How Do You Know What You’re Doing is Right?

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.

21 comments… add one
  • steve

    I think that from a moral POV it is so obviously wrong that I don’t know how to even begin that argument. I know of no religious school of thought that supports torture. So I usually end up in the consequentialist (pragmatic) argument where it is also clearly wrong. Those supporting torture are really just supporting taking out revenge on those whom we have captured.

    Steve

  • PD Shaw

    I subscribe to more of a situational view, consequences of an action matter but not to the extent that ends can always justify the means. Consequences are unknowns and can not be evaluated with complete certainty. But I don’t think one can simply be blind to the probable results of any given action. If the NAZIs come looking for Jews in WWII Amsterdam, should one lie to conceal a Jew, or should one tell the truth and denying any foresight into what fate might have in store. (Or worse in my book, assume that if the Jews are to survive it’s in G*d’s hands now)

    Situationalism makes me wary of making moral arguments about the behavior of others. Maybe lying to the Gestapo would put one’s own family at risk, and how can one weigh such horrible choices, except weigh them we must.

  • Guarneri

    Per the essay title, who’s ethical principles?

    Torture is bad, period. Ok. Is torture bad if the torture of one saves the lives of 1000, 10000?? Well, torture is still bad but do you compromise ethical principles for the benefit of the many? It has been argued on these very pages that a min wage increase is Ok if it benefits many at the expense of unemployment of few.

    How about abortion? If your ethics and beliefs say life begins at conception you really have no choice but to declare abortion murder, and unethical. If you decide that life begins at, say, the end of the first trimester can you now weigh the relative rights of mother and fetus pre and post the line of distinction? How about take it to another extreme – If the woman’s right to choose extends to the time of a partial birth abortion, how about a do over at age 3?? 3……Ridiculous, right? How much more ridiculous than partial birth??

    Drones, in which finger nails are intact but fingers are spread over a city block and the subject has no opportunity to surrender, or torture, where finger nails don’t make it, but the surrendered/captured subject is alive ??

    Says who?

  • ...

    Steve, there seems to be several Muslim schools of thought that support, murder, mayhem & torture. Not sure how you missed that.

  • BTW, CIA Director John Brennan pulled the plug on any consequentialist argument supporting his agency’s practices when he said in his testimony before Congress that whether torture actually lead to actionable intelligence was “unknowable”.

    If it’s unknowable, then it’s unethical even on consequentialist grounds since for an act to be ethical under that system it must on balance be known to have a beneficial outcome.

  • TastyBits

    Again, I realize I am a horrible person, but I do not care about terrorists being uncomfortable. I use the terrorists standard of torture, and nothing in the report meets that standard.

    A war if fought to be won, and if both sides agree to refrain from doing certain things, they can sign an agreement with the terms and conditions. The terrorists have not signed any agreements, and from what I can see, they take pleasure in doing the things in the agreements the US has signed with other countries.

    If the US wants to abide by those agreements, so be it, but there is no obligation. Countries are not moral or ethical.

    President Obama is inflicting permanent physical and/or psychological damage on terrorists, their families, friends, and co-workers through the drone program. By indiscriminately killing or maiming anybody aiding & abetting or harboring a terrorist. This falls within the definition of torture.

    If anything is creating more terrorists, it is the drone program, but somehow Sen. Feinstein and every other whining Democrat cannot figure this out. Bullshit.

  • If anything is creating more terrorists, it is the drone program, but somehow Sen. Feinstein and every other whining Democrat cannot figure this out.

    I agree with that and oppose the use of drones, too.

  • Andy

    “Is torture bad if the torture of one saves the lives of 1000, 10000?? Well, torture is still bad but do you compromise ethical principles for the benefit of the many?”

    Of course the problem with that argument, is that torture is less effective than other techniques so the whole premise that torture can save lives is is false except in a limited number of unknowable circumstances.

    Also, I think drones are fundamentally different. Drones are being used in the context of an armed conflict and in an armed conflict participants have wide latitude to kill the enemy. If they are running away from you, unarmed, you can shoot them in the back, or call artillery on their position, or call in an airstrike. Enemy combatants enjoy protection from attack only in limited circumstances.

    The legal authority for drone strikes flows from 2001 AUMF which also forms the legal basis for combat against the Taliban and other groups. What’s unique about the drone program is the targets aren’t merely an enemy force, but specific enemy leaders. The reason for the difference is geopolitical – because these leaders (along with their logistics and many of their fighters) are in allied countries we don’t have free reign. So, for example, to strike AQ or Taliban in Afghanistan we have a range of options because we have ready military forces and few limits by Afghanistan’s government, so we can exercise the broad range of combat options authorized under the laws of armed conflict. Cross the border into Pakistan, however, and the government there restricts what we can do. If that restriction didn’t exist, we’d be attacking Taliban/Haqqani/AQ camps and fighters with all the viciousness we’ve done in Afghanistan and wouldn’t just focus on leadership targets. So the thing that restricts us in Pakistan is our respect for Pakistani sovereignty. It’s a similar story in Yemen and, to a lesser extent, Somalia.

  • The reason that I think that drones are so pernicious is that when you’re engaged in ground combat at least you’re around to manage the conditions you’ve created. With drone warfare (as with any air combat) you just let the chips fall where they may. I think that’s a direct violation of agreements on the laws of war to which we are a signatory.

    The arguments in favor of drones are mostly domestic political ones.

  • Andy

    “With drone warfare (as with any air combat) you just let the chips fall where they may. I think that’s a direct violation of agreements on the laws of war to which we are a signatory.”

    I don’t think history or the common interpretation of the laws of war support that. Over the last 100 years military forces often engaged in combat where ground forces weren’t present either through various forms of air power or long-range artillery or ballistic missiles. There’s no inherent violation of international agreements in utilizing such weapons in the absence of a ground force.

  • Over the last 100 years military forces often engaged in combat where ground forces weren’t present either through various forms of air power or long-range artillery or ballistic missiles

    Can you think of an example in which that was done without following up with ground troops? Other than, say, Libya which I think was just as problematic. I have a vague recollection of following up with grounds troops in, say, Japan even though the campaign against the Japanese homeland had been an air campaign. I think the present drone campaign is new. There is no intention of following the air campaign with a land campaign.

    The question is what does it take to become the “occupying power”? Let’s take the case of Libya. I think that our bombing campaign in Libya resulted in NATO becoming the occupying power in Libya and what we did there was a war crime.

  • steve

    Query-Suppose the Taliban all lived 10 miles over the border. They sent troops in overnight to try to kill us. We used artillery (much cheaper) to kill them instead of drones. We still never crossed the border because our ally does not give up permission. A war crime?

    Steve

  • Under those circumstances it would be both foolish and immoral not to be prepared to send troops into Canada (or Mexico) to maintain order in the areas we’d bombed and succor the survivors.

  • Andy

    Dave,

    There is nothing in the laws of war that requires or even suggests that one must intend to conduct a land campaign in order to use military forces that operate in the other domains. It seems to me your theory would demand, for example, that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was illegal because the Japanese did not intend to invade Hawaii. Military objectives are not limited to only those which can be achieved by land forces.

    Also, in Libya there were land forces, they just weren’t ours. Libya was more like Afghanistan where air power became a force multiplier for one group of locals to beat another group of locals.

    What’s really different about drone anti-terrorism efforts is the politics where the host nation cannot accept ground forces (at least none that we know about), but semi-deniable air forces are ok.

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