Sunday, October 23, 2005

The slide into barbarism: against utilitarianism

This is prompted by a stimulating discussion going on at the Sharpener on the subject of torture. As with debates on the death penalty and corporal punishment, I'm always struck by the extent to which utilitarianism has gripped the Western liberal mind because well-meaning liberals often make the argument that torture is simply irrational, given that the information obtained under extreme duress is extremely unreliable.

That this is the case can be fairly easily demonstrated historically but I have no interest in doing so because I firmly believe that one's opposition to the use of torture should not depend on any such utilitarian arguments, for these can lead one up a very dark path indeed. For students of political theory, the arguments will be well-worn and familiar. What possible utilitarian argument could one make against punishing the innocent for a crime that had particularly grieved a community? And do we really have to demonstrate that this has been the case in the past? The Guilford Four, the Birmingham Six - did we not feel an injustice had been done here? We did - but not on utilitarian grounds.

I'm not the least bit interested in 'mind experiments' that posit the possibility that torture could extract vital information that could result in the location of a nuclear device and thus save innumerable civilian lives for there was never a time in history where some 'greater good' rationalization was not used to justify torture.

Eric Hobsbawm in his excellent essay, "Barbarism: a user's guide" (from On History) traces the history of torture from the French and American Revolutions. Both these outlawed torture and even the collapse of the first French Republic did not see it reinstated. Instead, its use and practice in the industrial world was largely confined to the fascist and communist states. But one of the depressing aspects of the postwar world is the extent to which it has re-emerged in the West. The French in Algeria, the British in Northern Ireland serve as two examples, not to mention the gruesome revelations that emerged from the experience in Latin America in the 1970s. And now one could add the disgrace of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. This depressing turn of events cannot, Hobsbawm argues, ever be explained by the official rationalization of the practice:
"(A)s stated in the British Compton Committee, which reported rather ambiguously on Northern Ireland in 1972. It talked about 'information which it was operationally necessary to obtain as necessarily as possible'. But this was no explanation. It was just another way of saying that governments had given way to barbarism, that is that they no longer accepted the convention that prisoners of war are not obliged to tell their captors more than name, rank and number, and that more information would not be tortured out of them, however urgent the operational necessity."
Instead a rather more historical explanation is required and if one reads the essay mentioned above and also the Age of Extremes there are some salutary lessons, not only for those willing to rationalize torture, but for those apologists for suicide-murderers. Hobsbawm's thesis is that the twentieth century, the 'best and worst of centuries', brutalized an entire generation beginning with the first spate of 'mega-deaths' during the Great War, through to the second and then with the lunacy of the Cold War:
"(T)he worst of it is that we have got used to the inhuman. We have learned to tolerate the intolerable. Total war and cold war have brainwashed us into accepting barbarity."
Can you think of a better explanation of why that old revolutionary Engels was before the outbreak of the Great War horrified to learn that an IRA bomb had killed a handful of civilians in London whereas today our pampered armchair revolutionaries who despise the system that makes their lives possible not only rationalize the deliberate targetting of civilians by suicide bombers but actually support them in doing so? How else can we explain the fact that so many people can't tell the moral difference to those who seek to minimize civilian casualties, and those for whom such a distinction is meaningless if the civilians in question are unbelievers or heretics?

Hobsbawm, accurately in my view - and surprisingly, considering his political disposition - describes the cold war as a religious war. These are always the bloodiest: the great Isaiah Berlin pointed out that no idea in the history of mankind had produced a higher mountain of corpses than the notion that there is a final solution, that there is a harmonious pattern into which all human beings can fit. It is something that those of us who accept the necessity of fighting and opposing the present day religious fascists should take on board: when it comes to a contest that depends on the use of violence, Hobsbawm makes the historical point that states usually end up winning, for fairly obvious reasons.

But at what cost, my friends? Hobsbawm argues that the experience of the 1970s permanently weakened the defences of the Enlightenment because the lesson of that era was that barbarism was more effective than civility. Can we not see the shadow of this in the present time? Those who rationalize suicide bombing disgust me - so much so I want to distance myself from that trap completely. Do you make excuses for torture because you believe, as Tony Blair does, that the "rules of the game have changed"?

Change your mind - or as the Greek word for this is usually translated in English versions of the New Testament: repent.

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