Much of the discussion I’ve read on the subject of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on torture by the CIA has foundered on fundamentally different notions of what constitutes moral action. The basic questino is how do you know what you’re doing is right?
There are really only a few schools of moral thought. There’s deontological ethics which emphasizes adhering to ethical principles. I’m inclined to be a Kantian and, therefore, I agree with this school.
Then there’s the consequentialist school. Consequentialists believe that whether an action is ethical or not depends on the outcome of the action. When defenders of the CIA’s strategy declaim that it was an effective way of obtaining information, they are making a consequentialist argument. As are those who respond that it wasn’t effective. Deontologists look at it differently: it was wrong. That’s all we need to know.
Finally, there’s group ethics. If we’re not the sort of people who do bad things, what we do cannot be bad, can it?
I think that both consequentialists are engaging in sophistry. There is a knowledge problem that they fail to recognize. If they’re right then the same action by the same person may be good or bad depending on its outcome which is something they cannot know until after they’ve acted. Or, in other words, no action is ever unethical because it might have had a good outcome.
And as far as group ethics is concerned, that’s just special pleading.