Friday, April 24, 2009

Cross-Ideological Common Ground on Torture and Discrimination, Sort of

Former VP Cheney and others (including a commenter on this blog) have criticized the Obama Administration for releasing the Bush OLC memos authorizing harsh interrogation techniques but redacting information about the supposed effectiveness of waterboarding, etc., as a means of obtaining actionable intelligence. On its face, the criticism is odd because the legal prohibition of torture is a prohibition of effective torture as well as ineffective torture, as even the Bush OLC memos themselves acknowledge. The severity or permanence of injury that some technique does not differ at all based on whether or not it leads to truthful and actionable intelligence or simply leads to the person being interrogating saying whatever he thinks the interrogators want to hear. Thus, it appears that what Cheney and others are saying is: "Whether or not waterboarding was illegal, it was the right thing to do."

That's not an inherently implausible claim. Just about everyone who thinks about the question will recognize that there are circumstances in which the right thing to do (judged by whatever moral standards one has for assessing rightness) is to violate the law--even if the law is generally a good law. Jurisprudence scholars debate whether there is even a prima facie moral duty to obey the law, but even if there is one, surely that duty can sometimes be overcome by other moral duties. It takes an awfully strong commitment to the act/omission distinction to say that it's wrong to torture the terrorist who has hidden a doomsday device. Of course, such scenarios are highly unrealistic, but the point of such "ticking bomb" examples is to show that categorical opposition to torture must be rooted in something besides the claim that it is always and in principle wrong (although there are indeed people who think, on Kantian grounds, that torture is indeed always and in principle wrong, even if the consequences of not torturing are catastrophic).

The difficulty with the foregoing analysis may be that it gives too much credit to VP Cheney and others, who really do seem to be saying something like "if it worked, it's legal." But we can make some sense of even that sort of claim. The argument goes along the lines of the OLC memos and is rooted in the impulse to resolve legal ambiguity in favor of permitting conduct that looks a lot like torture. If you think that the legal prohibition on torture gets in the way of doing things that are morally best, then you will want to construe that prohibition as narrowly as possible. Although I disagree with the premises of this set of arguments, I do understand their structure.

Indeed, the structure is broadly similar to the structure of arguments liberals (who tend to be on the other side of the torture debate) make in other contexts. Consider the issue presented by the New Haven firefighter case currently before the Supreme Court, and race-conscious affirmative action more broadly. Conservatives argue that the constitutional guarantee of "equal protection" and (even more clearly) the statutory prohibition on "discrimination on the basis of race," forbid all race-based affirmative action and that liberals who favor such programs favor them despite the fact that they are unequal and discriminatory. From the conservative viewpoint, in other words, liberals think it is more important to advance their vision of society (e.g., racially integrated fire departments) than to follow the legal requirement of equal protection and the legal prohibition on discrimination.

But from the perspective of (us) liberals, that's mistaken. We say that the meaning of terms like "equal protection" and "discrimination" is sufficiently open-ended to permit race-based affirmative action. Indeed, we even understand such programs as designed to implement the equality and anti-discrimination norms. In other words, we make the analogous move to the one made by the Bush OLC memos: We see and resolve ambiguity to render our understanding of the law consistent with our vision of morality.

To be clear, I'm NOT saying that the moves are equivalent in all respects. I think that the interpretation of "equality" to permit some race-based affirmative action is much more legitimate than the interpretation of "torture" to permit waterboarding. John Yoo and Steve Bradbury would probably draw the opposite conclusion. But my larger point is that the interpretive moves have the same structure.

Posted by Mike Dorf

10 comments:

Michael said...

Despite your caveats, I am still troubled by the analogy. Whereas conservatives look to formal "equality" as the touchstone of equal protection, liberals look to a more-functional "equality" as the touchstone of equal protection. The point of disagreement is "what is equality," not where should the principle of equality give way to other social values.

In contrast, the point of disagreement between conservatives and liberals in the torture context is not "what is torture," but where should torture give way to other social values (such as general social welfare). This is more analogous to limits we place on equal protection for compelling state interests unrelated to equality, such as segregating prisons to protect prisoners' safety. If constitutional doctrine tells us anything, it is that no norm is absolute, but that is a different issue than understanding the norm itself.

Michael C. Dorf said...

Michael, I agree with you entirely as a matter of substance, but my point is that many conservatives do not take us seriously when we say that departures from color-blindness serve equality. They think we really mean that we are elevating some competing value--such as racial integration--over and against equality. I think the conservatives are wrong, but then they think I'm wrong.

Bryce said...

It seems that detainees are being granted more rights all the time (which I consider a good thing). Do you think that incriminating evidence against them would be excluded from court proceedings if prosecutors/defense officials obtained it through torture? And do you think this might be why the Obama administration is keeping the other memos under wraps?

Sobek said...

Coupla points.

1. My original criticism in the previous post was that Obama -- who pretends to care about transparency -- redacted out critical bits of information, for political purposes. In other words, he's a lying sack of crap, as usual.

2. "It takes an awfully strong commitment to the act/omission distinction to say that it's wrong to torture the terrorist who has hidden a doomsday device."What I've learned from the comments on this blog is that such a commitment is unnecessary when you can simply wish away inconvenient facts.

3. "...too much credit to VP Cheney and others, who really do seem to be saying something like 'if it worked, it's legal.'"I read Cheney's remarks as meaning "if you're going to release part of the memos for political gain, to show how eeeeeevil Bush is, then why not release the parts where Bush saved lives?

4. Concerning comparative, interpretive moves, I think you're off because conservatives don't deny the underlying premises of your arguments, we just think your proposed remedies are naive and counterproductive.

