But It Works

Orange_Iowa Clouds_2012-09-03

2013-01-27 – I just watched a video of Michael Moore on the Huffington Post in which he talks about the movie “Zero Dark Thirty” and disagrees with liberals who say the movie condones torture.

He says that liberals shouldn’t get caught up in the debate over whether these interrogation methods work. He says that’s the wrong debate. He says that what interrogators do to people in these situations are simply immoral and it doesn’t matter whether it works. Slavery “works,” he says, but it is immoral in spite of the fact that it works.

Then he goes off into an explanation of why torture doesn’t really work (which I’ll get to in a moment). When his interrogator (torturing him with logic) points out that Michael has waded into the “but it works” debate, he “retracts” the argument. A fine rhetorical device! But you can’t really retract an argument.

Here’s the thing about the “but it works” argument in moral debates. There are often two time scales involved in moral debates. Bad behavior is often highly effective at the moment, but the lingering effects are dreadful at many levels. You kill someone who is your rival and, shazzam, your rival is gone. Nothing can be more effective. But the rival had family and a society that he lived in. The glow of this “victory” wears off really quickly, in most cases.

I could go on with this. But you see the point. Moral rules are often designed, consciously or not, to guide us to behavior that “works” in the longer time frame. We don’t need rules to guide us to immediate gratification. We need rules to get us to defer gratification.

So that’s the story with torture. And that’s the story that Michael Moore strayed into and then “took back.” And here’s my version of his story. Let’s say you are the interrogator. You apply torture. Your prisoner resist, but you keep at it until your prisoner talks. Your methods worked! You are elated. You’re going to save the world and be a hero.

But there’s an interrogator in the next room doing the same thing. His methods work. He gets great information. He thinks he is going to be a hero. But here’s the problem. Your prisoner said one thing. His prisoner said something different. And they contradict. How do you know which prisoner told the truth and which prisoner made something up to get the torture to stop? Maybe they both made something up.

Who do you torture to break the dilemma? Will a third prisoner do it? Do you go with a vote? A show of broken hands? How do you know which story is actionable intelligence?

In the real world, you correlate the torture stories with independent intelligence. But if you have independent intelligence, what do you need the torture story for.

Because there is something else that comes with torture. A reputation as a torturer. Reputation is a big thing. Allies of the prisoner don’t take the news very well. They use the stories of torture to recruit other bad guys. The cycle repeats and is reinforced.

So you have an immediate win, but it yields unreliable information and all sorts of long-term dreadful consequences.

Plus, as Michael Moore says, you’ve done some nasty and immoral things to your prisoner.

So it is important to consider how moral acts “work.” Those that are immoral tend to “work” immediately, but drag you down in the long run.

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2 responses to “But It Works

  1. I see the same analogy with conceal carry laws. Say I pack a hand gun with the intent of creating a safe zone around myself and my family. But what happens when my safe zone becomes someone else external threat? Now you have a situation made up of two opposing positions that have huge consequences if they interact. In other words, combine my paranoia with your propensity to take action (with your firearm) and we have a local headline.

    I also think you can take your post and search and replace the concept of “torture” with “drone strikes” and with same argument holds true.

  2. John– You could probably include any sort of violence, which is why there is a general trend in history toward less violence. The “trend” is obviously not a straight line, but progress is happening over the centuries.

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