Torture and Sex: Moral Relativism or Morally Unrelated?

Kevin Drum observes,

When the subject has anything to do with sex, the right in America is the party of moral absolutes.  We know what’s right, we know what’s wrong, and even if there’s a price to pay we can’t shirk our responsibility to set a proper example and do the right thing.

But when the subject is torture, suddenly it’s all about carefully weighing the costs and benefits.  Having an honest debate about how far we should go to protect ourselves.  Understanding the context of what happened.  It’s just not possible to flatly say that waterboarding and sleep deprivation and stress positions are barbarisms unfit for use by a civilized country.  It’s much more complex than that.

I’m both anti-torture and generally opposed to the government mucking around in our bedrooms.  But even leftists, ranging from Alan Derschowitz to a goodly portion of the Democratic congressional leadership, think that there may be occasions when extreme measures are called for in protecting our national security. Conversely, I’m hard pressed to think of occasions when adultery, rape, bigamy, incest, or pedophilia would become circumstantially necessary.  For that matter, while I don’t oppose the right of homosexuals to have sex with each other or form legal unions, there isn’t exactly a “ticking time bomb” equivalent.

The only issue that “has anything to do with sex” where the comparison would be at all apt is abortion.  I’m personally largely ambivalent on very-early-term abortion, including the so-called “morning after pill,” and am pro-contraception.  I even think there are circumstances, such as extreme risk to the life of the mother or extreme deformity of the child, where later term abortions are morally reasonable.  But I can understand the logic of those who are anti-abortion absolutists.   If one truly believes that at a human being exists at Point X (whether conception or some biologically logical later point), then it’s hard to make the case for exceptions.

Conversely, one can believe that torture is morally wrong and bad public policy and still countenance doing it to very bad people to prevent very bad things.   Most people aren’t Kantians.

Photo by Flickr user kharied, used under Creative Commons license.

FILED UNDER: Intelligence, National Security, Terrorism, US Politics, , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Herb says:

    Conversely, one can believe that torture is morally wrong and bad public policy and still countenance doing it to very bad people to prevent very bad things.

    And we would rightly call that person a moral relativist.

  2. James Joyner says:

    And we would rightly call that person a moral relativist.

    It would only be technically true, however. It’s like saying that anyone who has ever told a lie, for whatever reason, is a liar. It’s true but erodes important distinctions.

    Being able to conceive of a case in which one value would trump another value doesn’t mean one doesn’t have values.

  3. Michael says:

    It also helps that those who believe in moral absolutes when it comes to sex mostly base it on a pre-existing set of rules detailing specifically what should be viewed as morally wrong. No such codification exists for interrogation methods.

  4. ptfe says:

    The problem, as I see it, with the “ticking time bomb” scenario is that it suggests that, in moral terms, that no matter how we define ourselves, we need to keep a loophole just in case someone might possibly in the most statistically improbably case need to use it. This is like breaking down your wall so that you’ve got a way in if you forget your house key. Allowing torture, legitimizing torture, isn’t something that we should present as an option: it’s not a contingency loophole because, if it’s allowed to even enter our minds as a possibility, it’s likely to overshadow every other option.

    The reality is that, if a national security agent ever genuinely thought that there was a need to torture someone to get information right now to prevent a tragedy, s/he would do it, no questions asked, not because it was legal, but in spite of the personal consequences.

    (For the record, James, I think you need to re-calibrate your poli-meter: Alan Derschowitz and Democratic congressional leadership may lean left on certain issues, but they fall squarely out of the leftist camp in many, many ways, especially on these questions.)

  5. Michael says:

    The reality is that, if a national security agent ever genuinely thought that there was a need to torture someone to get information right now to prevent a tragedy, s/he would do it, no questions asked, not because it was legal, but in spite of the personal consequences.

    A point I try and make every time the ticking time-bomb scenario comes up. The only people I’d trust to not use torture except in this scenario, are the ones willing to go to prison for doing it.

  6. James Joyner says:

    For the record, James, I think you need to re-calibrate your poli-meter: Alan Derschowitz and Democratic congressional leadership may lean left on certain issues, but they fall squarely out of the leftist camp in many, many ways, especially on these questions.

    Only if we define “the leftist camp” as comprising perhaps 1% of the country. If Pelosi and Harmon and Feinstein aren’t Left, then the term has no meaning in American politics. (And many would argue it doesn’t.)

