The Right Coast

December 13, 2005
Sullivan Emotes Against Torture
By Mike Rappaport

Having praised Charles Krauthammer's piece defending torture in limited circumstances, I looked with interest towards Andrew Sullivan's response, claiming to show that torture is, always, always, indefensible. I was quite curious as to what Sullivan might come up with.

I need not have been. After reading Sullivan's response, I can report, there is no there there. Not a thing. Sullivan just spends an entire column in TNR talking about how bad torture is for the person being tortured and how it is inconsistent with freedom. Both seem to be true, but irrelevant. Notice that Sullivan says nothing about weighing the benefits that torture might produce -- the whole point of Krauthammer's article.

Sullivan's piece really seems to come down to a sort of emotivism. Charles Stevenson famously argued some years ago that moral language was noncognitive -- when one said "torture is bad," it meant "boo, torture." Well, no need to for philosophical analysis to reach that conclusion when it comes to Sullivan's article: the piece is a column length interjection of "boo, torture."

I sure hope there is more to the other side than this. But I am wondering. I had a quick look at a piece in the Columbia Law Review by Jeremy Waldon -- widely reported to be one of our best philosophers - and I couldn't find much in the way of reasons either.

Let me help the other side. You need to argue that there are dangers from torture and that there are good reasons to overestimate its utility and to underestimate its costs. Then, you need to argue that any procedures that might be employed are so likely to get it wrong that this outweighs any benefits of torture. (To be fair, Waldron has a little of this in his piece, but it is largely a sideshow.)

Of course, rehearsing this argument shows two things. First, it does not allow one to emote and preen very much about torture. It is simply a balancing of considerations, about which people might disagree. And, second, its shows just how hard it would be to make an absolute case against torture.

Much better than to turn the rhetoric machine on high and hope that no one notices. And also make sure to be really outraged when someone points out after the next terrorist attack and people are on the floor dead, that torture might have prevented this.