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Certainty About the Uncertain

[ 0 ] December 14, 2005 |

Speaking of torture, Jim Henley has a quite brilliant post noting that the most common justifications for the Iraq war collapse for the same reason that the”ticking time bomb” argument justifying torture is abjectly useless:

The features of the dorm bull session ethics symposium are perfect knowledge of the present and the default future and perfect certainty of the results of your actions. If you know A, and B will cause C, then musn’t you B?

This is the “ticking bomb” case for torture (as opposed to the esoteric case: payback). It is also, on a moment’s reflection, the case for launching the Iraq War – cases, really:

* If you know Iraq plans to use banned weapons against the United States and that toppling Saddam Hussein will prevent that, musn’t the United States topple Saddam Hussein?

* If you know that Muslims commit terrorism against the United States because they live in unfree societies and democratizing Iraq by force will lead to Ummah-wide freedom and end terrorism, musn’t the United States democratize Iraq by force?

* If you know that Saddam Hussein is a tyrant and that overthrowing his regime will lead to freedom and internal peace, musn’t you overthrow his regime?

Spot the assumed certainties in the trains of logic and you can see the bad institutional furniture and soiled carpets on which they were conceived.

The problem both arguments is that if you use the right assumptions about not only the underlying stakes but about the lengths to which one is willing goal to achieve the cited ends, you can justify anything. (And this was the second iteration of the salami-slicing in the pro-war argument: the threat wasn’t imminent, but we had to stop Saddam before it became imminent. Once you go there, there’s no war that can’t be justified.) But the second part is just as problematic as the first, because once the alleged ends are compelling enough, the careful restraints on the means are going to fade, particularly since in practice you don’t have control over the people acting:

As Kinsley hints, the real problem is just who gets to do the slicing. If you’re Charles Krauthammer presuming to posit official guidelines on torture or Andrew Sullivan hedging on the means to be employed in speculative war, you are gravely misunderstanding the central problem: you won’t be deciding. The ones with actual power to put your general principles into practice will be people who have gotten where they are by achieving a certain level of success in a ruthless business: politics. The fine grain of your own conscience is less likely to show in them – it’s not impossible, but circumstance tells against it.

The same hubris that says we can know the outcome of a large application of speculative force (prophylactic, humanitarian war) says we can know the outcome of a much smaller application (torture). Comfort with one will tend toward comfort with the other. If you are pro-war and anti-torture, it has not in your case, and that speaks well of you.

That’s right. There’s no necessary connection between the pro-war and pro-torture arguments, but it’s not surprising that they go together so often. Anyway, terrific, provocative stuff; make sure to click through.

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