The Ethics of Interrogation

Immanuel Kant wrote a short essay, “On a Supposed Right to Lie Because of Philanthropic Concerns,” in the Berlin Press in 1799, replying to a criticism of his views by Benjamin Constant. Constant described a case in which you allow a friend fleeing a murderer to take refuge in your house. The murderer comes to the door and asks whether the friend is there. Must you tell him the truth? Kant responds that you must: “To be truthful in all declarations is, therefore, a sacred and unconditionally commanding law of reason that admits of no expediency whatsoever.”

Almost all students of philosophy side with Constant, finding Kant’s willingness to insist on moral absolutes “let the consequences be what they may” outrageous. The ancient Chinese philosopher Yang Chu famously wrote that he would not pluck a single hair from his head to save the entire world. Kant’s moral absolutism seems to imply that one could not pluck a single hair from someone else’s head in order to save the entire world. One doesn’t have to be a consequentialist to find this unacceptable.

It’s surprising, therefore, to find the vast majority of Congressional Democrats, as well as some prominent Republicans, committed to Kant’s moral absolutism. The House-Senate conference committee on the intelligence authorization bill have added language that would restrict interrogators to techniques in the Army Field Manual, which mandates Geneva Convention rules. That means that one could not slap, threaten to slap, place in a cold room, or feed cold food to a terrorist, even if that terrorist has information that could save millions of lives. Congress is about to stipulate that one may not pluck a single hair from a terrorist’s head, even if it would save the entire world.

I have no moral qualms about waterboarding, slapping, holding people in cold rooms or uncomfortable positions, and other aggressive techniques if there is good reason to believe that the person being interrogated has information that could prevent terror attacks. These techniques fall short of torture as traditionally understood; they do not inflict “severe pain and suffering,” which international law takes as essential to torture. Indeed, when it comes to the ethics of interrogation, I’m on the Jack Bauer end of the spectrum; I’d be willing to inflict severe pain and suffering if it were necessary to stop a terror attack. But that’s the beauty of waterboarding; it’s more effective than inflicting pain and suffering while also being more humane. It makes torture unnecessary.

2 thoughts on “The Ethics of Interrogation

  1. Your comparison between Kant and Constant as an argument supporting waterboarding and other types of interrogation techniques is interesting and thoughtful, but I respectfully disagree.

    For starters, the moral and philisophical decisions described by Kant and Constant rests on non-faulty premises of omnipresence. In the case of waterboarding and other types of interrogations, the certainty of whether such actions could, in fact, prevent a terrorist attack and save millions of lives is not of absolute certainty. The arguments by Kant and Constant rely on the premise of absolute certainty, which we do not have in the case of real world interrogations. When you say, “Congress is about to stipulate that one may not pluck a single hair from a terrorist’s head, even if it would save the entire world,” assumes with 100 percent certainty — when we don’t even approach that number — that plucking a single hair would, in fact, save the entire world.

    Perhaps a more laymen’s term of the philisophy you are advocating here is: to make an omelette, you need to break a few eggs. The scary question in an administration that breeds on minimal transparency and believes itself to be above the rule of law by its very actions of such things as destroying tapes and engaging in extraordinary rendition, you have to ask: how many eggs are we breaking? And, have we even made an omelette yet?

    More importantly, and above either the logic of Kant and Constant or Mr. Omelette, is that touchy issue of the U.S. constitution, which serves as the first question or barrier before any issue of whether such techniques are effective or not are even reached. That’s the question before anything. The framers of the constitution were wary of when the government suspended or advocated for the suspension of rights in the name of safety. And for very good reason.

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