Andy Sabl on torture, teaching, and civil courage

Does “paralysis by analysis” have a moral analogue?

Ever since Andy Sabl decided that he blogging wasn’t for him, his voice has been missed here. The piece below, from UCLA Today, shows why. The full text of the original version of the essay ran in the Chronicle of Higher Education on Armistice Day, 2005, and is available behind the Chronicle paywall.

Is torture ever right?

by Andrew Sabl

Last June, I watched 40 students receive their Master of Public Policy degrees. I’m proud of their hard work. But am I proud of what I’ve taught them? These students will be policy professionals. What they get from our teaching affects us all. What they’ve gotten from mine, I fear, is the impression that torture might be all right.

Torture cases are great fodder for teaching ethics. Students wedded to absolutes can be asked: Wouldn’t you torture a terrorist to save a city from a nuclear bomb? Utilitarians, who weigh costs and benefits, can be pressed the other way: Would you torture 1,000 people to save 1,001?

Such “ticking-bomb” scenarios aim at Socratic ends to question dogmatic beliefs and render our judgments humbler. They are intended as a logical extreme: We might contemplate torture if the bomb were nuclear; if we were absolutely sure that the person in custody had planted it; if there were no other way to save victims.

But real-world cases aren’t so clear-cut. Last May, U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan reportedly beat a detainee’s legs so brutally that his pulped tissues resembled those of someone run over by a bus. He died. Those who questioned him now believe that he’d been taken prisoner by mistake and knew nothing.

Practical ethicists know &#8212 but rarely stress &#8212 that torture is hardly ever used to prevent known, imminent and catastrophic threats. Done initially to save 10 or 20 lives, and later for nebulous “strategic” advantage, torture eventually happens because designated torturers come to enjoy it &#8212 and the civilians who authorize them are loath to judge “our” soldiers, spies, police (or cooks: we now know that in Iraq even cooks were allowed to beat prisoners, with no pretense of gathering information).

Professors worship at the altar of “maybe.” We prize the intellectual courage to say, “I’m not sure what’s right.” In the process, we slight what the Germans have learned — the hard way — to call civil courage: saying that you do know what’s right even when those around you are getting it backward. Training students in supple thought, do we undermine decent character?

According to recent polls, most Americans oppose physical torture of prisoners (though we waffle on what torture is). But the content of our attitudes is not as crucial as the intensity.

When a democracy’s agents practice torture in their country’s name, they will get away with it unless citizens do more than disapprove. To investigate, condemn and punish takes moral confidence and persistent political organizing. Will students taught nothing but the exceptions to the norm make the sacrifices needed to hold accountable those who leave behind the most basic moral guidelines?

Given how few senior civilian and military officials have seen jail, or even trial, as a result of scores dead in U.S. custody, we have reason to worry about the civil courage of millions who’ve cut their teeth on our scenarios. While ethics teachers may not have caused this state of affairs, we didn’t prevent it either. Perhaps our bias toward moral dilemmas makes us unreliable defenders of what should be moral certainties.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: