BOOK REVIEW/TORTURE

How do we become good again?
Charles Fried and Gregory Fried open the moral debate over torture. By Joshua F Leach

T

he appearance of any book arguing against the use of torture is a bad sign, in spite of good intentions. It once was the case that opposing torture needed no argument. What could be more selfevidently malignant, more unarguably degrading and toxic, than torture? One hesitated even to argue against it, to seek out underlying moral reasons to oppose it, when for so long we could rely on revulsion and the collective moral compass of humanity to reject it without question. Now, the moral debate has shifted around the world, and torture is back on the agenda. Amnesty International has documented the use of torture in 150 countries. Even a leading democracy like the United States has now authorised and practised torture against detainees, and the leaders behind such actions have shown no signs of contrition. In his new memoir, Decision points, George W Bush acknowledges his personal responsibility for the water-boarding of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. When asked by the CIA if they had the president’s permission to carry out the act, Bush responded, “Damn right!” This admission appears not in any leaked document or secret record, but in Bush’s own memoir – presumably the face he wishes to present to the public. Torture has now become a type of cheesy macho heroism, not a moral evil. Something has gone very wrong. As sad as it is, therefore, books like Because it is wrong have become necessary once more. Someone has to return to the root of the matter, to remind us all exactly why we are

revolted by torture and why we must never allow it. The authors take a very clear-cut position. Not only is torture an evil to be avoided as often as possible, they argue, it can never, under no circumstances, be allowed to take place. This may seem extreme, but it is really not so unusual – it is the logic underlying the Universal declaration of human rights and the US Declaration of independence, with its belief that certain rights are inalienable. That the authors’ position may seem extreme to us rather than perfectly obvious is a sign of our moral decline. It is also one of the reasons this book had to be written. Charles and Gregory Fried are a father-and-son team of scholars – the

Because it is wrong Torture, privacy, and presidential power in the age of terror Charles Fried and Gregory Fried. WW Norton, 2010.

former a law professor at Harvard, and the latter a moral philosopher at Suffolk University. In Because it is wrong, they open the moral debate over torture, but it can not be said that they close it. They put the finger on an essential need – to start at the beginning and ask what it is to be good or bad, to make right or wrong decisions. However, they fail to make a completely satisfactory case. We need to be more thoroughgoing, if we are to continue the fight against torture. We need to know exactly why we oppose torture, to be able to defend our positions against all comers. The authors claim from the beginning that they are going to take a deontological rather than a utilitarian approach to ethics. In philosophical terms, which means that they are going to regard certain actions as good or bad in and of themselves, rather than because of the effects they may produce. Their reasons are compelling. Essentially, they find that ethics make no sense at all unless we accept that certain things have intrinsic value. Something out there must be good because of what it is, not because of the effect it produces. If we look only at effects, then nothing can be truly good or bad, because we are only looking at the end result of a given action. Each result must have its own result, which can only be judged by its result, and so on ad infinitum. We are left with a worldview which offers us no moral guidance. Therefore, the authors manage to convince us that certain things must be good or bad in and of themselves, and it seems that most of us would

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Humanists, after all, may reject a belief in God, yet they still recognise the sacredness of the human person. They even recognise the worth of the soul, albeit in non-religious terms, for they see the soul not as a holy essence per se, but as an amalgam of the hopes and dreams, the capacity for love and depth of feeling, that is found within the individual person.
agree with this, from our own experiences. We never expect good friends and loved ones to produce a result greater than themselves. They are important to us simply for who they are. Where the authors fail, however, is in trying to pinpoint exactly what has intrinsic value. In doing so, they often fall back on glowing accounts of the sacredness of the human person which may be convincing, but are not philosophically rigorous. The book begins with a contemplation of a painting, Interrogation I by Leon Golub, which depicts a prisoner suspended in the air, being beaten by jackbooted guards with truncheons and a ruthless expression. The point, the authors argue, is that some things can not really be understood philosophically – we have to look at them for what they are. Torture, as depicted in the painting, is simply bad. It is so bad in itself that no circumstances can conceivably justify it. We must ask the inevitable question: But why? Torture may seem bad, it may offend our feelings – but, what is lying beneath this basic revulsion? To answer this question, the authors point first to religion. If

anything is truly sacred in this world, it is God, and man was created in God’s image, as the Bible tells us. Therefore, when we torture another person, we are torturing the image of God. We are committing the ultimate sacrilege. Of course, one obvious objection springs to mind: What if one does not ascribe to such religious tenets? To the non-believer, it can not be accepted on faith that man is the image of God. To justify this belief, one has to come up with convincing reasons to believe not only in God but in the whole edifice of Judeo-Christian religion. This is a task no religious apologist in history has managed to accomplish – certainly there is not enough room for it in a short book about torture. There is another obvious problem with the religious justification, and that is that a religious worldview seems to have provided little barrier to torture in the past. According to many Christians, after all, God himself condemns untold millions to hell, where they languish in eternal torment. Secular states, meanwhile, have a far better record on torture than the theocratic state of Iran, which recently threatened a mother of four with execution by stoning. More to the point, all the chief architects of the recent US experiments in torture have held deep religious convictions, or at least professed them. We saw the callousness with which the born-again Bush ordered torture. Donald Rumsfeld, meanwhile, saw no contradiction between his religious obligations (his military briefs were often peppered with Biblical allusions) and his claim, that forcing detainees to stand in stresspositions was no different from times in his own job when he had to stand for long periods at a time. The authors anticipate this objection and claim that their argument does not require religious belief to remain valid. As Gregory Fried notes in a recent Harper’s Magazine interview, “We do not think

