Friday, December 26, 2014

The Philosophy of Torture

In response to the recent publicized revelations on the CIA’s use of torture in the ongoing War on Terrorism, I thought I’d add my two cents on the philosophy and ethics of torture. Much of the work of philosophers concerns involves untangling the meanings of complex words that shade the premises of arguments over Truth and Value. As stated in an earlier blog….the distinction between “descriptive” and “prescriptive” concepts is notoriously problematic. The word “torture” swings both ways, therefore we must explore both the facts (“what it is”) and the values (“whether it’s good”).  

What is torture? Well, first of all let’s all agree that “torture” necessarily involves at least two persons; whereby one inflicts harm on the other for various purposes. Hence we must distinguish between the “torturer” and the person being tortured. Torture is a teleological or goal-directed act; intentionally employed in pursuit of one (or more) of three main purposes:

 1.) Torture for the sheer pleasure of inflicting pain on another person (sociopathic torture).

 2.) Torture in order to proportionately punish others for wrongdoing in the name of justice ((retributive torture): “an eye-for-an eye.” .

 3.) Torture in order to secure information (utilitarian torture). Here, I’ll focus on utilitarian torture as it is employed within human warfare; especially in the context of the interrogation of prisoners of war. 

 Torture entails the infliction of harm. Harm is the invasion of an “interest.” And, therefore, it is subject to variable degrees; that is, there are greater and lesser interests. Torture is an “other-regarding act” that most often involves the infliction of greater degrees of pain. So, logically, you can mistakenly (or deliberately) “harm yourself” but you cannot “torture yourself.” Torture, by definition, implies the invasion of the “individual interests.” It is most often employed in the context of warfare; invading the “individual interests” of POWs in order to advance the “collective interests” of others. Invariably, it is employed by interrogators in order to secure “strategically important” information.

There are two main ways for interrogators to secure information from any sentient being: by employing “carrots and/or sticks.” Humans and other sentient creatures respond to both. Carrots are pleasure-based “enticements” offered in reciprocal exchange for information. Torture is pain-based. All persons with functioning central nervous systems tend to prefer pleasure-based experiences and avoid pain-based experiences. Some of us are capable of enduring higher levels of various kinds of physical pain for a longer period of time than others. Non-sentient beings that lack a central nervous system cannot experience pain (or pleasure) and therefore they cannot be enticed or tortured.  Similarly, you won’t get much useful information by enticing or torturing comatose or brain dead prisoners. The same holds true for torturing dead persons: “Dead men tell no tales.” And, interrogators waste their time torturing masochists.

As stated at the beginning of this blog, most philosophical debate is rooted in language. And, as Foucault has noted, there is a complex relationship between “power and knowledge.” The CIA, a well-established power monger, employs its own “private language” to distinguish between “torture” and what it calls “enhanced interrogation.” Enhanced interrogation usually involves the use of lower-level, physical harms such as the short-term deprivation of sleep, food, water, or social interaction. These deprivations rise to the level of torture when employed over longer periods of time. The CIA routinely admits that it employs enhanced interrogation but it never tortures anyone. Philosophically, we might argue over at what point deprivation becomes torture. Withholding food for a day is different from withholding it for a week! Torture can also involve the direct infliction of physical pain via exposure to extreme heat, extreme cold, and or sharp objects. The key philosophical question here is at what point does enhanced interrogation become torture and how does the torturer know when to stop short of torture?

A few years back there was an extended public debate over whether “waterboarding” of prisoners constitutes enhanced interrogation or torture. The technique creates the “illusion” of drowning, but that experience is non-lethal and non-permanent. But at what point does the experience of that “illusion of drowning” become torture? How many times can an interrogator “water board” a prisoner before crossing that line? How long per session? How many sessions per day?

An interrogator might simply “threaten” to torture a POW. Sometimes threats “work” very well, sometimes not. The key variable here is credibility. The threatened POW must be convinced that that the would-be torturer will (in fact) “follow-up” on that threat. If the Pope threatens to skin you alive…don’t worry. Humans have other interests other than avoiding their own physical pain. Thus, highly-skilled torturers often inflict (or threaten to inflict) physical pain on third parties….especially the family and friends of the target. “If you don’t talk NOW we’ll skin you and your family first.” However, threatening to torture a POW’s enemies, is not really a threat but an enticement.  

