Tuesday May 9, 2006
Not that long ago, I wrote a review of Sam Harris’s book The End of Faith on this site. I was reminded of Harris’s book recently when I received my latest copy of Inquiring Mind, which contained a short interview with the man himself. When I say short, I mean short: the interview is a whole two questions long; which is a shame because it raises a number of interesting questions.
I many ways, I find myself in agreement with Harris. I think that he is right when he says that the myth that “all religions teach the same thing and teach it equally well” is “demonstrably untrue.” Likewise I am in agreement that there is a good case to be made for the claim that “what the Buddha taught is not even a religion.” I myself have argued elsewhere on this site that Buddhism seems closer to certain wisdom traditions in the ancient Greek world – in particularly Epicureanism (although there are notable differences) – than to the Middle Eastern monotheisms of Judaism Islam and Christianity. Harris claims in the interview that the dialogue between science and the meditative traditions of Buddhism needs to rise above explicit reference to Buddhism. For Harris, students of Buddhism need to get out of the religion business. They need to get out of Buddhism. And in all of this, I think that Harris has got something interesting to say. And yet his book continues to trouble me for reasons that have nothing to do with his view upon the relationships between Buddhism and science and the deconstructing of the idea of Buddhism as one amongst several world religions that are substantially the same.
It comes again to the question of torture. Harris has written an article in defence of torture on the huffingtonpost, which gives a good summary of his argument. Harris considers his argument for the use of torture in rare cases to be watertight, although he adds that he hopes that there is a flaw in it and that his mind might be changed by this flaw being pointed out. Harris’s argument is in part based upon the now famous ticking bomb argument, essentially a thought experiment. In this argument, we imagine that a bomb has been planted in a crowded city, and we have the person in custody who is responsible for planting it. The only thing is, the person in question won’t tell us where the bomb is. Surely we are justified, the argument goes, in torturing the person in custody to get the information before the bomb goes off.
Harris’s argument is more complex than just a rehearsal of the ticking bomb argument: he raises the difficult question of whether pain and suffering caused by torture are any different from the pain and suffering caused by dropping bombs upon one’s enemies, or whether there is in a certain sense a moral equivalence between the two. If there is, then those who agree that it is sometimes necessary to drop bombs will also have to concede that it may also sometimes be necessary to torture. Harris asks: “What is the difference between pursuing a course of action where we run the risk of inadvertently subjecting some innocent men to torture, and pursuing one in which we will inadvertently kill far greater numbers of innocent men, women, and children?” I don’t want to explore this argument of moral equivalence here, although I will return to it at the end of this post. For the moment I’ll stay with the ticking bomb.
The ticking bomb argument is difficult to respond to on its own terms. It is the kind of argument that the Utilitarians love: it puts us in a position where our moral compass is thrown into spinning confusion. We seem to be led to only one conclusion, one which seems morally abhorrent. But I wonder if the difficulty of responding to the argument is rooted in the fact that the terms of the argument are limited: it has been framed in such a way as to lead us to this particular conclusion, and it can be most effectively responded to not on its own terms, but by what it leaves out. A recent article by David Luban, Professor of Law and Philosophy at Georgetown University, published in the Philosophers’ Magazine puts the ticking bomb question into this broader context, and asks these questions of what is left out of the argument. Instead of taking the argument head-on, Luban considers what it would be for torture to be acceptable under the law. The ticking bomb scenario puts us in a one-off situation, but this misses the point:
[The argument] assumes a single, ad hoc decision about whether to torture, by officials who ordinarily would do no such thing except in a desperate emergency. But in the real world of interrogations, decisions are not made that way. They are based on policies, guidelines and directives. Officials inhabit a world of practices, not of ad hoc emergency measures. Any responsible discussion of torture therefore must address the practice of torture, not just the ticking bomb hypothetical.
This opens up a mass of troubling questions. If torture is to be made a part of policy, then presumably it would be imperative to develop a coherent regime of torture within the law: there must be training, research into techniques, the involvement of the medical profession (what would happen to the Hippocratic Oath in these circumstances?). Here the questions multiply. Should we have research grants for those whose work is to devise new torture techniques? Should we run courses in torture at our universities? Should we have training camps for torturers? What institutional basis do we give such a regime? Then there is the question of the psychological effects upon those involved in such torture. And what about accountability? Should there be a government body concerned with moderating torture institutions, a kind of diabolical twin of OFSTED (the already pretty diabolical educational inspectorate in the UK, for those visitors from elsewhere in the world!)?
Luban’s argument, which is more complex than I have presented here, raises precisely these kinds of questions. They are questions that simply cannot be evaded if we are to take the talk of ticking bombs seriously. When we remove the argument from the self-absorbed realm of utilitarian thought experiments and place it in the real world where we might possibly do such things, then it becomes far less unambiguous. Luban concludes his article:
The ticking bomb scenario is an intellectual fraud. In its place, we must address the real questions about torture – questions about uncertainty, questions about the morality of consequences, questions about what it does to a culture to introduce the practice of torture, questions about what torturers are like and whether we really want them walking among us.
I am aware that I haven’t mentioned Buddhist objections to torture here (although one could think of many such objections). This is deliberate. For Harris, to simply quote a scripture is simply not good enough as a sufficient reason either to accept or reject something; and this perhaps is how it should be. But Luban’s responses to the ticking bomb question should serve to throw into question some of the claims that Harris makes. Whether they are sufficient to change Harris’s mind, I do not know.
But perhaps to finish I should return, finally, to the question of moral equivalence between torture and warfare. It might be argued that we already do have just such a culture built up around the waging of war: training, policy, law, research into new techniques and so on. Quite so. But the moral equivalence argument cuts both ways. If we remain unconvinced by the idea of institutionalising the machineries of torture, then perhaps we should at least be a little uneasy about the institutionalised machineries of warfare as well…
Comments are turned off for this article.
Today's Most Popular
Doing Nothing: Saturday August 25, 2007
Hanging around, doing nothing.
Strokes of Insight?: Friday April 25, 2008
Jill Bolte Taylor, neuroplasticity and turning off those anger circuits.
On Desire: Wednesday April 16, 2008
Link to online review of William B. Irvine’s On Desire
Conditions...: Wednesday March 15, 2006
On conditionality and the four noble truths…
The Dull Monk in the Third Row Theory of the Evolution of Buddhist Doctrine: Tuesday October 18, 2005
Are we too pious in our reading of Buddhist texts?
Free Will and Ethics: Tuesday April 8, 2008
Do we need free will to make us good?
A Shortcut to Nirvana?: Monday July 24, 2006
Research from the frontline of the discipline that is becoming known as neurotheology…
Difference: Wednesday August 9, 2006
The wisdom of difference and the wisdom of sameness…
Mistrust, Indebtedness and Hospitality: Thursday January 15, 2009
Hospitality by the Indus!
Get Real...: Friday May 15, 2009
Some thoughts on tragic storytelling.
Zen, Brains and Making Friends With Your Own Head: 10 Nov, 2008
It’s a complicated business having a brain.
Lies in Which not Everything is False: 10 Sep, 2008
Stories – they are nothing but a pack of lies.
The Sutras of Abu Ghraib: 30 Oct, 2007
Aidan Delgado on Buddhism, ethics and the war in Iraq.
Baboon: 06 Jun, 2006
Feeling like a grumpy old baboon?
Meditation as Unphenomenology: 07 Feb, 2008
Meditation, cartography and the territory of the mind.