one must be religious to understand the ethical point of the imagery or stories. That would be narrow-minded indeed. Although perhaps one serious question here is whether the idea that there is something sacred about the dignity of the human person is ultimately a religious notion, whatever a secularist or atheist might believe about that dignity as grounded in purely humanistic values.” Humanists, after all, may reject a belief in God, yet they still recognise the sacredness of the human person. They even recognise the worth of the soul, albeit in non-religious terms, for they see the soul not as a holy essence per se, but as an amalgam of the hopes and dreams, the capacity for love and depth of feeling, that is found within the individual person. All that is required to accept the authors’ account, therefore, is a willingness to worship the human being – to see something transcendent and of infinite value within him. To accept this argument, however, is simply to push our original question back a step further. Again, we ask: But why? The authors seem at times to take it as unquestionable or selfevident that the human being is sacred. They feel that this is part of our innate conscience and can not be disputed. Clearly, however, it can be disputed, and is disputed every day by the actions of rebel armies in the Congo, dictatorial regimes in Myanmar and Iran, and slave-drivers and sex-traffickers the world over. We live in times when the unspeakable has become speakable. It might once have been taken for granted that we would provide unemployment benefits for wage-earners laid off during a recession, or that we would not allow the sick, the old, and the mentally disabled to wander our streets uncared for. Yet, one need only walk down a street in Chicago or New York to see that is no longer the case. We can not be content to rest on

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• Because it is wrong Book excerpt in Harvard Magazine. www.tinyurl.com/2acrw7x • A meditation on torture NPR interview with Charles Fried. www.tinyurl.com/3ck6k9m • Six questions for Charles and Gregory Fried Harper’s Magazine interview. www.tinyurl.com/3hret9p • Because it is wrong WW Norton, publisher page. www.tinyurl.com/3tujqnqd

the notion that the human being is sacred and inviolable when so many seem to disagree. In short, we can not take morality for granted. Charles and Gregory Fried may feel their own consciences to be innate, yet they are forgetting that like any other consciences, they needed to be carefully grown and cultivated. The capacity for moral discrimination relies on trust and love, and only in societies in which they can be found are people likely to develop it. It is only when one has experienced something better than sadism that one has the strength to abstain from it. Just as a money-mad society is likely to forget that there are greater sources of joy in life than fast-cash, a torture-mad society is unlikely to be able to stop itself or to recall its better nature. The authors readily admit this. What they forget is that this invalidates their own argument. One can not depend upon a universal recognition of the dignity of the individual person, because as soon as one begins to violate one’s conscience, this conscience begins to disappear. It becomes difficult to even remember the better and simpler things of life when one finds one’s pleasure in the wrong places. If we accept that this applies to an individual taking drugs

or indulging in violence, then we must accept that it applies to societies as well. Once we allow torture’s foot in the door, it is there to stay, and it becomes more and more difficult to undo the damage. We, therefore, must trace our argument back, much further than Charles and Gregory Fried seem willing to go. We have to ask where our conscience comes from in the first place, and why we ought to listen to it. Of course, we have already argued that a person must be raised in a family and community which values the right things in order to develop a conscience, but why is it necessarily desirable that he do so? The answer lies not in a religious doctrine, but in basic truths about human beings as a species. Had Charles and Gregory Fried investigated this possibility, their account would have been far more convincing. One can argue with religion or the dictates of conscience, but once we see that there are certain things that human beings need simply because they are human beings, the case against torture is fairly impregnable. We are what we are because we evolved to be it, and there are some things which make us fulfilled and happy and others which do not. There may be limited pleasures to be had from callousness and sadism, but the joys that come from recognising that we are fundamentally social beings are far greater. We need one another, and we need to respect one another, because otherwise the love and trust which are inseparable from human happiness become impossible. Torture, just like any other wholly sadistic act, changes who we are as people and as a society. It means that we lose the ability to love and trust because we reduce ourselves to ciphers of violence and malice rather than human beings. Apologists of torture within the United States often justify its use by appealing to the principle of self-

The answer lies not in a religious doctrine, but in basic truths about human beings as a species. Had Charles and Gregory Fried investigated this possibility, their account would have been far more convincing. One can argue with religion or the dictates of conscience, but once we see that there are certain things that human beings need simply because they are human beings, the case against torture is fairly impregnable.
preservation. To escape destruction by bomb or terror attack, the government must reserve the right to use any means necessary to save itself, they argue, even the unthinkable. Despite certain flaws in their book, Charles and Gregory Fried are profoundly correct when they respond to this argument, and point out the basic flaw in its reasoning: what, when we torture to preserve ourselves, are we really preserving? If, in the US, we lose certain things about our nation, particularly the understanding of ourselves as the first democratic nation, the first country in the world to recognise officially the injustice of cruel and unusual punishment, then what have we preserved? To return to the Bible of which our authors are so fond: “For what shall it profit a man [or, we may add, a country] if he shall gain the whole world, and lose thereby his own soul” (Mark 8:36).

Joshua F Leach is a writer and human rights advocate.

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