There are at least four epistemological questions that muddle the contemporary debate over the use of torture in warfare.

First, does the POW (in fact) “know” something of strategic value? If so, how does the torturer know that the POW knows something of “strategic value?” Torture is obviously futile in cases involving low-level combatants who don’t know anything. Competent military leaders are very conscious of this fact, and therefore reveal information to low-level soldiers on a “need-to-know” basis. Those who really “know something” of “strategic value” are rarely found on the battlefield. In wars involving decentralized enemies, where low-level combatants do not follow orders from a central authority, torture is also of dubious strategic value.

Second, if there is (in fact) a high-probability that a POW “knows something,” is the information that is being sought by the torturer (in fact), of sufficient “strategic value” to outweigh the costs of using torture? Therefore, philosophically, we must unpack what is meant by “strategically important information;” and how to most effectively acquire it. The concept of “strategic value” is extraordinarily malleable, or “socially constructed.” It usually means that this information will help “win a battle” or “win a war.” But if a piece of information is (in fact) strategically important, one might also question whether torture is the most efficient way to acquire that information? Would the offering of enticements (such as: money, immigration privileges, better food etc.) be more likely to yield results? Moreover, torturing a POW in order to win a battle (short-term) might not, necessarily, win wars (long-term). In complex phenomena like warfare, cost-benefit analysis is inevitably dogged by unanticipated consequences. Sometimes losing a battle can be a short-term setback, but a long-term advantage; especially if it inspires recruitment of new, highly-motivated soldiers. Similarly, torturing POWs might inspire more enemy volunteers seeking retribution for torturing “their brothers.”

Third, if a POW does (in fact) know something of strategic importance, does torture, necessarily, yield useful information? If a torturer is waterboarding a POW who doesn’t know anything, is that POW highly likely to lie in order to end that torture? Most soldiers who know something are trained to lie effectively under interrogation. What are the long-term costs of acting on false information?

Fourth, what would be the sociopolitical, legal, or moral consequences of accidentally killing a POW under interrogation? Would the opposing warring regime be more likely to torture and/or kill POWs under its control in retribution? Therefore, does the use of torture necessitate killing POWs that have been tortured, in order to prevent the enemy from knowing that torture has been utilized? One might also reasonably argue that the use of torture necessitates a shroud of secrecy? If so, is that shroud consistent with a nation’s moral identity? If the United States hopes to maintain its reputation as the beacon of Western democracy, how would public knowledge of the use of torture affect that reputation? Is any “shroud of secrecy” consistent with democracy? Do you really “blindly trust” the institutions of government to operate behind that shroud? Do you trust congress, the president, or the courts to supervise the CIA’s use of torture? If you are a torturer, would you readily admit to your supervisors that you tortured that prisoner, but didn’t get any information? If you are that supervisor, do you REALLY want to know that your subordinate used torture? Wouldn’t you prefer to operate on the basis of “plausible deniability” and be able to say “I didn’t know that X was torturing prisoners? He was a ‘rogue torturer!’”              

 In light of the conceptual ambiguities associated with the use of torture in the context of war, the pursuit of strategically important information provides an open invitation for warring nations to torture prisoners. But torturers really do not “know” exactly, what the prisoner knows. If they did, they wouldn’t have to torture him. Moreover, torturers really do not know (beforehand) whether that information is strategically important or not. War strategy, by necessity, is classified as “Top Secret,” therefore there is no incentive on the part of torturers to reveal whether the information procured via torture was (in fact) strategically important or not. Unfortunately, all of the incentives associated with torture promote institutionalized lying. Unless confronted with powerful evidence, no “civilized nation” will ever admit using torture. If confronted by irrefutable evidence, no highly-skilled torturer will admit that he didn’t secure strategically important information. Therefore, the universal response to publicized, irrefutable evidence of torture: “We saved thousands of lives on both side of the war by torturing this one person.” 

I’ll discuss the “Ethics of Torture” in my next blog.  

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