More on Sam Harris' thoughts about torture

A couple posts back I reposted Sam Harris' response to his critics regarding the section in The End of Faith in which he weighs the ethics of torture, and which has been mischaracterized by his detractors as pro-torture. Over at RDF, there's a thread going there about the article, and I want to raise one particular response by the user "Red Dog":
He may say that torture should be illegal but in this article he also argues that it at times is the moral thing to do (see my previous comment above). I don't agree with that. I think not only should it be illegal but it is always immoral.
I agree, torture is always immoral. But I want to again raise the issue of nuclear genocide. In 1945, the US bombed hundreds of thousands of civilians in a show of force intended to stop the war. It was believe that, if perpetuated, the war would cost millions more lives. The people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were essentially regarded as "collateral damage".

So, was it the right thing to do? At the time, the US was on the verge of a full-scale invasion of Japan which it was believed would cost many more innocent lives than were lost in the bombings. This is really an elaborate version of the famous Trolley Problem, which I discussed some time back. Do we allow one person to die to save five? Do we deliberately kill one person to save five? Do we torture one person to save hundreds, or nuke tens of thousands to save millions?

I applaud Sam Harris for getting us to consider the issue, and I do think some of his critics have been a little hasty. But I think that on this issue, he's missed the mark. I'm going to argue that torture is always wrong, just as I believe deliberate attacks on civilians during wartime are always wrong. (I might as well lay my cards on the table: I think the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings were immoral and misguided. They were, by any measure, acts of terrorism that, just like all terrorist attacks on civilians, were intended to instill fear in the enemy.) I think there is more at stake here than simply numbers, and that we greatly oversimplify human well-being by attempting to quantify it in terms of the short-term lives that are saved.

There is a slippery slope here. In carrying out deliberate attacks on civilians as a form of collateral damage, we devalue human life; and in allowing torture in some circumstances, we do the same. If our boundary in how we treat our enemies (or their civilian families) can slip ever so much, what is to stop it from slipping just a bit further? Part of the greatest challenge of holding strong moral principles is holding them even in dire circumstances – because that's exactly what makes them strong moral principles. It is precisely this reason why it is the policy of the United States not to negotiate with terrorists: we accept the risk that terrorists, their demands not being met, may choose to kill our civilians or soldiers – and we know that if we do negotiate with terrorists, the short-term saved lives would be negated by the long-term consequence of terrorism being demonstrated as an effective tool of negotiation.

If we do not take strong moral positions on some issues, their validity then becomes wholly arbitrary. If we say torture might be okay in certain circumstances, we open a pandora's box in which we struggle to define just how severe of torture to engage in, and just how dire a circumstance justifies it. So, much as I admire and respect Sam Harris, I think his view on this issue is shortsighted.


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