Thursday, May 26, 2011

Waterboarding: Problem with the Political Discourse of Ethical Issues

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.


  1. I am not as convinced of the possibility that we can merely start with an act do determine the ethical standing of torture. Can you tell me more about how to determine "whether an act can ever be performed." Even in defining mortal sin the Catholic Church requires more than categorically deeming every grave moral grievance a 'mortal sin.' I'd just want to be sure that the discussion of water-boarding or whichever instance of torture you choose, does include intent and allows for Aquinas' principle of double effect. I know you intellectual queries are well grounded and fair, so I want to be certain that we don't try to isolate too small a piece of the conversation such that it becomes meaningless and context-less

  2. @Dom: Perhaps in my efforts to be concise, I misrepresented my opinion/thought. I am not discounting intent, double effect, etc. Keeping these in mind, though, we can still determine the morality of an act without discussing whether or not good information is accosted through these means. Perhaps you misunderstood my use of the word ACT. Perhaps (and this is more probable) I wasn’t clear as to how I meant it.

    For example, we can determine the ACT of waterboarding, importantly keeping in mind intent, context, etc. I think we can ask the question, “Is this act of waterboarding in the attempt to gain information from known terrorists, in an attempt to save lives, possibly moral?” (By the way, I’m not asking, "Is the act of waterboarding, in some sort of a context-less, hypothetical philosophical syllogism moral or immoral?")

    However, to include the context does not mean to rely so intently on the consequences of the individual acts of waterboarding, to defend or attack them.

    By the way, ‘mortal sin’ is different than grave matter. The Church does find it easier to define grave matter, although I do accept that, even in this, it keeps in mind intent. It’ll be silly not to: it would be to morally equate a) intentionally driving over a kid in your car to b) accidentally doing it. That said, I think we can say that purposefully driving over an innocent child in your car is immoral, without having to decide whether or not the outcomes of this act are positive or not.