13 May
2011

Tough Moral Questions: Torture and the bin Laden Shooting

The slaying of Osama Bin Laden by US Navy SEALS earlier this month has generated much commentary in the media, and provides us with an opportunity to assess the quality of our public discourse on moral matters.

Since the reported rumours that ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ yielded information which may have contributed to tracking down bin Laden, predictable voices have attempted to use the incident to justify their views on torture.  John Yoo, author of the infamous Torture Memos, argued:

Obama administration sources confirm that the coercive interrogation of three al-Qaeda leaders identified the courier who led the CIA to bin Laden… Past U.S. presidents rightly didn’t allow foreign opinion to dissuade them from using the most effective means to victory. Harry Truman dropped the bomb on Japan to end World War II; Abraham Lincoln allowed Sherman’s destructive march through the South. Appeasing foreign opinion is no substitute for the need to make the tough decisions that will defeat a determined enemy.

Following such reasoning, morality is not about human actions, but about the good outcomes we hope might result from our actions.  This is the philosophy of ‘the end justifies the means’, by which is usually meant that the desirable consequences of our actions are a moral justification for choosing actions which lead to those same consequences.  The popularity of this idea is all the more baffling given that most people can distinguish between a man’s actions, and the effects of his actions.

Take Bob, Bill, and Barry, all three of whom donate money to a charity which provides guide dogs for blind people.  Bob, a widower struggling to raise five children on the minimum wage, gave up reading newspapers so he could donate the money saved to the charity.  Given his interest in current affairs, it is a genuine sacrifice, but when he receives the monthly newsletters and sees the difference his money makes, he feels it is worthwhile.

Bill is a rich womaniser who hates two things in this world – blind people, and dogs.  However, he has noticed an attractive young lady who works at the charity’s offices and thinks that his ‘generous’ donations will aid his plans to seduce her.  When Bill receives the monthly newsletters, he cuts out the pictures of Labrador puppies and sellotapes them to his dartboard.

Barry is an unmarried, unemployed computer genius who has always had a passion for helping the blind.  He decides to use his computer skills to hack into online banking accounts and donates the money to the charity.

President Obama – who has opposed the use of enhanced interrogation techniques – prepares to announce bin Laden's death

Most people will perceive that there is a huge difference between the morality of Bob’s and Bill’s actions.  Though the effect of their actions is the same (more guide dogs for blind people), their motivation is completely different.  Some might argue that what Barry really intends is not to help the blind, but to seduce the young lady, but this observation merely highlights the distinction that needs to be made.  Because Bob intends the good effects of his action, those good effects become, in a sense, a part of his action for the purpose of moral evaluation.  Because Bill does not intend the good effects of his actions, they are not so crucial for the purpose of moral evaluation.  Which leads us to a second distinction… Let us imagine that Bob, unawares, has been receiving his wages, and therefore making his donations, in counterfeit money.  An employee of the charity, unawares, goes to the pet shop to buy puppy food with the fake banknotes, resulting in the charity being prosecuted and fined heavily.  Does this make Bob’s sacrifice to donate money less meritorious?  No, for although the good he intended did not come about (quite the opposite), the fact that he intended it gives it moral value when judging his actions.  The point illustrated is that morality is not about what happens as a result of our choices, but about what we choose.  Morality is about human actions, human choices, which reside in the will, not about states of affairs that come about in the world as a result of those actions.  The ‘end justifies the means’ philosophy ultimately strips man of his status as a moral agent, because his actions are judged to have no worth as deliberate human choices, but only as events in a physical chain of causation leading to a desirable consequence.  The consequences of our actions can, of course, be morally relevant, but they do not always determine the morality of our actions.  As the example of Bob and the counterfeit money shows, we can still do good deeds sometimes even if it all goes disastrously wrong, so the morality of our actions does not derive in the first place from the consequences which flow from them.

Another distinction needs to be made.  Our discussion of Bob and Bill might lead us to the mistaken conclusion that provided our intention is good, our actions are good.  In a certain sense this is true, but Barry’s case shows us that for an action to be good the ‘good intention’ must refer not only to the end we are seeking, but to the means we choose to try and bring about that end.  In Barry’s case, his intention to help the blind was surely a good one, but the theft he perpetrated in order to do it (and which he himself intended) means that, though we may sympathise with Barry, we must judge his action as morally bad.  All in all, it can be seen that assessing the morality of actions is not as easy as simply saying ‘bin Laden dead…  killing good.  Torture led men to bin Laden house…  torture good’.  We have discussed ends, means, and intentions.  There are indeed many parts to human actions, but the crucial thing is that all of them must be good if our action is to be judged morally good.  If one is bad, as in the case of Bill or Barry, our whole action is a bad one.

A final reason to reject ‘pop utilitarianism’, as we might call the ‘end justifies the means’ school of thought, is the absurd conclusions that it leads us to.  Let us think carefully about the example of torture.  For pop utilitarians, my decision to torture someone takes its moral value from what I am trying to achieve as a result of torture.  If I am torturing people to find out bin Laden’s whereabouts, that act of torture becomes a morally good act, because it derives its moral worth entirely from the good effect hoped for.  If this is true, and working on the undisputed principle that it is always good to do good deeds, then surely it is better to torture two people than one, better to torture four people than two, and so on.  If I can reasonably relate all acts of torture to the end I am trying to achieve, and this end justifies (i.e., makes morally good) the means, then the more people I torture, the better, as I am multiplying my good deeds.  This conclusion would, of course, be rejected even by hardline advocates of waterboarding and the like, but the logic is inescapable.

Ultimately, if we allow ourselves to be led by those who want to use bin Laden’s death as a wagon to which they can hitch their justifications of torture, we are allowing ourselves to become more akin to unreflective animals than to morally responsible human beings – albeit animals that can sleep more soundly in their beds at night knowing that one of the world’s most dangerous men is gone forever.  I, for one, would rather live in a more dangerous world.

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(photo of Osama bin Laden: © The Man In Question)

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