Monday, July 20, 2009

Harsh Tactics

Bureaucracy has been around since the rise of civilization, when agricultural surplus made cities and armies possible and necessary. A special feature of our modern industrial age is that fossil fuels and mechanization have moved the great majority of people off the farm and into cities. Now most of our lives are played out in the context of large organizations.

We all face difficult decisions that will carry significant consequences. How we make those decisions will have impact beyond the results of the actions involved in whichever alternative we choose. The decision process itself constitutes action. We are habit-driven organisms - any action creates a propensity for a future repetition of some similar action. Our ways of making decisions are also structured by habitual patterns, reinforced by our continuing decision processes. If we want the healthiest results of our actions, we need to practice making decisions in healthy ways, along with making healthy decisions.

Bryce Lefever has defended the use of harsh interrogation practices as part of the war on terrorism. His work as a military psychologist convinced him that torture can yield valuable information. To focus on the ethical questions, let's allow him this hypothesis for the moment. Is that sufficient reason to decide to go ahead and apply torture?

It does seem clear that sometimes the best or only way to prevent someone from doing great harms to themselves is to subject to some lesser present harm. The notion that one should never subject anyone else to the slightest inconvenience - surely this is just too naive. But then we face a question of degree, as slight inconvenience turns to distinct unpleasantness and to serious harm. Whatever degree of harm is involved though, one could be rescuing a person from some yet greater future harm. Of course, present consequences are generally more certain than future consequences, so any kind of trade-off like this is a dangerous gamble.

The trade-offs get much more treacherous, though, when multiple people are involved. When ought it be preferred for one person to inconvenience or harm another in order to gain some greater benefit to a third party, or to many others? Perhaps such contemplated action is a response to some prior action, so some kind of justice may be looked for. It seems right that the burden of correcting some painful situation should fall principally on those who created that situation.

Lefever's ethical principle of "the most good for the most people" is clearly too simplistic. It doesn't distinguish between people based on their involvement in the historical background of whatever situation. And it doesn't give an effective rule for selecting one distribution of harm and benefit versus another. Perhaps the median benefit is implied? But this would permit unlimited harm to 49% of the population!

His further principle of "America is my client" is clearly shortsighted. The consequences of the kinds of actions he is discussing run over many generations. The great-grandchildren of an American may not be American, and the great-grandchildren of a non-American may well be American. The brothers and sisters of Americans may often be non-American. The world is much too fluid and interrelated to make such distinctions very useful, except in the most narrow short-term contexts.

While his ethical principles may be slippery, if we admit that sometimes torture provides valuable information, one can imagine situations where torture may be justifiable. But there is a more profound problem - what kind of procedure should be used to decide when to apply torture? Perhaps if some practically omniscient oracle could be consulted, an oracle with a vast historical perspective that could compute consequences and their probabilities, perhaps torture would occasionally make sense. But in a bureaucratic culture of blind routine... once a practice is admitted as legimate, it will be applied indiscriminately.

As individuals, we need rules to live by - we need to cultivate habits that will, for the most part, guide us in a positive direction. Organizations are vastly more habit-bound than individuals. However difficult it is for an individual to develop clear awareness and discriminating wisdom, it is a hundred times more difficult for an organization. The rules that an organization lives by must be designed for blind routine application. History has taught us again and again that torture can all too easily become a blind routine, and it has never been worthwhile to fall into that pit. Leadership fails when it feels specially empowered to break the rules, and the community is thereby guided into despair. Military psychologists need to understand that they are teaching the enemy, too, how to behave.

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