Wrong, Wrong and Wrong: Analyzing Torture From Kantian and Utilitarian Philosophical Perspectives Michael Gsovski, Weinberg


Philosophy 264-20 Professor Garthoff February 19, 2007

The situation provided for this paper is dense, but luckily it is still condensible. The situation is roughly the following: A radiological weapon is about to be detonated by terrorists in Chicago, killing thousands. An American official believes that if she tortures a suspect who she has strong evidence knows information which could prevent its detonation, she might receive this information from the suspect. She also believes that the suspect would be unlikely to cooperate with her otherwise and that the only effective means of torture would be burning the suspect's flesh or gouging his eyes out. We will be analyzing this from two separate philosophical viewpoints: Kantianism and Utilitarianism, beginning with the Kantian view. A Kantian moral system revolves around the concept that the basis of morality is our shared humanity. What makes our humanity a moral trait is our ability to have reason for our actions (practical reason), and therefore, our potential to have a good will, the most valuable object in Kantian philosophy. A good will is in turn made possible by our ability to control our own actions in accordance with the categorical imperative. Kantian philosophy recognizes two The categorical imperative is a motive for action derived utterly independently of any circumstance a situation may offer. This differs from the hypothetical imperative, where motive to action rises from the ends necessary to fulfill a goal, and authorizes all means necessary to achieve that goal. For example, a hypothetical imperative would be not to rape and

kill a family of six to avoid trouble with the police, while a categorical imperative would be not to rape or kill anyone. In Kantian philosophy, in order for any action to be moral, to stem from a truly good will, the motive behind it must conform to a categorical imperative. There are two main methods of formulating a categorical imperative. The first is the universal formula of the categorical imperative. This formula stipulates that for an action to be moral, a person's maxim for that action must be able to be a universal law for all beings. An action can fail to be universalizable by either being producing a contradiction in the law of nature or a contradiction in the will. A contradiction in the law of nature is when one is unable to universalize a maxim because doing so would prevent one from performing the action that the maxim wishes to effect. A contradiction in the will is when one cannot have a maxim that he may at one time or another later wish to will not to be a universal law for all beings. However, in order to test the universalizability, of the maxim of the official in our scenario, we must first establish what the maxim is. The maxim, from the official's point of view would likely be one very strict to her circumstances. As an agent of the government, she would not be inclined to say that anyone should have the ability to torture another person, as that is illegal and is regardless counter to her interests. She would also say that the ends of her actions are to save citizens under her protection from being killed, as anything as vague as 'to help people', might well be misconstrued. Therefore, her maxim is that agents of a government may torture people if they believe it might yield information that would save citizens under their protection from being killed. This does not cause a contradiction in the natural law, as torturing of individuals for information does not prevent the further torture of more individuals. Indeed, as an nation's proclivity for torture becomes known, those imprisoned under its laws will likely be more willing to submit under torture, as they will know that a nation's capacity for harm is unbounded. But it does cause a contradiction in the law of humanity, as the aims of many governments clash, and therefore the American official might well object to the application of her maxim in the hands of another government official. For example, an Iranian government official may torture an Azeri nationalist to reveal the identities of his compatriots on the grounds that unimpeded, the Azeri nationalists may incite rebellion against the central government, which will result in the loss of Iranian life. However, an American official would argue that the Azeris have a right to self determination (as the American would feel that they are oppressed) and the Iranian use of torture is unjustifiable against people that she feels to be innocent of crimes. This disapproval of the maxim that the official would use to explain her own use of torture is a clear contradiction in a law of humanity. This contradiction means that the official's maxim is not universalizable, does not comply with the categorical imperative and cannot be moral. The second method of formulating the categorical imperative is the humanity formula. The humanity formula stipulates that people have to always be treated as humans, with the the ability to make their own, autonomous choices utilizing their practical reason. It specifically states that human beings are not means to an end, and cannot be used as such like one would use a common tool. To use someone as a tool strips them of their dignity, another inviolable human trait. The underlying message is to respect the basic humanity of every person, and never to use anyone as a means to an end. The official's actions in this case clearly violate this principle, largely due to intent the official possesses to deprive the suspect of his ability to refuse to tell the official where the bomb is. This official, in stripping the suspect of his ability to conduct practical reasoning, turns him into a tool for the obtaining of information related to the bomb. This obviously violates the humanity formula of the categorical imperative, and makes the action immoral, but advocates of torture have two counter arguments. They are both flawed. The the first is the argument that the official simply wants to help the suspect make the correct choice according to the categorical imperative (i.e. to not kill thousands of people).This is wrong because, the choice that the official offers the suspect is not one between being morally correct or

