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Speaking of Values

May 23rd, 2009
In the whole torture debate, I see a parallel to the death penalty debate: we should eliminate or avoid such things simply because they are wrong and we should not do them. As I like to say, it is not who we are. In an earlier blog post, I outlined my opinions about the death penalty, and the bottom line for me was that, as a society, we should not kill when it is not absolutely necessary. The clear exception is self-defense, although all too often this exception is used as a loophole to escape the moral standard; those who wish to kill indiscriminately or at will simply trump up imagined threats and say that we must do horrible things in self-defense. As we saw the Democrats in Congress fold like a cheap suit this week, such scare tactics--even when they are as insipid and hollow as the Republicans' terrorists-released-on-our-streets meme--work all too well. 9/11 did a better job of scaring us all, and the war advocates milked that for all it was worth. As a result, war is far too often abused as a tool. In fact, it can be argued that since WWII, no war we have engaged in meets the true self-defense standard. The death penalty is easier to dismiss on this principle; there is no evidence whatsoever that the death penalty deters crime, we have secure enough prisons that escape and further crimes are not a true threat, and the cost of securing the death sentence is greater than that of incarceration. The only real value in the death penalty is vengeance, and I do not see that as a valid reason for society to kill. In short, the death penalty, like unnecessary war, should be banned simply because it is wrong, it is immoral--it is not who we are, or should be. Torture just as easily falls under this principle. Torture is better suited for producing false statements, as the person being tortured will say anything to make it stop. (Something which now appears to be what Cheney was looking for--false evidence to prop up his war.) Non-torture interrogation is far more efficient as a means of producing reliable information. Therefore, torture is never appropriate for self-defense. Without that exception, torture is plainly wrong and should never be allowed. In all three cases--torture, capital punishment, and war--our motivations are unhealthy. We do things things out of fear, anger, and vengeance. We drape these base drives with veils of false legitimacy, claiming self-defense, patriotism, and duty to those who have fallen. But the true reasons are clear to anyone who wishes to look. In fact, it seems that as a nation, we have simply discarded the moral high ground we once treasured. With the coming of the Iraq War, so many--and not just on the pro-war side--quickly abandoned our long-held prohibition against pre-emptive strikes. We accepted the deaths of tens and even hundreds of thousands of foreign civilians with nothing more than a shrug, caring little even after it was clear that the actions in which they were killed were unnecessary and misled. We actually have debates where a fictional TV show is considered valid evidence of the facility of torture. Where we once had pride, we now claim self-preservation. Where we once held principle and sacrifice over fear, we now hold fear over principle and sacrifice. In short, we no longer have values. Oh, go ahead and tell me otherwise, but as the saying goes, actions speak louder than words. Show me an action in the past decade that we as a nation have taken in any of these areas which demonstrates true adherence to the values we once held. Even if you can find one, I will be able to show you so enough actions that contradict those values to drown the few, if any, actions which adhere to what we once held sacrosanct.
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  1. SOUSA-POZA
    May 23rd, 2009 at 17:46 | #1

    Luis, torture simply seems to me repugnant, primitive, obscene: it is what perverts do. To me it is not so much an ethical issue as an aesthetical one.

    The death penalty, although in principle I am against it, I do not see it as clearly as you do. I do not find it helpful putting it in moral or utilitarian terms. You could argue that a person who abducts a child, abuses and then strangles him or her, has bailed out of humanity and become and animal that should be put down like a rabid dog. Or, at least, if some countries do it, I wouldn’t critisize them. However, I wouldn’t apply the death penalty for treason no matter how egregious.

  2. Katkat
    May 24th, 2009 at 00:25 | #2

    i totally agree with you. on all three points. it is beyond me how an advanced democracy like the us can support things as torture, death penalty and senseless war.

    good blog!

  3. Leszek Cyfer
    May 24th, 2009 at 05:59 | #3

    Killing has this little issue that if you’ve made a mistake and shot an innocent person, you cannot unshot her, whereas if you locked this person, you can unlock her…

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