Friday, December 26, 2014

The Philosophy of Torture

In response to the recent publicized revelations on the CIA’s use of torture in the ongoing War on Terrorism, I thought I’d add my two cents on the philosophy and ethics of torture. Much of the work of philosophers concerns involves untangling the meanings of complex words that shade the premises of arguments over Truth and Value. As stated in an earlier blog….the distinction between “descriptive” and “prescriptive” concepts is notoriously problematic. The word “torture” swings both ways, therefore we must explore both the facts (“what it is”) and the values (“whether it’s good”).  

What is torture? Well, first of all let’s all agree that “torture” necessarily involves at least two persons; whereby one inflicts harm on the other for various purposes. Hence we must distinguish between the “torturer” and the person being tortured. Torture is a teleological or goal-directed act; intentionally employed in pursuit of one (or more) of three main purposes:

 1.) Torture for the sheer pleasure of inflicting pain on another person (sociopathic torture).

 2.) Torture in order to proportionately punish others for wrongdoing in the name of justice ((retributive torture): “an eye-for-an eye.” .

 3.) Torture in order to secure information (utilitarian torture). Here, I’ll focus on utilitarian torture as it is employed within human warfare; especially in the context of the interrogation of prisoners of war. 

 Torture entails the infliction of harm. Harm is the invasion of an “interest.” And, therefore, it is subject to variable degrees; that is, there are greater and lesser interests. Torture is an “other-regarding act” that most often involves the infliction of greater degrees of pain. So, logically, you can mistakenly (or deliberately) “harm yourself” but you cannot “torture yourself.” Torture, by definition, implies the invasion of the “individual interests.” It is most often employed in the context of warfare; invading the “individual interests” of POWs in order to advance the “collective interests” of others. Invariably, it is employed by interrogators in order to secure “strategically important” information.

There are two main ways for interrogators to secure information from any sentient being: by employing “carrots and/or sticks.” Humans and other sentient creatures respond to both. Carrots are pleasure-based “enticements” offered in reciprocal exchange for information. Torture is pain-based. All persons with functioning central nervous systems tend to prefer pleasure-based experiences and avoid pain-based experiences. Some of us are capable of enduring higher levels of various kinds of physical pain for a longer period of time than others. Non-sentient beings that lack a central nervous system cannot experience pain (or pleasure) and therefore they cannot be enticed or tortured.  Similarly, you won’t get much useful information by enticing or torturing comatose or brain dead prisoners. The same holds true for torturing dead persons: “Dead men tell no tales.” And, interrogators waste their time torturing masochists.

As stated at the beginning of this blog, most philosophical debate is rooted in language. And, as Foucault has noted, there is a complex relationship between “power and knowledge.” The CIA, a well-established power monger, employs its own “private language” to distinguish between “torture” and what it calls “enhanced interrogation.” Enhanced interrogation usually involves the use of lower-level, physical harms such as the short-term deprivation of sleep, food, water, or social interaction. These deprivations rise to the level of torture when employed over longer periods of time. The CIA routinely admits that it employs enhanced interrogation but it never tortures anyone. Philosophically, we might argue over at what point deprivation becomes torture. Withholding food for a day is different from withholding it for a week! Torture can also involve the direct infliction of physical pain via exposure to extreme heat, extreme cold, and or sharp objects. The key philosophical question here is at what point does enhanced interrogation become torture and how does the torturer know when to stop short of torture?

A few years back there was an extended public debate over whether “waterboarding” of prisoners constitutes enhanced interrogation or torture. The technique creates the “illusion” of drowning, but that experience is non-lethal and non-permanent. But at what point does the experience of that “illusion of drowning” become torture? How many times can an interrogator “water board” a prisoner before crossing that line? How long per session? How many sessions per day?

An interrogator might simply “threaten” to torture a POW. Sometimes threats “work” very well, sometimes not. The key variable here is credibility. The threatened POW must be convinced that that the would-be torturer will (in fact) “follow-up” on that threat. If the Pope threatens to skin you alive…don’t worry. Humans have other interests other than avoiding their own physical pain. Thus, highly-skilled torturers often inflict (or threaten to inflict) physical pain on third parties….especially the family and friends of the target. “If you don’t talk NOW we’ll skin you and your family first.” However, threatening to torture a POW’s enemies, is not really a threat but an enticement.  

