Sunday, March 31, 2013

Moral Questions, Moral Conditioning, and the New York Times

Science journalist Matthew Hutson had an interesting article in the New York Times this morning about the influence of external factors on our ethical decision-making.  Overall, it's a worthwhile read because it highlights how inherently unstable our reasoning processes tend to be.  However, I found the introductory paragraph to be quite troubling.

Hutson began his article with the following words:

"MORAL quandaries often pit concerns about principles against concerns about practical consequences. Should we ban assault rifles and large sodas, restricting people’s liberties for the sake of physical health and safety? Should we allow drone killings or torture, if violating one person’s rights could save a thousand lives?" (Emphasis added)

That last sentence creates a false moral dilemma.  It puts the deontological respect for human life and dignity against a utilitarian belief in working for the greater good (or the greatest happiness for the greatest number).  However, neither torture nor drone killings, both of which flagrantly value any deontological ethic of human dignity and worth, can be justified on utilitarian grounds.

The CIA has acknowledged that information secured through torture (which, of course, they claim not to do) proved to be false or misleading.  Likewise, Senator Diane Feinstein, who (unlike the public) has had access to the CIA's torture report, sharply criticized the narrative of the film Zero Dark Thirty, which portrayed torture as key to finding Osama bin Laden.

Similarly, drone strikes are not singularly focused on individuals who are about to commit a terrorist attack.  The civilian death toll of U.S. drone strikes might surpass 1,000--although firm data is difficult to attain.  The Obama administration, moreover, has defined the term "militant" so loosely that it includes any military-age male.  I don't see how they can discriminate between an 18-year-old and a 17-year-old when shooting missiles from the sky, so we can probably assume that this means that passing puberty is basically the metric for being a "militant" to the administration. The administration has also defined the concept of imminence (in terms of the imminence of the threat) so broadly that it means, in effect, "not imminent."  Rather than keeping the U.S. safe, drone strikes are leading to the radicalization of the populations that suffer from such an invasion of privacy, sovereignty, and security.

One can, of course, create elaborate hypothetical situations in which one would know with 100% absolute certainty that the drone strike or the use of torture would save a certain number of lives.  However, that is not how the decision-making works in reality.  Hutson's example conditions readers into believing that there are empirical justifications behind the use of torture or drone strikes and accepting the existence of a utilitarian justification (whether or not they are self-ascribed utilitarians). He fails to address the risk potential of radicalization and loss of credibility that results, creating a dilemma that is not only false but disconcertingly simplistic.

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