Sunday, May 29, 2011

My Thoughts on Water Boarding and Torture

Firstly, water boarding is torture. I don’t need to have been water boarded to know that. By pouring water down your nose and keeping your mouth shut, it plays on your instinctual fear of drowning by simulating what it would feel like being hundreds of feet below water. It is extremely uncomfortable and terrifying, look up a video on Youtube if you don’t believe me. But even if it were not, the level of pain or discomfort the suspect is being put through is irrelevant, so long as any exists. The principle is the same: putting somebody through any level of pain or discomfort or terror in order to convince him to do something, or answer your questions, or reveal information. That is torture. Water boarding does that, and thus water boarding is torture.

A separate, more meaningful question would be “can torture ever be justified?” What if it’s done to save lives, specifically the lives of American servicemen or citizens. I view this as a perfect example of the “do the ends justify the means” question I rose a couple weeks ago. And while the last post argued that there can be situations in which the ends do justify the means, I do not believe torture is one of those situations. In that post I identified three questions which must be considered in determining if the ends justify the means:

  1. How important is it that the ends be met? For the ends to justify the means, the ends must be of such dire importance that not achieving them would be an even greater ethical offense than the means used to achieve them. 
  2. How direct is the link between the means and the ends? One must have no reasonable doubt that the means will directly and infallibly lead to the ends.
  3. Finally, are there any alternate, less unethical means which would obtain the same ends? The means cannot be justified if ethically superior means are available. 
In the case of  torture, the means are quite ghastly and immoral. In order to satiate question number one, the ends must be extremely dire: saving lives, solidifying national security, saving the nation, etc. These circumstances are rare, but they do exist. The ends of saving many lives, or even just one life, outweigh the means of torturing one person. In these circumstances, the first condition is met.

But the other questions are where this practice becomes far less cut and dry. In accordance with the second question, we must be certain that the person being tortured actually knows something that could help us, and it’s tough to be sure of that. Even if the person does know something, we must determine whether that information will help us sufficiently enough to obtain our ends. Again, there is usually no way of ensuring this. We must also verify that anything the prisoner does reveal is true, and not merely a lie to end the torture. How can one ever discern between a coerced lie and the coerced truth, without knowing what the truth is? And Thirdly, there must be no alternative courses of military action likely to attain the same objective, which is not always true either.

Therefore, I am opposed to torture, and opposed to water boarding. If there were a button in front of me, and I knew for absolute certain that pushing this button would torture a terrorist and, in exchange, save the life of one US soldier, I would push it in an instant. But that's not the choice we're faced with. If I knew that pushing this button would torture a terrorist and, in exchange, maybe provide information that might be true which might help us save lives, I would not push the button. And that is a far more accurate moral equivalent.

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