62 Torture: On Conscience

One of the most depressing features of the last decade is that the U.S. has once again been forced to confront the question of torture. The common argument – that Western Civilization should be beyond this question — was expressed very well by Kevin Drum in Mother Jones on April 29, 2009:

The whole point of civilization is as much moral advancement as it is physical and technological advancement. But that moral progress comes slowly and very, very tenuously. In the United States alone, it took centuries to decide that slavery was evil, that children shouldn’t be allowed to work 12-hour days on power looms, and that police shouldn’t be allowed to beat confessions out of suspects.

On other things there’s no consensus yet. Like it or not, we still make war, and so does the rest of the world. But at least until recently, there was a consensus that torture is wrong. Full stop. It was the practice of tyrants and barbarians. But like all moral progress, the consensus on torture is tenuous, and the only way to hold on to it — the only way to expand it — is by insisting absolutely and without exception that we not allow ourselves to backslide.

Torture, as much as it may be a part of human history, is part of our barbaric past and therefore, if we’re going to continue to march of moral progress, we have to take a stand against it. It sounds like a reasonable argument. Except that it’s not true.

The moral basis of torture has been controversial not just since the mid-20th century, but for centuries. And Montaigne makes a very strong case against it in this essay:

Torture is a dangerous innovation; it would appear that it is an assay not of the truth but of a man’s endurance. The man who can endure it hides the truth: so does he who cannot. For why should pain make me confess what is true rather than force me to say what is not true? And on the contrary if a man who has not done what he is accused of is able to support such torment, why should a man who has done it be unable to support it, when so beautiful a reward as life itself is offered him?

The argument advanced by Montaigne is that the very nature of interrogation, whether violence is part of the interrogation of not, depends more on the conscience of the interrogated than the force of the interrogator:

Just when we take pleasure in vice, there is born in our conscience an opposite displeasure, which tortures us, sleeping and waking, with many painful thoughts …. Conscience can fill us with fear, but she can also fill us with assurance and confidence. And I can say that I have walked more firmly through some dangers by reflecting on the secret knowledge I had of my own will and the innocence of my designs. A mind conscious of what we have done conceives within our breast either hope or fear, according to our deeds.

I don’t wish to pick on Kevin Drum because his argument is in the mainstream and I agree with his anti-torture conclusion … but at the same time, I also believe that his blind faith in progress, especially moral progress, is badly misplaced. Civilization tends to zig and zag through periods of barbarity and stupidity. To argue that humanity had just recently – finally – reached this great moment where torture was put off the table and now is in danger of backsliding towards it is to denigrate anyone who has thought deeply about morality in human history.

Perhaps technology moves on a progressive scale, but morality does not. Merely to posit the theory is to make a declaration that there is a single “correct” morality towards which all humanity is marching. The continuing culture wars in the U.S. prove that even in our country, these questions remain deeply controversial and dependent on one’s religious and cultural perspective.

To pat ourselves on the back for moral progress is also to overlook the deeply conflicted nature of western morality. While we ban 12 hour workdays for children in our own nation, we tend to look the other way when those children are Chinese and they’re manufacturing iPads for us. Yes, we consider slavery evil, but on our list of foreign policy priorities, how highly do we rate ending forced childhood prostitution in numerous countries? It’s certainly not as high a priority as keeping our supplies of oil flowing.

I’ll give the final word to Montaigne on this matter, but will add this: morality is not a creature of education or civilization or even religion. It’s a matter of conscience, as freely available to a caring Native American 3000 years ago as to the Secretary of Defense today. By all means, let’s end torture, but don’t pretend that acting morally is somehow our sophisticated birthright:

All the same it is, so they say, (torture is) the least bad method that human frailty has been able to discover. Very inhumanely, however, and very ineffectually in my opinion. Many peoples less barbarous in this respect than the Greeks and the Romans who call them the Barbarians reckon it horrifying and cruel to torture and smash a man of whose crime you are still in doubt. That ignorant doubt is yours: what has it to do with him? You are the unjust one, are you not? Who do worse than kill a man so as not to kill him without due cause!

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