incorrect, it is the choice of either divulging the information that the official wants or having his eyes gouged out. This cannot be a legitimate choice of options, because one's natural, biological impulse is to avoid pain. Torture is designed to shut off the parts of the brain responsible for independent thought, to strip them of their autonomy, to make them serve a master's will. The second argument will rear its head after the first has been disposed of. An advocate of torture will say that while in the process of being tortured one does not have the ability to make decisions, a very real decision is available at the start, for a person to be a terrorist, or not to be a terrorist. By choosing to be a terrorist, a person consents to the harms that come with the job, including torture. However, this argument ignores one central point, that the terrorist also consents to his confederates not to divulge his information. It is therefore to be assumed that he has sworn himself to accept torture and also to resist it and not give the information he has. Assuming his support to both consents to be ironclad (which it has to be in order for the “but he consented” argument to be valid), then the result of the torture will simply be pain inflicted on the suspect with no information released. That is not torture, as torture must produce information. That is punishment. By producing punishment instead of information, the results of the official's torture would conflict with her maxim for action, rendering it morally wrong. While both formulations of the categorical imperative will reach the same conclusion (as would be expected, since Kant believes that both are formulations of the same concept and would therefore reach a like result when applied), it is still possible to judge which does a better job of explaining the reasons why torture is wrong. The formula that does this is undoubtedly the formula of humanity as it is less susceptible to personal interpretation. Personal interpretation is arguably the single greatest danger that a moral system faces. If people can just take whatever they want out of moral theory, then the theory becomes meaningless and becomes solely about what a single individual wishes to do. Even when considering concepts of 'autonomy' and 'practical reason', Kant only held these to be means towards the good will, which was the only inherent good. This good will comes from one's ability to practically reason following the categorical imperative, which is to say to think in the ways that he believed to be correct. Despite his emphasis on autonomy, Kant still believed in the singular correctness of his philosophy and would likely not approve of excessive liberties taken with it. The way to examine the relative ease creating personal interpretations of philosophy is simple in that complicated philosophies are in most cases the most prone to differing interpretations. This is why The Bible has been so misinterpreted over the ages. There are really only ten rules (old testament) and a couple dozen guidelines (new testament) that are essential to obey in order to be a 'good Christian', but they are sandwiched in hundreds of pages of additional parables and ancient legal judgments, which often hold conflicting messages. Guess where somebody who wants to be a 'good Christian' but also wants to tie a homosexual to a fence post and then beat him until dead turns when he opens his Bible? The extra pages. That the humanity formula is simple and possesses a great deal of focus and clarity is obvious. It's only precept is that one always treat people in a way that respects their basic humanity and dignity, which largely consists in their ability to make their own choices and not to treat them as mere tools to be used for an end. It is therefore easy to determine whether or not an action is wrong as the formula is clear that if one person strips another of their ability to reason and make choices or treats them as means to achieving their own personal agenda, then that action is immoral. Logically, this would be said that if A or B is true, than action C is immoral. This is in contrast with the universal formula of the categorical imperative in that the universal forumla of the categorical imperative, while possessing the same if, then structure, also contains a preliminary process which is completely open to personal interpretation. This is the process of defining one's motives. While in the case of the American official, one can define her motives in an impartial manner and therefore correctly judge the moral rectitude of her actions, her own interpretation of her

