Ethics: April 2009 Archives

Torture Investigations

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Maybe I haven't been following the calls for torture investigations closely enough, but it seems to me that there need to be two things that I'm not seeing for me to be convinced that the people issuing such calls are sincere about the issue and not just pursuing a politically-motivated witch hunt.

1. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and a number of other congressional Democrats were involved in discussions with President Bush and other administration officials when all this was actually going on, and they seem to have given their approval of whatever actually took place with official sanction. Or at least they voiced no objections. That's what I keep hearing. But I have heard very little about anyone seriously suggesting that they be investigated. The only reason I can think of for that is that they're Democrats. Someone with more information than I have should feel free to correct me on this if I've got the facts wrong, but it's very hard to see this as a movement to correct for mistaken policies and hold those responsible accountable unless all who were responsible are going to be investigated.

2. As far as I've been able to discern, the U.S. military has long used techniques like waterboarding in training their special forces to be able to withstand harsh interrogation techniques. My understanding is that they train them in techniques that are uncontroversially torture. Yet President Obama continues President Bush's claim that the U.S. doesn't torture. Those who accept it from Obama but didn't from Bush need to account for this, and if they think these procedures are immoral in principle then they ought to be consistent and issue a call to hold accountable those responsible for torturing our own troops, including any at high levels who knew about this and allowed it. (I suspect that would be all the presidents for at least as far back as Jimmy Carter, the earliest president still alive.) Again, it's possible that I don't have all the facts on this, and I'd be happy to receive corrections on this, particularly if you can back it up with sources I'd be likely to trust. But what I read of the very memos that everyone's getting all excited about now (even though they say almost nothing that we didn't already know) seems to confirm that this has been going on with our own troops.

I don't think this shows us one way or the other whether these policies are legal, morally justifiable, or worth pursuing an investigation about (and I see those as three somewhat independent issues). I actually think those issues are more complex and difficult to navigate than either side wants to acknowledge. See my 2004 post and then my 2007 pair on the moral and linguistic issues. (I can't say that I'd agree with everything in those posts now, though.)

But it doesn't seem to me that most of the people who are actually raising a big stink about this are doing so for consistent, principled reasons unless they're willing to apply it to the above two cases. (That doesn't mean they're all hypocrites, because they might not see the inconsistency and might be willing to adjust their behavior if they did see it, or perhaps they have arguments for differential treatment of the different cases, although I'm not sure what those would be.)

"Of Course"

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One problem any teacher encounters is how to present material that many in the class will be familiar with but others will not. It's one thing to refer back to earlier material in the course, which students should but often won't remember by the time you get back to it when you encounter the same issue from a different point of view. But other background information might not have been covered earlier in the class. When I teach 300-level ethics classes, all my students should have taken the two-semester historical introduction to philosophy classes. But so many people teach those and do them so differently that there isn't any content that I can assume they've covered. It's also taught in such different styles that there isn't any basic philosophical framework that I can assume every member of the class has had.

The same problem arises in preaching. Some people hearing a sermon might know the Bible wel enough that you can refer to the sin of Achan or David's conflict with Absalom without any further information, and they'll know what you're talking about. You can mention a particular, relatively well-known chapter or section such as Romans 8, the Sermon on the Mount, or Ezeiel's vision of the temple, and some people will need no further information to be reminded of the full sense of what occurs in the section in question. At the other end of the spectrum are the biblically-illiterate who don't know that Jesus was betrayed by Judas Iscariot, aren't familiar with the biblical concept of a covenant, and would hear the expression "whore of Babylon" and think there must be some biblical character who was a prostitute in Baghdad.

One solution I've seen is to give the hearers the benefit of the doubt. I'll sometimes hear a preacher saying "of course" as an unconscious transitional marker in the middle of explaining something that only some of the people present will probably get without the explanation. It serves to signal to those who don't need the explanation that the preacher isn't treating them as if they don't already know this. The problem is that it makes those who don't know this feel sub-par for not knowing this thing that the preacher says "of course" about, as if anyone should know this. Another way of putting it would be to say, "as you know" before saying something that some people in the room do not have any knowledge of at all.

I find myself cringing inwardly at this kind of language. There's a sense of not treating those who are less-informed as important when you treat them as if the basic common denominator is higher in understanding than they are. There are certainly ways of being dismissive of someone that are worse than this, but there is a kind of insult behind this kind of language, even if it's not intended. Little things like this can have an effect on people, and this is such an unconscious habit that someone can get into when developing public speaking skills that it's easy not to think about what you're actually saying when you say this kind of thing.

In writing philosophical essays for a popular audience, I've had to think very hard about how someone with no philosophy background is going to read something I say. I hear my philosophical colleagues talking to their students with vocabulary and concepts that I can't imagine most undergraduate students understanding. Spending time in places where English isn't the native language and having to have serious conversations about Christianity and philosophy via a translator has certainly influenced my abilities to try to explain things more simply than I would if talking to a graduate student in philosophy.

So I'm at least sensitive to the fact that this is a problem, and I do know a fair number of places where it could arise that I tend to avoid it. But that isn't a solution to the problem, since it doesn't mean it won't occur where I'm not going to notice it, since I won't know sometimes that the terms I'm using have no meaning to the person I'm talking to. It also doesn't solve the problem of how to avoid giving those who do understand more the sense that they're being treated like children. But I do think this is something worth thinking through that I doubt very many people spend much time thinking about.

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