian mode of ethics. Perhaps we need to see man as more than simply mass and matter in order to see that ethical debates are more than listing pro’s and con’s.