motives might be quite different. Rather than face the uncomfortable truth that she wouldn't want other people doing what she does, she could twist her maxim to fit her situation to make it impossible to find it immoral. While Kant would argue that this specificity would then cause the maxim to conflict with natural law, this is not the case. Take this possible maxim for her action: that a government official can torture an individual to reveal information relevant to the possible detonation of a concealed radiological device on its soil. This maxim produces no inherent problems in the natural law and does not conflict with her own motives, as the U.S. does not conceal its nuclear weapons (they are all clearly labeled.) It also is a misrepresentation of her motives, as the prevention of the detonation of the concealed radiological device is not a maxim for action, but rather a consequence of her maxim of keeping the citizens she is charged to protect out of harm's way. However, it is unlikely that given her desire to see her actions as moral, the official would consider this distinction. Therefore, the official would be much more likely to use the universal formulation of the categorical imperative to justify her actions. Now, most of this paper has dealt with Kantianism, because Kantianism is much more complex than the philosophy with which it is most often contrasted, utilitarianism. A utilitarian, when analyzing the situation would consider only one thing in deciding whether torture is morally acceptable, which is how torture would affect the total amount of happiness in the world. Obviously, a utilitarian would find that if the torture of one man would prevent the deaths of thousands, this would be obeying the principle of maximizing the total amount of happiness, as the unhappiness of the one man to be tortured would be greatly outweighed by the simple joy of thousands of people for being alive. Therefore, what a utilitarian has to decide would be whether or not the torture has a good enough success rate at revealing information that a suspect is unwilling to give otherwise. While this may seem like a hard thing to discern, there is a great deal of evidence, both academic and historical, to prove that forceful coercion is not an effective method of intelligence gathering. The experienced viewpoint on the issue is best summarized by the preliminary findings of a Georgetown University panel composed of both experienced military interrogators and psychologists. Rather than try and summarize their findings, I will simply quote them verbatim, as they are concise enough to speak for themselves without simplification: “ The interrogators maintained that, even in the most urgent situations, torture can not be considered a viable option. The involuntary circumstances of the disclosure would compromise the integrity of the information obtained. Decades of research into directly relevant topics such as social influence, stress, cultural and religious identification, false confessions, and interpersonal relationships point to the same conclusion, according to the psychologists. Naïve assumptions that torture “works” fail to recognize that, under torture, the innocent are apt to fabricate and those with real information and training to resist interrogation are apt to alter the information or present carefully rehearsed lies instead. A common argument for torture is the “ticking time bomb” scenario, in which a terrorist who knows the location of a bomb is tortured in a race to save lives. Interrogators stated that the terrorist would know that he only has to keep his secret for the short time until the bomb detonates―a time period known to him but not to the interrogators. Moreover, the torture would

offer the terrorist a prime opportunity to deceive interrogators by falsely naming bomb locations of difficult access. In their combined 100 years of interrogation experience, the interrogators had never encountered a true ticking bomb scenario.”1 So accepting the opinion of this group of individuals educated and experienced in this topic that torture does not produce useful information and may indeed produce bad information, it can be reasoned that torture does not increase the overall happiness of the state of affairs. In addition, the pain induced on those tortured and the domestic and international unrest that is unleashed when torture is used by a government on its own or foreign citizens is clear enough to say that torture creates a great deal of unhappiness. Therefore, the utilitarian, like the Kantian, would find torture to be morally unacceptable.

Works cited. 1. Rethinking the Psychology of Torture Seminar. “Rethinking the Psychology of Torture.” Georgetown University and Psychologists for Social responsibility. Psychologists for Social responsibility. November , 2006. < http://www.psysr.org/tortureseminar.htm > . February 17th, 2007.

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