  7. Bithead says:

    But even leftists, ranging from Alan Derschowitz to a goodly portion of the Democratic congressional leadership, think that there may be occasions when extreme measures are called for in protecting our national security. Conversely, I’m hard pressed to think of occasions when adultery, rape, bigamy, incest, or pedophilia would become circumstantially necessary. For that matter, while I don’t oppose the right of homosexuals to have sex with each other or form legal unions, there isn’t exactly a “ticking time bomb” equivalent.

    Exactly so. Which tells me that Drum is over-reaching, as usual, to make an argument. Nothing new here.

  8. James Joyner says:

    Which tells me that Drum is over-reaching, as usual, to make an argument. Nothing new here.

    Meh. You write 15 posts a day, they can’t all be winners. Kevin’s signal-to-noise ratio is better than most out there, myself included.

  9. Bithead says:

    You and I disagree, apparently, on your relative effectiveness. I apparently think more of your writing than do you, yourself. Witness, please… I’m here, not there.

  10. Michael says:

    better than most out there, myself included.

    I applaud your self restraint.

    You and I disagree, apparently, on your relative effectiveness. I apparently think more of your writing than do you, yourself.

    Anybody who is good at their trade, is always more critical of their own work than that of others. Witness, please, your criticisms of Drum.

  11. Steve Plunk says:

    Drum is dealing in absolutes while complaining about absolutes? The comparison fails between sex and torture as well.

  12. PD Shaw says:

    I share some of Drum’s disorientation. My introduction to the torture issue was when I worked one summer during school at a death penalty appellate defender’s office. Most of my work (data organization) revolved around a convict who had been tortured and his confession was read to the jury who sentenced him to death. American law does not barr such a confession when it occurs overseas by a foreign government.

    I figure that was wrong and more so because it happened to a U.S. citizen.

    From a liberal p.o.v., I also strongly feel that criminal laws should clearly define the conduct prohibited and that a law that authorizes the infliction of pain and suffering, but not “severe” pain and suffering is exactly the kind of law that is subject to abuse against racial, ethnic and political minorities: Void for Vagueness

  13. G.A.Phillips says:

    Crap lets perform abortions on terror leaders we capture, the liberals won’t have a problem with that.

  14. mpw280 says:

    Torture, was there blood, broken bones, dismemberment or death. Whose definition of torture, the opposition party running for office or the one that has to protect the people?
    The guy is afraid of insects so we threaten to put poisonous insects in his box, but don’t. The human body doesn’t like to drown so we throw a wet towel over someones face and pour water on it, yet he doesn’t drown. How is water boarding good enough for US GI’s but not terrorists? Why don’t we define what real torture is before we start having kittens over some terrorist pos getting a little frightened and spilling his guts without losing his hand, leg, left nut, or head.
    Do you really think most of the rest of the world wouldn’t use “whatever means necessary” to get the information it needed to protect its population from something like a repeat of 9/11. While we may be held to a standard above the rest of the world, lets define and use a realistic definition about what constitutes torture before we start killing off the CIA and Justice Department over undefined definitions of torture and a democrat led witch hunt. mpw280

  15. mpw280 says:

    Good point G A Phillips, death to the unborn is ok but a little pain and suffering isn’t acceptable to terrorist scum. mpw280

  16. Tlaloc says:

    I think the issue is that when it comes to two people enjoying consensual sex there are a lot of wingers who go ape-%$#@, but when it comes to butchery of one’s helpless enemies for fun or profit… well that’s just dandy.

    To put it another way- why the love for the old testament’s rather narrow view of morals and no love for the new testament’s explicit commands to love your enemy? And which sin do you think really torques off God?

  17. Tlaloc says:

    Whose definition of torture

    Prior to the Bush administration we defined waterboarding as torture. It was used by the Spanish Inquisition among many others. Extreme sleep deprivation is torture. It was used by the KGB for one. Forced stress positions are torture. They’ve been used by the Viet Cong recently.

    The US is now keeping company with the Spanish Inquisition, the KGB, and the Viet Cong… all because the Bush administration couldn’t follow the rule of law. And you’re just another piece of filth excusing torture.

  18. anjin-san says:

    Whose definition of torture

    Christopher Hitchens, who is hardly a faint-hearted, lily livered leftist MoveOn member… (and who actually took the trouble to get informed on the subject in a first-hand way)

  19. G.A.Phillips says:

    To put it another way- why the love for the old testament’s rather narrow view of morals and no love for the new testament’s explicit commands to love your enemy? And which sin do you think really torques off God?

