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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
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,
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
argument. What could be more self- they argue, it can never, under no that they close it. They put the finger
evidently malignant, more unarguably circumstances, be allowed to take on an essential need – to start at the
degrading and toxic, than torture? place. This may seem extreme, but it beginning and ask what it is to be
One hesitated even to argue against it, is really not so unusual – it is the logic good or bad, to make right or wrong
to seek out underlying moral reasons underlying the Universal declaration of decisions. However, they fail to make
to oppose it, when for so long we could human rights and the US Declaration a completely satisfactory case.
rely on revulsion and the collective of independence, with its belief that We need to be more thoroughgoing,
moral compass of humanity to reject certain rights are inalienable. That the if we are to continue the fight against
it without question. authors’ position may seem extreme torture. We need to know exactly why
Now, the moral debate has shifted to us rather than perfectly obvious is we oppose torture, to be able to defend
around the world, and torture is back a sign of our moral decline. It is also our positions against all comers.
on the agenda. Amnesty International one of the reasons this book had to be The authors claim from the
has documented the use of torture written. beginning that they are going to take
in 150 countries. Even a leading Charles and Gregory Fried are a a deontological rather than a utilitarian
democracy like the United States has father-and-son team of scholars – the approach to ethics. In philosophical
now authorised and practised torture terms, which means that they are
against detainees, and the leaders going to regard certain actions as good
behind such actions have shown no or bad in and of themselves, rather
signs of contrition. than because of the effects they may
In his new memoir, Decision produce.
points, George W Bush acknowledges Their reasons are compelling.
his personal responsibility for the Essentially, they find that ethics make
water-boarding of Khalid Sheikh no sense at all unless we accept that
Mohammed. When asked by the CIA certain things have intrinsic value.
if they had the president’s permission Something out there must be good
to carry out the act, Bush responded, because of what it is, not because of
“Damn right!” This admission appears the effect it produces. If we look only
not in any leaked document or secret at effects, then nothing can be truly
record, but in Bush’s own memoir good or bad, because we are only
– presumably the face he wishes to looking at the end result of a given
present to the public. Torture has action. Each result must have its own
now become a type of cheesy macho result, which can only be judged by its
heroism, not a moral evil. Something result, and so on ad infinitum. We are
has gone very wrong. left with a worldview which offers us
As sad as it is, therefore, books no moral guidance.
like Because it is wrong have become Because it is wrong Therefore, the authors manage to
necessary once more. Someone has Torture, privacy, and presidential convince us that certain things must
power in the age of terror
to return to the root of the matter, Charles Fried and Gregory Fried.
be good or bad in and of themselves,
to remind us all exactly why we are WW Norton, 2010. and it seems that most of us would

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anything is truly sacred in this world, one must be religious to understand
it is God, and man was created in God’s the ethical point of the imagery or
Humanists, after all, may reject
image, as the Bible tells us. Therefore, stories. That would be narrow-minded
a belief in God, yet they still when we torture another person, we indeed. Although perhaps one serious
are torturing the image of God. We are question here is whether the idea
recognise the sacredness of
committing the ultimate sacrilege. that there is something sacred about
the human person. They even Of course, one obvious objection the dignity of the human person
springs to mind: What if one does not is ultimately a religious notion,
recognise the worth of the soul,
ascribe to such religious tenets? To the whatever a secularist or atheist might
albeit in non-religious terms, for non-believer, it can not be accepted on believe about that dignity as grounded
faith that man is the image of God. To in purely humanistic values.”
they see the soul not as a holy
justify this belief, one has to come up Humanists, after all, may reject a
essence per se, but as an amalgam with convincing reasons to believe not belief in God, yet they still recognise
only in God but in the whole edifice of the sacredness of the human person.
of the hopes and dreams, the
Judeo-Christian religion. This is a task They even recognise the worth of the
capacity for love and depth of no religious apologist in history has soul, albeit in non-religious terms, for
managed to accomplish – certainly they see the soul not as a holy essence
feeling, that is found within the
there is not enough room for it in a per se, but as an amalgam of the hopes
individual person. short book about torture. and dreams, the capacity for love
There is another obvious problem and depth of feeling, that is found
agree with this, from our own with the religious justification, and within the individual person. All that
experiences. We never expect good that is that a religious worldview is required to accept the authors’
friends and loved ones to produce a seems to have provided little barrier account, therefore, is a willingness
result greater than themselves. They to torture in the past. According to worship the human being – to
are important to us simply for who to many Christians, after all, God see something transcendent and of
they are. himself condemns untold millions to infinite value within him.
Where the authors fail, however, hell, where they languish in eternal To accept this argument, however,
is in trying to pinpoint exactly what torment. Secular states, meanwhile, is simply to push our original question
has intrinsic value. In doing so, they have a far better record on torture back a step further. Again, we ask:
often fall back on glowing accounts of than the theocratic state of Iran, But why? The authors seem at times
the sacredness of the human person which recently threatened a mother to take it as unquestionable or self-
which may be convincing, but are not of four with execution by stoning. evident that the human being is
philosophically rigorous. More to the point, all the chief sacred. They feel that this is part of
The book begins with a architects of the recent US experiments our innate conscience and can not be
contemplation of a painting, in torture have held deep religious disputed.
Interrogation I by Leon Golub, which convictions, or at least professed Clearly, however, it can be
depicts a prisoner suspended in them. We saw the callousness with disputed, and is disputed every day
the air, being beaten by jackbooted which the born-again Bush ordered by the actions of rebel armies in
guards with truncheons and a ruthless torture. Donald Rumsfeld, meanwhile, the Congo, dictatorial regimes in
expression. The point, the authors saw no contradiction between his Myanmar and Iran, and slave-drivers
argue, is that some things can not religious obligations (his military and sex-traffickers the world over. We
really be understood philosophically briefs were often peppered with live in times when the unspeakable
– we have to look at them for what Biblical allusions) and his claim, that has become speakable. It might once
they are. Torture, as depicted in the forcing detainees to stand in stress- have been taken for granted that
painting, is simply bad. It is so bad positions was no different from times we would provide unemployment
in itself that no circumstances can in his own job when he had to stand benefits for wage-earners laid off
conceivably justify it. We must ask the for long periods at a time. during a recession, or that we would
inevitable question: But why? Torture The authors anticipate this not allow the sick, the old, and the
may seem bad, it may offend our objection and claim that their mentally disabled to wander our
feelings – but, what is lying beneath argument does not require religious streets uncared for. Yet, one need
this basic revulsion? belief to remain valid. As Gregory only walk down a street in Chicago or
To answer this question, the Fried notes in a recent Harper’s New York to see that is no longer the
authors point first to religion. If Magazine interview, “We do not think case. We can not be content to rest on

