Means and Ends

 

It is heartening to see debate beginning on the formation of public policy to deal with issues which have arisen as a result of the increased threats posed by terrorism.Public policy think tanks have begun to formulate recommendations in light of these developments.The issues are difficult as well as important as they deal with both the real and spreading threat as well as the impacts on our democratic way of life which our responses to this threat potentially create. As we engage in thesediscussions, it is important that we proceed with caution as to the long term impacts of some of our responses to the proximate threats as well as include sound moral reasoning in evaluating the ends we seek and the means we intend to use to achieve them.It is a debate that must be bound by law, the restraints embodied within the values upon which our nation was founded, and our Constitution.To claim victory over those who would terrorize our population at the expense of these laws and values would be a pyrrhic victory indeed.

 

†††† The difficulty of the debate lies not only in the challenge of balancing responses to proximate threats against long term impacts on our society.Pragmatic, objective analysis is both necessary as well as something we are quite accustomed to and good at.The difficulty also lies, however, in the fact that common discourse in moral reasoning and the philosophical underpinnings of our democracy have long since fallen out of vogue or, worse, been reasoned to be outdated or simply erroneous.When weighing alternatives, how do we define the greater good?What is good?What is justice?What truths are self evident?What are our natural rights besides the ones that our founding fathers have specifically enumerated?How can we know them?If we really had to choose all over again, would we really value our liberty more than our security?All of these questions are not specifically relevant to determining our current course; however, the philosophical underpinnings whereby they were answered in the past are.

 

†††† One of the questions that must be dealt with is that of the use of torture.I have spoken to many who firmly believe that it can be justified, although I have not heard any give a full explanation of their reasons for coming to this conclusion.The justifications are either understandably emotional reactions to the horrific acts which we have witnessed by those using violence, or limited to truncated utilitarian reasoning which justifies the use of this means for the greater good.I characterize the reasoning as truncated because it normally stops far short of any definition of the good, any characterization of the value of the means in and of itself, any clear reasoning as to the actual utility of the means in achieving the end sought, any consideration of the possibility of alternatives, and any consideration of the long term negative impacts or second and third order effects which would alter the purely cost benefit view normally being used.Additionally, it normally does not consider accountability, responsibility and oversight issues which, should we adopt such means and empower people to use them in our names, must be considered.

 

†††† There are many other issues to consider in addition to coercive methods to obtain information.I have focused on this one because it lends itself to the use of clear examples of the extreme case, which examples often provide insight into the issues at hand.For instance, one example frequently used to justify torture is that of a terrorist who has planted a nuclear bomb in a city which he states is set to explode.Is the use of torture justified as a means in obtaining information from the captured terrorist about the location of the bomb?Clearly, if that information can be obtained and the bomb defused, the pain inflicted on the detainee would result in the saving of thousands of lives.It is a common means ends issue.Does the means, the use of torture on an individual, justify the ends, the saving of thousands of lives?

 

†††† First consider the end.The judgment made in its evaluation is that it is a real good which we should seek.The reason it is a real good which we should, or are under a moral obligation to, seek is that it is a natural right of human beings, a truth we hold as self evident.This highlights the importance of the foundational principles upon which our nation was founded.They are principles which have their roots in Aristotelian philosophy.They are also principles which many no longer believe to be valid.Are there self evident truths, those which exist apart from objective reality, which put us under a moral obligation?Do we really have natural rights?Of what do they consist and how can we know them?If we no longer believe these philosophical underpinnings of our democracy to be valid, on what foundation does it rest?One, which is often used in discussions of the topic at hand is utilitarianism, or, in a simplified form, the greatest good for the greatest number. Regardless of which philosophical underpinnings we use as justification, although I believe natural right theory still to be valid, it is clear that some judgment about the value of the end must be made in regards to its goodness and our obligation to seek it.The end must be a good which we consider we have an obligation to seek.†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††

 

†††† Letís take the scenario to a further extreme.Consider that it is known that the terrorist has an infant child which he loves dearly.Assume also that we believe the terrorist to be very committed to his cause and willing to both suffer and die for it.Would it be justified to torture his child in his presence in order to get him or her to reveal the information we seek?I normally do not get to this point in discussions with people about the topic; however, when I have, the typical and immediate response is no.The child is innocent whereas the terrorist is not.This is a revealing response.What it reveals is a judgment about the inherent value of the means, in this case the torture of an innocent, and a judgment that there are some means which are inherently evil.So we have two considerations so far in our justification of torture.The end must be a real good which we are under a moral obligation to seek and the means must not be inherently evil.

