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Use of torture presents curious moral dilemma

Before we go further in the debate over terrorism and torture, could we get straight some basics?

Basically, inflicting either terror or torture on people is evil-so the initial question is whether it is ever justified to do evil that good might come of it, or, at least, to prevent a greater evil. Choosing the lesser of two (or several) evils is still choosing evil, but such a choice can be an ethical obligation.

Let me belabor the obvious for a moment. It is difficult to come up with an exact definition of terrorism, but George Orwell gives us as a hypothetical example throwing acid in the face of a child. Certainly blowing up buildings in cities always and necessarily risks hurting children. Torture as a means to break people to get information-or just to break people-certainly includes torturing children in front of their parents. That inclusion is certain because Amnesty International had a campaign against a regime using precisely such torture.

If a terrorist says, "Yes, harming children is wrong, but I don't intend to murder children; these deaths are side-effects, collateral damage," the correct philosophical response is, "Bull! You bomb a building where children might be and those children are wounded, killed or maimed-then you are guilty of the evils inflicted upon them." If a torturer says, "I only torture the guilty-or those with guilty knowledge," the response is slightly more complex, beginning with the questions both real and rhetorical, "How can you know they're guilty, and who are you to judge and punish without due process?"

With this approach, we are in an old debate over ends and means and can look at the traditional argument and save a lot of time, energy and paper.

Hardheaded realists say it's a bad world and that refusing to do evil to fight evil may keep you pure but often renders you ineffective. Even more extreme is Niccolo Machiavelli's once-famous advice to a would-be ruler, in The Prince (end of ch. 18), "A prince must take care that nothing goes out of his mouth which is not full of mercy, faith, integrity, humanity and religion. And nothing is more necessary than to seem to have this last quality, for men in general judge more by the eyes than by the hands, for everyone can see, but very few feel what you are, and those few will not dare to oppose themselves to the many, who have the majesty of the state to defend them; and in the actions of men, and especially of princes, from which there is no appeal, the end justifies the means.

Alternatively translated, "winning is all that counts," and winning in a good cause is a good thing.

Opposed to the "hard-headed" school are the "soft-hearted," who argue that the future-tense "the end will justify the means" is a statement of faith and that the present-tense, "The end justifies the means" fails to deal with the two meanings of "end."

"End" can mean both "goal" and "final results." Here the most instructive remark may be one attributed to Chinese Premiere Zhou Enlai (1898-1976), when asked for his evaluation of the French Revolution of 1789, "It is too early to say." Less than 200 years after the French Revolution, who could say what its final results will be, and whether they will justify, retrospectively, the terror and wars following the revolution? History doesn't have final results, and goals are just abstractions unless actually achieved. One cannot know when acting if one's goals will be achieved, not immediately, and certainly not as a final result.

Contrary to Machiavelli et al., the soft-hearted say, "The means justify the end" i.e., the means people choose are all we can really be sure of, and choosing proper means is the best we can do to help guarantee a good end (always semi-final results).

So, for the softhearted-no throwing acid in the faces of children and no torturing of prisoners.

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Now my ethical training was mostly from the Hebrew Prophets, Shakespeare, and Ursula K. Le Guin, so I tend to be critical of Machiavelli and those hard of head and heart. However, I respect Machiavelli, he recommends lying and hypocrisy to The Prince, but he himself was uncommonly honest.

If we are going to have arguments for torture, let's follow the Machiavellian tradition and have them really realistic, hard-headed, and honest:

1.) Arguments justifying torture can also be used to justify terrorism: evils necessary to achieve desired ends. If you believe that it is crucial to protect Islam by any means necessary, you might engage in terrorism or torture to resist infidels occupying Muslim lands. If you believe it crucial to protect Americans by any means necessary, you might inflict torture and terror upon non-Americans and perhaps a few questionable Americans. Literally allowing any means necessary to protect oneself is not courageous, but it might be prudent.

2.) As Machiavelli says, if you must choose between being feared and loved, it is safer to be feared, and American willingness to use torture and terror will add to the fear of us felt by current and potential enemies.

3.) Last, the hard-headed should argue that to ensure the safety of Americans, it is better that many people innocent or only a little guilty should suffer rather than one guilty terrorist remain free.

Once we get such basics clarified, we can add to the discussion current facts and theories about what might be effective, and then get down to serious discussion of choices in the current ethical crisis of torture and terrorism-ends and means.

Richard D. ErlichProfessor EmeritusDept. of