Friday, February 6, 2009

UK General on Torture

Former UK Chief of Defense Staff General Charles Lord Guthrie has a column on torture in today's TimesOnline, and makes a case against using it under any circumstances. He doesn't indulge in the wishful thinking fallacy of arguing that torture can't work, although he makes unsubstantiated claims about its effectiveness. He does make some good points, for example noting the strategic failure of French torture in the Algerian war. But his main case rests on what I would characterize as extreme moral absolutism -- substituting his own view of morality for logical reasoning.  I'm going to ignore the good points of his article, some of which I agree with, and focus on what I see as the main weaknesses. Gen. Guthrie writes:
Torture is illegal. It is a crime in both peace and war that no exceptional circumstances can permit.
As I've written before, I find this sort of legalistic way of looking at things highly unconvincing. The fact that something is illegal doesn't make it immoral. And the idea that there can never be any exceptions whatsoever to any particular law, is in my view an extreme and unrealistic position. He reemphasizes his point, stating
There can be no exceptions to our laws, and no attempts to bend them.
This is complete nonsense. Laws are bent all the time. That's where interpretation comes in. And again, the idea that we can never permit any exception to a law is nothing more than blind legalism. Laws don't cover every eventuality. I would be willing to bet that most people who make such an argument with regard to torture, do not actually believe the principle they are setting forth. They would not argue that there should be no exceptions to other laws.

The following illogical passage reveals the crux of why General Guthrie holds such extreme, irrational views:
Absolute human rights represent a limit to utilitarian calculations and speculations on national interest. They are the Rubicon that no hypothetical consequences, even in dire “ticking bomb” scenarios, must force us across. Everyone, even the terrorist, is human. There are no untermenschen. To label the criminal subhuman is to exonerate him.
"Absolute human rights"? What are those supposed to be? That sounds almost religious. Human rights are not absolute, and Gen. Guthrie must know that. We recognize that individuals give up certain rights because of their actions. Even in the UK, criminals go to jail for their crimes, and are therefore deprived of their right to liberty -- a right most in the west consider fundamental. In the U.S. and some other countries we even deprive people of their right to life, if their crimes warrant it. If we can take away the right to liberty, or even the right to life, it stands to reason that certain individuals might also be subject to torture -- in certain extreme circumstances. 

General Guthrie's "untermenschen" argument is clearly ridiculous and unsupportable. By his reasoning, we couldn't imprison people. According to his logic, by depriving people of their rights we label them as subhuman and therefore exonerate them. What an idiotic assertion. Many aspects of the punishments we inflict on civilian criminals in the west, could easily be interpreted as torture, especially given the broad, sweeping definition that most torture opponents like to rely on.  I guess we should set them all free because they are now exonerated.

In his conclusion, General Guthrie argues

there remains a fundamental incoherence in the idea that we can sacrifice our morality nobly.
There's one major problem with this argument. Those, such as myself, who maintain that there are certain exceptional circumstances in which torture can be justified, do not think that we are in any way sacrificing our morality. That's the whole point. If torture is justified then it isn't immoral. This is something that the moral absolutist torture opponents do not seem to grasp. Torture is not inherently morally wrong in all cases, just as imprisoning someone is not wrong in all cases. A moral absolutist argument against torture convinces no one, except those who already agree. The moral absolutist would have you believe that the person who is subject to torture does not matter, because the act of torture itself is morally wrong no matter who it is applied to. I, and many others find this sort of thinking fundamentally illogical. The circumstances and individuals matter. Torturing a known terrorist like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is not the same thing as torturing a mere suspect, or an innocent.


  1. I have a few comments:

    1. First, as a member of the House of Lords, Lord Guthrie cannot be seen to be arguing in public that the nation's laws are anything but firm and inflexible in all circumstances. The House of Lords is a lawmaking body, making this doubly important. Can you imagine the furor if someone responsible for passing legislation which supposedly upheld private citizens' rights voiced his opinion that it wasn't worth the paper it's written on? By virtue of his position, Lord Guthrie has to adopt a legalistic position. Whether he then justifies his opinion with a moral argument is almost irrelevant, because the legal one has forced his hand.

    2. Since you are not a believer in natural rights, you should understand better than anyone that rights systems can vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Rights are what the state gives you. If the UK chooses to give its citizens and aliens within its borders absolute rights, it is the place of no one from without to criticize. You can say "I don't think you should give your citizens absolute rights," but you can't say "you didn't give them absolute rights."

    3. Your comparison of torture to imprisonment is, I think, erroneous, mostly because of the structure of the European Convention on Human Rights. The ECHR distinguishes between rights which are derogable and those which aren't. In other words, the right to personal liberty is suspendable in certain defined circumstances, while the rights to life and freedom from torture aren't. If you agree with my point #2, that aliens must respect what rights a foreign state chooses to give its own citizens, then I see no reason why you shouldn't accept this also.

    4. Your claim "If torture is justified then it isn't immoral" seemingly contradicts your earlier statement that "The fact that something is illegal doesn't make it immoral."

    You allow what is legal to determine what is moral, while stripping the ability of what is illegal to determine what is immoral.

    While it's not necessarily a logically inconsistent argument, I think the roles you ascribe to legality, morality, and their interplay are confusing.

    5. Lastly, I worry that you are getting too reckless in your dismissal of Lord Guthrie's arguments. To dismiss his statements as "ridiculous", "nonsense", "extreme" and "irrational" is going too far. Though I disagree with you, I would hesitate to characterize any of your arguments as such, and I don't think Lord Guthrie's column warrants it either. By calling something irrational, you risk alienating opinion if you fail to convince others that it is irrational.

    Still, I enjoy the opportunity for the good discussion which your posts often afford. Good stuff.

  2. FrodoSaves,

    your #1. I'll grant that. Although in that case, I'd just leave that part of the argument out, or deemphasize it. It's not like there aren't multiple lines of attack available for him to use.

    2. "If the UK chooses to give its citizens and aliens within its borders absolute rights"

    So if I understand you correctly, you are arguing that the UK chooses to give them an absolute right not to be tortured? That's fine with me. I'm not in favor of torturing UK citizens. And they can decide for themselves what they need to do in extraordinary intelligence situations.

    "it is the place of no one from without to criticize"

    Why not? General Guthrie feels he can criticize U.S. practices. And why shouldn't he, if he disagrees with them?

    3. Ok, that's a reasonable point. But I see it as a legalistic argument, rather than one based purely on reason.

    4. "Your claim "If torture is justified then it isn't immoral" seemingly contradicts your earlier statement that "The fact that something is illegal doesn't make it immoral."

    How? Legality is a different issue than morality.

    5. Maybe, although I do think a no exceptions to laws argument is extreme -- while recognizing that some probably consider my arguments extreme from the other side. And I would stand by my characterization that a blanket claim of "absolute human rights" is both ridiculous and nonsense. I'll take back the irrational characterization. He's clearly not irrational.