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I’m wary of copying blocks of text from books to blog, partly because if a book’s worth talking about it’s probably worth buying. The other reason is that it’s easy to lose the context of an argument. An example is below. This is the concluding section of A loophole for Torquemada? in Sam Harris’s book The End of Faith. Beforehand he’s been exploring the arguments against torture and weighing them against collateral damage, the killing of civilians, in war, partly via the Ticking Bomb scenario.

In all likelihood you began reading this chapter, much as I began writing it, convinced that torture is a very bad thing and that we are, wise not to practice it – indeed that we are civilized, in large measure, because we do not practice it. Most of us feel, intuitively a least, that if we can’t quite muster a retort to Dershowitz and his ticking bomb, we can take refuge in the fact that the paradigmatic case will almost never arise. From this perspective, adorning the machinery of our justice system with a torture provision seems both unnecessary and dangerous, as the law of unintended consequence may one day find it throwing the whole works into disarray. Because I believe the account offered above is basically sound, I believe that I have successfully argued for the use of torture in any circumstance in which we would be willing to cause collateral damage. Paradoxically, this equivalence has not made the practice of torture seem a more acceptable to me; nor has it, I trust, for most readers. I believe that here we come upon an ethical illusion of sorts – analogous to the perceptual illusions that are of such abiding interest to scientist who study the visual pathways in the brain. The full moon appearing on the horizon is no bigger than the full moon when it appears overhead, but it looks bigger, for reasons that are still obscure to neuroscientists. A ruler held up to the sky reveals something that we are otherwise incapable of seeing, even when we understand that our eyes are deceiving us. Given a choice between acting on the basis of the way things seem in this instance, or on the deliverances of our ruler, most of us will be willing to dispense with appearances – particularly if our lives or the lives of others depended on it. I believe that most readers who have followed me this far will find themselves in substantially the same position with respect to the ethics of torture. Given what many of us believe about the exigencies of our war on terrorism, the practice of torture, in certain circumstances, would seem to be not only permissible but necessary. Still, it does not seem any more acceptable, in ethical terms, than it did before. The reasons for this are, I trust, every bit as neurological as those that give rise to the moon illusion. In fact, there IS already some scientific evidence that our ethical intuitions are driven by considerations of proximity and emotional salience of the sort I addressed above. Clearly, these intuitions are fallible. In the present case, many innocent lives could well be lost as a result of our inability to feel a moral equivalence where a moral equivalence seems to exist. It may be time to take out our rulers and hold them up to the sky.

My emphasis because I think the bold text shows the context of Harris’s argument.

The argument is in part whether or not we could have a science of ethics. Seeing as the arguments in the earlier post did not resort to “Torture is wrong because God X says so”, it would suggest that morality can be debated without recourse to the supernatural.

My own reaction to this section of his book shocked me. Phil has said to me there are many good reasons against the use of torture, but my own initial reaction was that these were irrelevant. Torture is simply wrong, and any line of reasoning that argues otherwise must also be wrong. On reflection my feeling now isn’t so visceral, but this might be due to thinking hard and coming up with reasons why torture is a bad thing. If I hadn’t then would I accept the reasoning that torture could be justfied? I don’t think I would, which suggests that my belief that torture is a matter of faith. The reason I’m still against torture is that it is wrong.

This is a problem if you want to have debate. To borrow the tired example, there’s currently a bunch of people who equally emphatically think representations of Mohammed are wrong. They also have a variety of good arguments, respect, fighting racism* etc. But really their position is that pictures of Mohammed are wrong simply because they’re wrong and that’s that.

This becomes an issue when you capture someone like Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. You have someone who is in Al Qaeda. You could carry on carpet bombing Afghanistan in the hope of killing a few more members, or you could have a go at torturing the guy and seeing if that provides leads so that you don’t have to kill innocent children playing in the poppy fields. What have you got to lose? My reaction, that torture is wrong and that’s all there is to it isn’t good enough. Someone else could have the equally passionate belief torture is justified. They’d be wrong, but they’d still have the belief. Turning to religion for guidance is not a help in this matter, because all the argument is that I know feel that my God also thinks torture is a bad thing.

The better reply is through rational argument and reasoning. You have to demonstrate that the use of torture is unreliable, but also that its very use destroys the values you’re fighting for. Right through this no Gods are necessary. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist, but that they are not a source of morality. Therefore if we are to advance ethically we need to uncouple our morality from our faith.

Hopefully this shows there’s a bit more depth to the book that my previous post may have indicated. It’s not that torture is a good thing. It’s that we should not assume that bombing innocent people is morally superior by virtue of being more impersonal.

If you want to start having nightmares The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten, by Julian Baggini has some horrific thought experiments. As a variant of the Ticking Bomb, suppose a terrorist will not crack under torture BUT you know from his history that he is likely to if his innocent son is tortured in front of him. Then would torture be justified? A harder question to answer as it’s not typical Hollywood fare.

The reason I like the book, is that though I think the reasoning is wrong in places there is nonetheless reason behind the arguments. I’d rather read something thoughtful that I disagree with than something that I can fully agree with without having to engage a braincell.

*I am aware Islam is a religion, not a race. I’m also aware that around 9/10 of the Moslems in the UK are ethnically Asian, and of the of the remainder an awful lot are from North Africa. Yes there are white Moslems in the UK, but if you want to target a non-white population then attacking Islam or Hinduism is a very convenient way of do so without being openly racist. I see you can read the first chapter at his website.