instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Torture Debate 6.0: Now With Visual Aids!

We're used to asking questions of the form, "How much of action X can I do before it becomes immoral?" This assumes a moral spectrum for action X, unquestionably moral at one end and unquestionably immoral at the other. The question then, is where to draw the line:

(In fact, the question is often literally, "Where do we draw the line?")

I suggested below that this is a kind of sorites paradox. If I'm right, it's a very particular kind that doesn't depend on the vagueness of its predicate. "Heap" is a vague term. "Immoral" is not. An action is either contrary to God's will, or it isn't.

This suggests that a better model than the spectrum is the disjoint sets:

That is, we change the question from, "How much of X is moral?" to, "Is the action Y moral?", where the action we're now asking about is considered as such rather than as admitting of more or less.

I haven't thought through the process of converting from "action that admit of more or less" to "action as such." This may be unworkable in particular cases, but then I'm already convinced questions in terms of the former are unworkable in general.

Notice, though, what happens when I try to convert "making a prisoner stand for some period of time" into an action that doesn't admit of more or less. I'm not sure how to do this without importing some of the intent, making it "making a prisoner stand in order to get him to talk."

If this is the proper conversion -- note the If -- then don't I have to put "making a prisoner stand in order to get him to talk" in the red circle, which is to say in the set of immoral acts?

I'll skip the argument for answering yes to that question, and point out the interesting corollary that the "unquestionably moral end of the spectrum" turns out to be an illusion. If no one would say it's immoral to make someone stand for fifty seconds, then everyone's wrong, since it can be immoral if the intent is to get him to talk.

It seems to me the fact that most people can stand for fifty seconds without distress is immaterial to the morality of forcing them to stand during interrogation. And actually, if it doesn't cause them distress, what's the point of doing it?

(I suppose having the prisoner stand during interrogation can also be looked at as a circumstance added to the act of interrogation -- along the lines of a boss making someone stand while he chews them out -- but here I'm thinking of forced standing as the objective act.)