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.