    All sin dude, it’s why we are cursed, why can’t you understand anything.

    Do you have any understanding that hundreds of millions of his children are being murdered because people like you think they have greater understand them Him.

    The pettiness of your arguments are mind numbing, we are at war with a fanatical religion based on the teaching of Lucifer.

    The US is now keeping company with the Spanish Inquisition, the KGB, and the Viet Cong… all because the Bush administration couldn’t follow the rule of law. And you’re just another piece of filth excusing torture.

    When we as a nation stop murdering babies for the love of our own understanding we might be justified in judging the actions of defending ourselves from other far more evil nations, until then lets worry about the big issues and stop the stupid little self persecutions for political gain and self adoration.

  20. G.A.Phillips says:

    Christopher Hitchens, who is hardly a faint-hearted, lily livered leftist MoveOn member… (and who actually took the trouble to get informed on the subject in a first-hand way)

    oh ya Christopher Hitchens, hates you me himself and God, so you might not want pay him much heed.

  21. Davebo says:

    Twisted sense of morality you have there G.A.

    The pettiness of your arguments are mind numbing, we are at war with a fanatical religion based on the teaching of Lucifer.

    Who is this “we” you speak of.

  22. G.A.Phillips says:

    ya I’m twisted, lol.

    Who is this “we” you speak of.

    you really are in your own little reality ain’t ya.

  23. Bithead says:

    Anybody who is good at their trade, is always more critical of their own work than that of others. Witness, please, your criticisms of Drum.

    (He arrived at the party, tall, dark, and uninformed)

    Spoken as one who has never actaully read what I write.

  24. Bithead says:

    Second take:

    Witness, please, your criticisms of Drum.

    Or, your own, of ME.
    Funny, how that works.

  25. Our Paul says:

    Good grief James, if you are going to walk both sides of the street, look both ways before you cross from one side to the other. Alan Dershowitz may be driving a car on the street as you cross, and as protector of Israel’s right to do anything in its national interest, he me wish to add you to his hit list.

    From the Dark Art of Interrogation by Mark Bowden:

    The Geneva Convention makes no distinction: it bans any mistreatment of prisoners. But some nations that are otherwise committed to ending brutality have employed torture lite under what they feel are justifiable circumstances. In 1987 Israel attempted to codify a distinction between torture, which was banned, and “moderate physical pressure,” which was permitted in special cases.

    Alan Dershowitz defended the massive destruction of Lebanon’s civilian infrastructure and the seeding of Southern Lebanon farm land with cluster bombs. He excoriate Jimmy Carter and his book. He found no problem in Israel’s use of phosphorous artillery shells in civilian areas, the civilian death toll, or the massive destruction of the Gaza strip. Even in soto voice he will never argue against torture, not as long as Israel engages in this practice.

    Once again, my personnel thanks to correspondent PD Shaw for bringing Mark Bowden article to my attention. No matter what side of the fence you are one in this controversy, it is well worth your investment.

    Pssst: I do believe you graced brother Alan’s last name with a “c” where non should be.

  26. Michael says:

    Spoken as one who has never actaully read what I write.

    Oh, I have.

    Or, your own, of ME.
    Funny, how that works.

    Only I know that I would suck at blogging, which is why I don’t do it.

  27. Bithead says:

    Oh, I dunno. You seem reasonably well spoken. I think you’d be surpised, actually.

    As for me, I’ve never been top flight, but I manage to get by fairly well. A nice steady hit rate, over the years.

  28. Michael says:

    Oh, I dunno. You seem reasonably well spoken. I think you’d be surpised, actually.

    Why thank you. But it wasn’t ever my writing ability that I was concerned with. Mostly nobody but me is likely to be interested in what I have to say, or the subject I want to say something about.

  29. Bithead says:

    But it wasn’t ever my writing ability that I was concerned with. Mostly nobody but me is likely to be interested in what I have to say, or the subject I want to say something about.

    There again, based on my own experience, I think you’d be surprised. The key, I suppose, is picking something that you feel passionate about to write to. It’s that personal fire that attracts reader interest in the end.

  30. Michael says:

    There again, based on my own experience, I think you’d be surprised. The key, I suppose, is picking something that you feel passionate about to write to. It’s that personal fire that attracts reader interest in the end.

    Unfortunately, on the topics I’d be interested enough in to write about, I’m not nearly as knowledgeable as I need to be in order to write about them. Once I understand something, I tend to lose interest in it.