By Jefferson Flanders

The recent debate over torture has found the nation’s capital filled with…Kantians. The 19th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, famous for his advocacy of duty-based ethics, argued that universal maxims, once established, should be followed no matter the circumstances or consequences. President Barack Obama and many liberal Democrats have taken a decidedly Kantian position on what they call torture (and neo-conservatives call “enhanced interrogation techniques”), maintaining that it should never be employed under any circumstances, and that captured terror suspects should be interrogated only under the restrictive rules of the Army Field Manual.

Obama and his allies have undercut their profession of Kantian absolutism, however, by considering the question of whether the CIA’s waterboarding of Al Qaeda terrorists was effective (they say it was not, although Obama’s director of national intelligence, Dennis Blair, stated that those harsh interrogations did produce “high-value information”). But as any self-respecting Kantian knows, the utility of an action is immaterial to its morality. To put it another way: if you decide torture is always wrong, if you make its abolition a Categorical Imperative (in Kantian terms, an unconditional moral law) it doesn’t matter whether it works or not. Kant on this question: “Do what is right, though the world may perish.”

A different strain of moral philosophy, consequentialism, holds that the morality of an action should be judged by its results. This, of course, is the philosophic position taken by the circle around President George W. Bush. They argue that “enhanced interrogation techniques” saved American lives by staving off additional post-9/11 terror attacks. Consequentialism is a more pragmatic approach, which is perhaps why the philosophic movement advanced by Charles Peirce, William James and John Dewey was called Pragmatism. It’s a theory with clear appeal for results-oriented Americans.

What if the CIA captures an Al Qaeda leader who is likely to know the operational details of a planned attack on the New York subways? Under these Kantian principles, you would refrain from torture (or “enchanced interrogation techniques”) no matter the consequences, no matter the potential loss of life. Would CIA head Leon Panetta and Obama hold to their Army Field Manual standard for interrogation, which one critic argued “is so anemic, that it goes below the level of coercion associated with police station level of interrogation”? Panetta has sent mixed signals about how far he would be willing to go, telling the Senate Intelligence Committee in his confirmation hearings:

“If we had the ticking bomb situation and I felt that whatever we were using wasn’t sufficient, I would not hesitate to go to the president and request any additional authority that we would need.”

Establishing an absolute ban on torture but seeking “additional authority” to “enhance” interrogation could easily mutate into a policy very much like the Bush Administration’s. Or as the Who once sang: “Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss.”

The most puzzling aspect of the torture debate is President Obama’s decision to release memos from the Bush years dealing with enhanced interrogation, and then “making it clear that he does not intend to press charges against those involved in the decision-making or the interrogations. ” Why trigger a national debate over the issue if you aren’t going to seek a resolution either through prosecution or Congressional hearings? (For the record: I take a Kantian position against any use of those techniques, like waterboarding, which have been regarded as torture for centuries and “shock the conscience.”)

Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Reprinted from Neither Red nor Blue

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