Saturday, June 12, 2004

Torture redux

Steve has taken the time to reply to my objections about his views about the acceptability of torture, and the lesser value of non-American lives.

Firstly, apologies Steve for my use of the word 'idiot.' The blogosphere should be about intelligient discussion, not engaging in cheap shots. Take it as an incandescently angry response to the discovery that my life has less than a third of the value of your's.

The nub of Steve's response is:

I'm perplexed that anybody would take issue with this. Does anybody in the world really believe that Americans don't place ourselves first? That we go to war in order to protect American lives, rather than the world as a whole?

The same, Steve says, goes for other countries; they also place their nationals first.

Sure, accepted. Countries do place the interests of their citizens first. They invest in their health care, education and endeavour to protect their security. That's obvious. My point is that it doesn't follow from this the lives of people from other countries have less value (as Steve has suggested).

We can see this by thinking about it at the level of the individual. Obviously, I care more about my life than I do about the lives of others. I feed myself, educate myself and, apart from quixotic acts of self-sacrifice, am likely to place my life ahead of the lives of others.
But this doesn't mean that, just because I care more about my life, it has greater value than the lives of others from the point of view of law and morality. Assume that I'm attacked (walking home on a Saturday night as drunken Brits spill out of pubs). Obviously I'm entitled to defend myself, and would want to, given that I care about my life. But the means I use must be proportionate; I can't shoot someone just because he's slapped me. The reason? Because, in the eyes of the law and morality, my attacker's life has the same value as mine.

So, if we accept this, we should also be able to accept that it's possible for us to place a higher premium upon our own lives than upon the lives of others, while also accepting that all lives have equal value.

Very much the same thing, I want to suggest, applies between states. Of course states are entitled to defend themselves against threats from abroad. But, in doing so, morality requires that the means they use should be proportionate. That, I think, is a condition of a just war. The harm inflicted by a state in prosecuting a war shouldn't be disproportionate to the threat faced. If America is slapped, so the speak, it can't, or at least shouldn't, start dropping bombs.

So, accept this, and we should be able to accept that states can care primarily about their nationals while also not concluding that some lives are worth more than others.

Finally, lest anyone think that any of this is somehow anti-American, let's remind ourselves why Steve's view is so damaging to American interests. As I understand it, the war on Iraq was fought for two reasons. The main reason was that it was necessary to rid the country of WMD, but there was a subsidiary argument that Saddam was a brutal dicatator who didn't value the lives of his own people. Now, as we all know, the first argument has all but collapsed which leaves the US and Britain with the second. I don't think you have to be a rocket scientist to work out that this -- the moral argument for the war -- is undermined if you take the view that Iraqi lives are not worth all that much. But this, I'm afraid, is very much where you end up if, like Steve, you write stuff like this:

If, as I've also written, the lives of Iraqis, Saudis, the Taliban, the French are not as valuable as the lives of Americans, then why should we draw a line on 'merely' torturing them?

1 Comments:

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