Monday, October 5, 2009

EITs: ethical considerations, objections and responses, #5

Continuing from HERE HERE HERE HERE HERE and HERE.

#6. There are certain fundamental standards, ideals or values we hold having to do with respect and human dignity, which we should not compromise. Amongst such unacceptable compromises is creation of professions and institutions that make use of EITs. In fact, to create such institutions amounts to something like an endorsement of the contrary of such ideals. (Ideals Degradation Objection)

Re: There are obvious cases when fundamental standards, ideals or values are at risk and it is permissible to prevent harm to these (either as related to a society or to individuals) by creation and maintenance of institutions and professions that make standard use of techniques or methods that amount to justified violations of fundamental standards, ideals or values. Simple examples: police taking criminal life in defense of civilians, or courts restricting liberty to prevent murder, military forces causing unavoidable civilian deaths in prosecution of a just war. These examples have to do with protection of the fundamental value of life. In the first case a life is taken for the sake of life, in the second, liberty is restricted for the sake of life, in the third causing death of innocents is allowed if it is an unavoidable side effect of prosecuting a just war.

The point is that it is common practice for human societies to do these things, and to create institutions and professions whose jobs essentially require such action. The real question is if use of the techniques we here consider, when undertaken in the appropriate circumstances, by an appropriate professional from an appropriate institution, utilizing appropriate oversight, constitutes an unacceptably novel violation of basic rights or values in the interests of preserving the same or other basic rights or values. It is not obvious that this is the case, as should be clear from the analogical cases.

Sometimes, when this matter is brought up, the phrase “preservation of dignity” finds use. The argument is made that society cannot uphold the value of human dignity or persons by violating the person or dignity of human beings. On its face, this position is not obviously true.

This is an argument that trades on an ambiguity in the word “uphold”. “Uphold” can either mean “honor” or “promote”. To honor dignity is to take an absolute stand, and claim that no violations of dignity are allowable. To promote dignity is to make best efforts to create and maintain a society that honors dignity to the greatest extent possible, given the circumstances.

To argue that the only ways society can uphold the fundamental value of human dignity or person must be ways that involve no compromise of any individual’s person or dignity is as odd as saying that the only ways society can uphold the fundamental value of life must never involve taking life. It is to presume that one can only uphold when one is honoring.

This is a conceivable position (a Buddhist position if I’m not mistaken), but certainly not the only reasonable position. As has already been emphasized, human society has a long record of accepting life/life, liberty/liberty life/liberty… trade-offs, and creating and overseeing institutions and professions that deal with such trade-offs, making sure they are done in morally appropriate ways. Society does not generally accept the contention that promotion is not upholding, at least with regard to these basic values.

This is entirely consistent with placing high value on human life and dignity, and a strong commitment to protection of these, in light of recognition of the obvious: not all human beings make that high valuation, and they (and the effects of their actions) must be mitigated. Otherwise these values will have no place in the world at all.

A justification often cited (in Natural Law theory for instance) for use of lethal force is that attempted murder constitutes a forfeiture of the miscreant’s right to life, this allowing the action. So, provided we cannot stop him by non-lethal means, it is morally permissible to kill him in order to prevent his actions. For this sort of situation, and others of a similar nature, we have police and military institutions. They are given sanction to protect basic values by sometimes acting in ways that would normally be considered unacceptable violations of basic rights or values if carried out against innocents. Also, various means of oversight are used to ensure that resort to these means is morally justified and done only when truly necessary.

Similarly, the absolutist’s prohibitive position regarding enhanced interrogation techniques in high risk scenarios is a conceivable position, but not the only reasonable position. In short, it seems at least possible that there are scenarios where upholding the fundamental value of dignity (and usually other values as well) will require the compromise of some individual’s dignity, and in general, a morally responsible reaction to the likelihood of such scenarios is for society to create professions whose business it is to do these things in a morally defensible way, while being overseen and legally examined. This does not show we have given up on human dignity, but that we do in fact value it, and take necessary steps to preserve it, given the reality of the darker side of human nature. Once again, such institutions already exist, as for instance, police and law enforcement entities.

But, perhaps there is something uniquely dangerous in creating just the sorts of institutions we are advising here, institutions designed around and specializing in interrogation, containing as standard practice, rare resort to the sorts of enhanced techniques we have on our list, techniques that compromise dignity, and fundamental values. Perhaps the mere existence of such institutions is bad for the world as a whole in a way that the existence of military and police institutions (which take lives in support of life) is not. This seems to be the next approach of the absolutist, an argument to which we next turn:

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