There are at least four epistemological questions that muddle the contemporary debate over the use of torture in warfare.

First, does the POW (in fact) “know” something of strategic value? If so, how does the torturer know that the POW knows something of “strategic value?” Torture is obviously futile in cases involving low-level combatants who don’t know anything. Competent military leaders are very conscious of this fact, and therefore reveal information to low-level soldiers on a “need-to-know” basis. Those who really “know something” of “strategic value” are rarely found on the battlefield. In wars involving decentralized enemies, where low-level combatants do not follow orders from a central authority, torture is also of dubious strategic value.

Second, if there is (in fact) a high-probability that a POW “knows something,” is the information that is being sought by the torturer (in fact), of sufficient “strategic value” to outweigh the costs of using torture? Therefore, philosophically, we must unpack what is meant by “strategically important information;” and how to most effectively acquire it. The concept of “strategic value” is extraordinarily malleable, or “socially constructed.” It usually means that this information will help “win a battle” or “win a war.” But if a piece of information is (in fact) strategically important, one might also question whether torture is the most efficient way to acquire that information? Would the offering of enticements (such as: money, immigration privileges, better food etc.) be more likely to yield results? Moreover, torturing a POW in order to win a battle (short-term) might not, necessarily, win wars (long-term). In complex phenomena like warfare, cost-benefit analysis is inevitably dogged by unanticipated consequences. Sometimes losing a battle can be a short-term setback, but a long-term advantage; especially if it inspires recruitment of new, highly-motivated soldiers. Similarly, torturing POWs might inspire more enemy volunteers seeking retribution for torturing “their brothers.”

Third, if a POW does (in fact) know something of strategic importance, does torture, necessarily, yield useful information? If a torturer is waterboarding a POW who doesn’t know anything, is that POW highly likely to lie in order to end that torture? Most soldiers who know something are trained to lie effectively under interrogation. What are the long-term costs of acting on false information?

Fourth, what would be the sociopolitical, legal, or moral consequences of accidentally killing a POW under interrogation? Would the opposing warring regime be more likely to torture and/or kill POWs under its control in retribution? Therefore, does the use of torture necessitate killing POWs that have been tortured, in order to prevent the enemy from knowing that torture has been utilized? One might also reasonably argue that the use of torture necessitates a shroud of secrecy? If so, is that shroud consistent with a nation’s moral identity? If the United States hopes to maintain its reputation as the beacon of Western democracy, how would public knowledge of the use of torture affect that reputation? Is any “shroud of secrecy” consistent with democracy? Do you really “blindly trust” the institutions of government to operate behind that shroud? Do you trust congress, the president, or the courts to supervise the CIA’s use of torture? If you are a torturer, would you readily admit to your supervisors that you tortured that prisoner, but didn’t get any information? If you are that supervisor, do you REALLY want to know that your subordinate used torture? Wouldn’t you prefer to operate on the basis of “plausible deniability” and be able to say “I didn’t know that X was torturing prisoners? He was a ‘rogue torturer!’”              

 In light of the conceptual ambiguities associated with the use of torture in the context of war, the pursuit of strategically important information provides an open invitation for warring nations to torture prisoners. But torturers really do not “know” exactly, what the prisoner knows. If they did, they wouldn’t have to torture him. Moreover, torturers really do not know (beforehand) whether that information is strategically important or not. War strategy, by necessity, is classified as “Top Secret,” therefore there is no incentive on the part of torturers to reveal whether the information procured via torture was (in fact) strategically important or not. Unfortunately, all of the incentives associated with torture promote institutionalized lying. Unless confronted with powerful evidence, no “civilized nation” will ever admit using torture. If confronted by irrefutable evidence, no highly-skilled torturer will admit that he didn’t secure strategically important information. Therefore, the universal response to publicized, irrefutable evidence of torture: “We saved thousands of lives on both side of the war by torturing this one person.” 

I’ll discuss the “Ethics of Torture” in my next blog.  

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Philosophy of Retirement

In the United States, most of our culturally-bound "philosophy of retirement" is highly dispersed and mostly invisible. From an early age, we are taught to base our “personal identity” on "how we make a living.” As young children we are not expected to work…but we are legally required to spend the first 17 years of our lives attending primary and secondary educational institutions, which (at least in theory) prepare us to ultimately decide “what to do when we grow up.” Many high school students, both, attend school and work at least part-time; allegedly, to teach them the values associated with work: that is; show up on time, do what your boss tells you, dress appropriately etc. After primary and secondary school, many of us attend college and graduate school, and amass enormous long-term debt, allegedly, so we can “land a better job.” Sometimes those students even “graduate!” If you look closely, you’ll see that colleges and universities have gradually become servants to an ever-narrowing philosophy of work that emphasizes “work training” over “life training.” Not surprisingly, our schools (primary, middle, high, and college) devalue “life-training” subjects such as: art, literature, music, and philosophy in favor of “work training.” This philosophy of work has become so deeply ingrained that many of us choose work over family, friends, hobbies, vacation or retirement.  

The foundation for our prevailing “philosophy of retirement” is the cultural belief that, there is a "one-size-fits-all" point in time when we all “ought" to stop working. Three main questions arise: When should I retire?” Who ought to decide when I retire?  And, on what basis should that decision be made? 

So, when should I retire and who should decide?  In the United States, the legal minimum age for Social Security retirement is 65 years of age. Other private retirement savings programs follow that precedent. Thus, almost all retirement programs punish you with fees and/or taxation for retiring too early. Thus that “one-size-fits-all” retirement age really shapes our decision of when to retire. As we approach that magic retirement age, we most often must decide, exactly, when to retire. Rationally, that decision ought to involve weighing both other-regarding and self-regarding reasons. Typical other-regarding reasons include “for the sake of:” our family, our employer, and/or, currently unemployed.  Self-regarding reasons include retiring in order to have more time for: family, friends, hobbies, and/or travel. However, ultimately, our decision of whether and/or when to retire is shaped, primarily, by whether or not you saved enough for that retirement. 
I have been saving for retirement for over 30 years. I lost one-third of it in the "mortgage meltdown," but I've recently recovered it. Assuming that I have saved a sufficiently amount, I might reasonably conclude that, if financially feasible, I ought to retire sooner rather than later…while I'm still healthy enough to enjoy that retirement. However, given that most middle class Americans (like myself) live longer, public policymakers are now contemplating raising the minimum age for collecting Social Security to age 70; and by implication affecting other private retirement programs such as TIAA CREF. In short, government believes that it for the "greater good" that I retire later rather than sooner 

Now here's my libertarian rant. To what degree should government be empowered to influence when I choose to retire? On what basis should it be able to manipulate the "choice architecture" (legal incentives and disincentives) that shape my retirement decision?  And, what "public good" is served by keeping oldsters like myself at work until we're 70?  Right now, the Social Security Administration will pay me substantially much more on a monthly basis if I wait until I'm 70 to retire. If the stock market continues to rise, my TIAA-CREF account might be able to provide me and my wife with a decent retirement income at age 70. However, if I choose to retire before that I may run out of money and/or get driven into bankruptcy and dependency by our predatory health care system. Thus, our philosophy of retirement is wrought with unanticipated consequences. That's because that decision is framed by a complex, tax-based a legal architecture that assumes that we all "ought" to retire between the ages of 65 and 70; and that it's for the "greater good" that we all wait until we're 70. Unfortunately, both of my parents died in their early 60s, so if "the apple does not fall far from the tree," I’m probably not going to enjoy much (if any) “retirement. But my wife will...which is obviously a good thing; but I'd rather help her spend that largess. 
In sum, assuming that the "bad apple" does not fall before that, I'll probably work until I'm 70. As long as I can continue to do a decent job teaching students philosophy, that's OK. However, given the rapidly devolving culture of higher education, it's now consuming more and more of my time, energy, and resources to teach students about Truth and Goodness. Thus, over the next 6 1/2 years, not only will I miss out on retirement but I'll also have less time for my family, friends, and my guitar. Thank God...that our "philosophy of retirement" serves the "greater good," because it certainly does not serve mine!