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or indulging in violence, then we
• Because it is wrong must accept that it applies to societies
The answer lies not in a religious
Book excerpt in Harvard Magazine. as well. Once we allow torture’s foot in the door, it is there to stay, and it doctrine, but in basic truths
becomes more and more difficult to
about human beings as a species.
• A meditation on torture undo the damage.
NPR interview with Charles Fried. We, therefore, must trace our Had Charles and Gregory Fried argument back, much further than
investigated this possibility, their
Charles and Gregory Fried seem
• Six questions for Charles willing to go. We have to ask where account would have been far
and Gregory Fried our conscience comes from in the first
more convincing. One can argue
Harper’s Magazine interview. place, and why we ought to listen to it. Of course, we have already argued with religion or the dictates of
that a person must be raised in a
conscience, but once we see that
• Because it is wrong family and community which values
WW Norton, publisher page. the right things in order to develop a there are certain things that conscience, but why is it necessarily
human beings need simply because
desirable that he do so?
The answer lies not in a religious they are human beings, the
the notion that the human being is doctrine, but in basic truths about
case against torture is
sacred and inviolable when so many human beings as a species. Had Charles
seem to disagree. In short, we can not and Gregory Fried investigated this fairly impregnable.
take morality for granted. possibility, their account would have
Charles and Gregory Fried may feel been far more convincing. One can preservation. To escape destruction
their own consciences to be innate, argue with religion or the dictates of by bomb or terror attack, the
yet they are forgetting that like any conscience, but once we see that there government must reserve the right to
other consciences, they needed to be are certain things that human beings use any means necessary to save itself,
carefully grown and cultivated. The need simply because they are human they argue, even the unthinkable.
capacity for moral discrimination beings, the case against torture is Despite certain flaws in their
relies on trust and love, and only in fairly impregnable. book, Charles and Gregory Fried are
societies in which they can be found We are what we are because we profoundly correct when they respond
are people likely to develop it. It is only evolved to be it, and there are some to this argument, and point out the
when one has experienced something things which make us fulfilled and basic flaw in its reasoning: what, when
better than sadism that one has the happy and others which do not. There we torture to preserve ourselves, are
strength to abstain from it. Just as a may be limited pleasures to be had we really preserving? If, in the US, we
money-mad society is likely to forget from callousness and sadism, but the lose certain things about our nation,
that there are greater sources of joy joys that come from recognising that particularly the understanding of
in life than fast-cash, a torture-mad we are fundamentally social beings ourselves as the first democratic
society is unlikely to be able to stop are far greater. We need one another, nation, the first country in the world
itself or to recall its better nature. and we need to respect one another, to recognise officially the injustice of
The authors readily admit because otherwise the love and trust cruel and unusual punishment, then
this. What they forget is that this which are inseparable from human what have we preserved?
invalidates their own argument. One happiness become impossible. To return to the Bible of which our
can not depend upon a universal Torture, just like any other wholly authors are so fond: “For what shall it
recognition of the dignity of the sadistic act, changes who we are as profit a man [or, we may add, a country]
individual person, because as soon as people and as a society. It means if he shall gain the whole world, and
one begins to violate one’s conscience, that we lose the ability to love and lose thereby his own soul” (Mark
this conscience begins to disappear. It trust because we reduce ourselves to 8:36).
becomes difficult to even remember ciphers of violence and malice rather
the better and simpler things of life than human beings.
when one finds one’s pleasure in the Apologists of torture within the
wrong places. If we accept that this United States often justify its use by Joshua F Leach is a writer and human rights
applies to an individual taking drugs appealing to the principle of self- advocate.

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