Thought Experiments

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Michael Kinsley, the political writer and newspaper editor, is now becoming the thought experimenter. He wonders, in a recent Slate article, about the various cases under which State torture may be justified. To wit:

What if you knew for sure that the cute little baby burbling and smiling at you from his stroller in the park was going to grow up to be another Hitler, responsible for a global cataclysm and millions of deaths? Would you be justified in picking up a rock and bashing his adorable head in? Wouldn’t you be morally depraved if you didn’t?

Or what if a mad scientist developed a poison so strong that two drops in the water supply would kill everyone in Chicago? And you could destroy the poison, but only by killing the scientist and 10 innocent family members? Should you do it?

Or what if an international terrorist planted a nuclear bomb somewhere in Manhattan, set to go off in an hour and kill a million people. You’ve got him in custody, but he won’t say where the bomb is. Is it moral to torture him until he gives up the information?

Kinsley, to his credit, answers no to each of these cases, in a response to a pro-torture argument made in — where else — the Weekly Standard, by neoconservative writer Charles Krauthammer. Kinsley’s response, though based on basic morality, strives to differentiate between the point at which such acts of torture would be justified. (Surprise: Krauthammer would use torture before Kinsley.)

But there are other objections to these justifications of torture. The first is based on efficiency grounds. It is well established that information extracted via torture is not reliable. Let’s say some high level terrorist is tortured, he spills some information, agents of the U.S. government act on that information, and nothing happens. So what? Maybe nothing was going to happen in the first place. Torture advocates must claim otherwise — how else can they look themselves in the mirror? Economists call such outcomes credence goods: goods for which, once purchased, the consumer can never know whether he or she actually received it.

Second, is it ever possible to look at any baby and know it will be a Hitler? Of course not, so while the argument may be fun to think through, it doesn’t have any practical applications and it justifies nothing. If it did, it would imply that it can be moral to torture or kill many in the hope of catching the one threat in the group, a position embraced by Herod. (Maybe we should call the torture advocates the neo-Herodians.)

Third, the torture debate obfuscates the real issue. Should we allow torture to stop bad things — worse things — from happening? This is simply Bentham-ite utilitarianism, and it is an old controversy drawing attention from the question — that neither Kinsley nor Krauthammer asks — of why is there is today a heightened threat of terrorism. Would the threat be moot if the U.S. empire were rolled back, if most of our overseas military bases were shuttered, if we stopped fighting the Israeli government’s wars and supporting its military to the tune of several billions of dollars each year? If we focused more on fostering commerce between nations, rather than military alliances, as urged by George Washington in his Farewell Address? All this torture talk draws attention away from other more relevant issues that make the threat of terrorism exist in the first place.

Of course, there is another theme here as well. The State claims the right to bring life in the world, to end it, to control the weather — to do anything. To deny its right to torture is to deny its omnipotence. Some people argue that the medieval scholastics’ development of Just War theory actually served to provide the king with the moral justification to engage in war. Maybe today’s torture debate is serving a similar purpose: to provide justification for the State to engage in torture. One could argue, after all, that people like Kinsley and Krauthammer are this generation’s version of Francisco Suarez and Hugo Grotius.

But unlike the great Scholastics thinkers — who debated everything — the neoliberals and neoconservatives of today consider some areas of inquiry off-limits, at least when they might conclude with moral constraints on government. They will wring their hands about torture while they debate Sen. John McCain’s desire to regulate it, but let’s not fool ourselves that such a debate ever comes close to the heart of the matter.

So I’d like to propose a counter thought experiment, one that is close to the heart of the matter and therefore avoided by D.C.’s favorite media pundits. Assume that it is recognized that large, centralized nation-states threaten liberty and foment both war and terror, relative to nations characterized with more decentralized power structures. Surely this is the lesson of the 20th century, as well as this first decade of the 21st. Would it be moral to dismantle them?

December 19 , 2005

Chris Westley [send him mail] is an assistant professor of economics at Jacksonville State University, Alabama.

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