Sam Harris on the ethics of torture

Sam Harris has received a great deal of criticism for his discussion of torture in The End of Faith, and here he offers a lucid response.

A quote:
It is widely claimed that torture “does not work”—that it produces unreliable information, implicates innocent people, etc. As I argue in The End of Faith, this line of defense does not resolve the underlying ethical dilemma. Clearly, the claim that torture never works, or that it always produces bad information, is false. There are cases in which the mere threat of torture has worked. As I argue in The End of Faith, one can easily imagine situations in which even a very low probability of getting useful information through torture would seem to justify it—the looming threat of nuclear terrorism being the most obvious case. It is decidedly unhelpful that those who claim to know that torture is “always wrong” never seem to envision the circumstances in which good people would be tempted to use it.

This nicely describes the way our moral boundaries vary based on what information we have access to and what our circumstances are, and how all the talk about moral absolutes simply ignores this reality. Here's an example of my own: Is it wrong to murder tens of thousands children if it is possible – not guaranteed, but possible – that doing so could save millions of lives? That might seem a horrifying thought, but America did just that in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Perhaps in place of Harris' "torture", we might consider the ethics of nuclear genocide as a deterrent for greater conflict.

We would justify torture, just as we justified genocide, by arguing that it is for the aggregate well-being of humanity. Some die that many more may be spared. But these decisions are never clear. We understand the paradox that in killing some to spare many, we risk devaluing all human life. We also understand that we can't know with any certainty that our actions will produce the desired result. Such dilemmas clearly illuminate the fact that moral proscriptions issued in absolutes are virtually meaningless to us.

Oddly enough, I'm reminded of a line from Lady Gaga's monologue in her video for the song "Born This Way": How can I protect something so beautiful without evil?


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