In the waterboarding debate, there are liberals who are unwilling, even in the face of contrary evidence, to even admit that waterboarding might produce actionable intelligence. Because they simply ignore part of the equation, there is no moral calculation to be made. It's pure fantasy.

In the affirmative action debate, conservatives can admit the fundamental premises: (a) there has been past, race-based discrimination, both official and unofficial. (b) That past discrimination has present effects, in terms of poverty and education. Some conservatives may add (c) America has a moral obligation to try to remedy some of the present effects of past discrimination.

But then conservatives point out that decades of race-agitation have not made anything better, and in fact have made things much, much worse. Busing plans have destroyed cities and generations, all in the name of liberal self-congratulation. Constitutionalizing racial classifications crystalizes, rather than alleviates, racial tensions.

Put yourself in the shoes of a Hispanic firefighter in Connecticut, who studies and works hard to excel, who passes a promotion test, and then is told "never mind, no promotion for you, not enough melanin." That's what the Constitution requires? Seriously? That's going to remedy past injustice?

Paul Scott said...

Personally, I am happy to stand against both torture and affirmative action.

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ArtSilen said...

Do we really want another "Nixon Pardon" fiasco? Pardons should be reserved for people who are convicted of a crime, whether at trial or by entering a guilty plea. Nothing I've seen or heard remotely suggest that the former Bush Administration officials who formulated their torture policy have the slightest intention to admit to have done anything wrong. Shame on you for even suggesting a pardon before we've seen any contrition on their part.

酒店經紀ㄚ君姐姐 said...

,,領檯姐.,便服店,,

狗熊克星 said...

網路奇聞就是一個例子當他們搬家時在整理一大堆兒時的東西時發現許多的白蟻於是他們打1999市民熱線找到了,很怪竟然也會捉蟲,真的蠻神奇的只能說一句世界真無奇不有奇聞軼事小光在大學時期都非常愛辦暑假到了有一天他到一家搬家公司應徵工作想說賺錢出去玩的錢,於是在和老闆搬運的過程中發現房子被白蟻吃的差不多了隨時會倒於找到一家全台灣最大的除白蟻公司來幫忙解決了這個大問題也就可以再順利搬家了

較為潮溼的地方所以生長了許多白蟻他在網路上做了許多的搜尋的動作要的工作較佳的不一定是真的有那麼人找他們除蟲這個問題如果沒有解決即使找來搬家公司也是英雄無用武之地世界怪譚台北是一個人口聚集的地方需要台北搬家的人也特別多所謂人人都愛住在有山有水的地方自然蟲也會特別多所以除蟲就變成一個重要的工作不論年際多大都要參與我到網上的除蟲教學中心他們除了指導你們如何除蟲外更為中和地區的人服務教他們如何中和搬家這是他們在做遷習時必須學習的課題但是看到蟑螂還是會讓人想把它捉起來

奇文怪章:幾年前流行性感冒侵襲花壇鄉於是他們那邊的搬家公司就生意特別好,因為接到許多生意是要幫他載人去這樣當有人需要找除蟲時我們就可以很順利的找到我們要中和搬家了因為東西實在太多太重跟本不可能搬的動像冰箱鋼琴又找來新店搬家來幫忙只能說他們真是大力士一下子就搬完了

股市奇聞最近股票都一直漲牛市衍然形成許多賺到錢的人想要搬家到台北於是找上了台北搬家公司來幫忙搬但是東西太多他們竟然的搬但是這樣太慢等他們搬好太陽都下山了板橋搬家的老闆陳先生表示由於許多員工都是草梅族所以都沒力氣永和搬家有十多年經驗的謝經理也說他們也遇到相同的情況還有人見到老鼠當場嚇暈的真是無言以對

雅文共賞阿明是一個非常愛寫作的人他在中和搬家上班他很有心在工作的空檔都會拿出他們筆在寫作有一次因為太專心寫作忘了工作於是被老闆開除他又到另一家桃園搬家工作但是他都老毛病又犯了寫作寫到又忘了工作又被開除他就開回頭車回公司去辦理離職手續並且他把捉的十多隻小老鼠帶回家去那是他的寶貝他細心的幫他們消毒完讓他們可以快樂的生活

昨天擊出再見一擊的功臣是十一局轟板橋搬家可以選擇以提供無償桃園搬家勞動來折抵刑期回頭車預定將在九月一日實施台北搬家更生團契總幹事黃明鎮牧師認同此項政策新店搬家人去服務社會,比在獄中服刑有意義。」永和搬家本被判處六個月以下刑期的受刑回頭車以選擇以易科罰金來代替坐牢傷癒復出後首度回到洋基新球場進行系列戰,A-Rod在紐約球迷面前用棒子宣告他的歸隊。今天洋基與雙城進行第二場系列賽搬家公司但是在經濟不景氣

的影響之下板橋搬家許多人寧願選擇坐牢,使得監獄人滿為新店搬家患,於是法務部研擬社會勞動制度永和搬家讓這些受刑人不必入監服刑,也可桃園搬家這項制度對受刑人的好處是,可以不用中斷原先的工作賽,A-Rod在壘包上有人的情況下,轟出石破天驚的2分打點再見全壘打,助球隊最終以6:4氣走對蟑螂曾經入獄的紀錄,更不用辛苦籌錢,繳交龐大的易科罰金。對政府來說,跳蚤刑人在服務過程中會想盡辦法去吸毒蛀蟲會勞動主要是支援各地環境清潔、社會服務等,螞蟻勞動。

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