Sunday, January 09, 2005

Ethics and the Limits of Philosopht

Over at Pandagon, Jesse writes:
Charles Krauthammer is on Fox News Sunday advancing the line that we can all envision a situation in which we use "rough stuff" (i.e., torture, although coming out of M.C. Krauthammer's mouth, "rough stuff" sounds like a new cookie for some reason) - the fabled terrorist who knows where the nuke in NYC is but won't tell....

In much the same way, the perverse fascination with torture (and the Coulteresque arguments on the right that, well, of course they're against real torture, but that naked pile of men is barely even mistreatment) isn't about security, and it isn't about saving lives. It's about beating the shit out of some people in a way that makes them feel better about beating the shit out of some people.

I think this is more-or-less correct. The ticking time bomb hypo seems to suggest that there are times in which torture would be justified (or even obligatory), but the problem with applying this lesson to real life is that real life simply isn't a hypo. The ticking time bomb hypo (an old saw for utilitarians) is designed to isolate the ethical issue, and to stipulate the epistemic problems out of existence. The work that the hypo does is to create a limit situation; it is designed to be impracticable. It's crucial to note that, by its own terms, the hypo doesn't address every moral issue; it only addresses the limit conditions of one particular moral issue, and once the contrived epistemic limits are relaxed, other ethical concerns emerge. Utilitarians (and who else brings up the ticking time bomb?) ought to be uniquely sensitive to other concerns that have to be balanced against the initial insight that torture isn't always unacceptable.

The above roughly tracks a common criticism of utilitarianism: while their hypos may isolate certain intuitions about abstract moral reasoning, the messiness of the real world renders those insights unusable - while this is always a danger for moral philosophy, it's especially so for utilitarianism, which, by its own lights, is a balancing act of all relevant facts and conditions. In other words, once we let in the real world, the calculus changes.

So Krauthy etal may be able to argue that, in a vacuum, we'd be justified in torturing someone wearing a 'Hi! My name is Terrorist! Ask me where the bomb is!' sticker, their argument doesn't get them any further. Since that proposition seems relatively uncontroversial (to the point of banality, in fact), the vast majority of their argument ought to be directed at the messy uncertainties that exist outside of their ivory tower. (Chuckles Krauth: this would be the perfect time to bring up variants of Jim and the Indians).

The fact that they don't bother asserting the most important part of their own argument, then, suggests that they really don't care about reasoned argumentation: they just wanna tear shit up.