 

†††† As we have thrown away the baby, so to speak, in our considerations, what about the terrorist?We have already assumed him to be extremely committed to his cause and willing to suffer and die for it.How certain are we that, by use of torture, we will obtain the information we seek?Assume we know quite a bit about this particular terrorist.We have studied him or her for years, and we know of certain fears and phobias the terrorist has.Certainly, if we view that the use of torture on the terrorist is not evil inherently and intend its use, then we would certainly consider the form of pain we intended to inflict in regards to which would most likely obtain the response we were seeking.A third and important consideration which this highlights is the connection between the means we intend to use and the end we seek.If there is any question as to the nature of the means, then surely there must be a high degree of probability that it will achieve the good we seek.

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†††† Letís assume further.Assume that the terrorist has stated, and we have solid evidence to believe this statement to be highly credible, that the bomb is set to explode in seven days rather than hours.Assume also that we have established the general location of the device, and have the means within this time to search the area thoroughly, although even so its location may elude us.If we had already determined that torture was justified without additional considerations, this would be a moot point.Surely, using only utilitarian considerations, we should not count on luck alone but should use every means available without delay.However, most would agree that this assumption brings up another consideration.We must consider the alternatives available.In this case, we have time as well as other means.So far then, we have these considerations.The end must be a real good.The means cannot be inherently evil.There must be a high degree of probability that the means we intend to use will achieve the ends we seek.There must be no alternatives.

 

†††† Letís make another assumption.The nuclear device is a dirty bomb.We know its general area and the potential for contamination.We have also determined that, although its effects can be lethal, the potential for fatalities in this case is extremely small, although harmful health effects will occur to those exposed, a moderately small number of people.In this case, we have changed the end.It is now to preserve health, not life, as well as the populationís sense of security and their perception of the governmentís ability to provide for it.A loss of confidence in the governmentís ability to provide for the security of its people can have very significant long term impacts in a stable country, those impacts being much more dramatic in one that is not stable.For arguments sake, letís consider this country in the latter category.So now we have multiple ends, both long term as well as short term, the longer term end, the peace and stability of a civil society, of much less predictability.Consider, as well that the terrorist is a national, and the countries use of heavy handed tactics with its population is one important reason for its lack of stability.What I am trying to examine, although the example may be imperfect, is the existence of conflicting, multiple ends and the potential impact of second or third order effects and unintended consequences.We must not only look to the immediate good which we seek, but also to the total good, or opposite, which may result as a consequence of use of the means in question.

 

†††† Here, then, are the considerations we have discussed.The end must be a real good.The means cannot be inherently evil.There must be a high degree of probability of success in attaining the end through the questionable, though assumed not inherently evil, means.There must be no alternatives.The total good must be weighed.Considering these standards in relation to the use of torture, it begins to become evident that, if justifiable at all, those circumstances in which it might conceivably be justified are extremely small, if they exist at all.If they do exist, and we intend to use such means, then one last consideration must be taken.Responsibility, accountability and oversight must be established.As we live in a democracy, the accountability is ours collectively.This cannot occur unless our representatives are given strict oversight authorities.For all of those who believe torture to be a justifiable means, I question whether they would continue to maintain that position so adamantly if they were the ones to be held accountable for its use.We have, collectively, become far too prone to find fault with the actions of our government without considering our own part in its failings.Congressional oversight responsibilities for covert actions have been shirked, the reasoning somehow being made that, if I donít know about it, I cannot be held to account if something goes wrong.This cannot be further from the truth.You canít delegate accountability.We, through our elected representatives, are collectively accountable for the actions of our government.If we have hidden our heads in the sand or allowed Congressional oversight authorities to lapse, we are at fault.If we have delegated the responsibilities and not ensured that they are being carried out, we are at fault.If we have allowed our representatives to shirk their responsibilities in this regard, we are at fault and, accept it or not, we are being held to account by others with whom we share this planet and towards whom we supposedly stand as a beacon of hope for the attainment of those things which we all, by virtue of our common humanity, really need; life, liberty, and the pursuit of all of those other real goods which we all need to make a good life for ourselves.

 

†††† It is heartening that serious folk have begun to debate these issues.It is good and right that such debate should lead to policy recommendations.It would be better were such debate not restricted to the halls of academia and the think tanks of Washington DC.For some reason, it seems our politicians somehow loose their faith in the virtue and common sense wisdom of the people they represent once they have been in Washington for extended terms.They seem to discount the ability of common folk to understand the complexities of the issues.Unfortunately, in discounting this common wisdom, they often make some pretty foolish mistakes, one of which has been the primary topic of this discourse.†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††

 

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