Tuesday, June 15

The Constructs sense of Responsibility

I commented in a previous post on Steve Sturms thoughts on torture and the value of human lives. He has posted a reply to his critics (of which their appears to be quite a few) here.

Steve takes two positions:
(1) American lives are (should be?) more important (to Americans) than non-Americans (italics mine).
(2) The use of torture should not be categorically ruled out and that it should only be done with the approval of very high authority.

Steve is wrong on both counts. Here's why.

The belief that people that are different, that people that are from "somewhere else" are of less inherent value is a natural one. It is in our human nature to mistrust the outsider. That does not make it right. If a man angers me, I want to strike him. I do not. I do not because it is not sociable. I was raised to channel my anger. To use other methods to deal with the situation. As beings who live in a society there are many things that we must suppress to be successful. This feeling that "the other" are less valuable is one of those feelings.

In its most blatant, raw and horrible forms it is racism, it is tribalism, it is apartheid and it is the holocaust. The belief that American lives should be more valuable to Americans then other lives is just another form of this feeling (granted, a lot less horrible).

If there is one lesson we should learn from the previous century it is the fact that the feeling that "other people" are somehow of less value is wrong. We are adults. We can and should control our more base natures. Steve is right in the sense that we all feel it, he is wrong to believe it is right to feel so, or to base our actions on that feeling.

The lives of Americans, Iraqis, Englishmen, Russians and, yes, even smug South Africans, should have equal value in everyone's eyes.

The state on the other hand has no base natures. It is a construct with no moral values that we do not give it and no responsibility beyond those we can enforce upon it. The state is a construct that has (or is suppose to have) our welfare as a society as its ultimate goal. A person can be held accountable for his actions. The state cannot.

The state should believe that its citizens are more important than those of other countries. No other country will (or should) care for the states citizens as much as the state. The state should give rights and privileges to its citizens and it should reserve those rights and privileges from people from other countries unless it is in the states interest to do so.

We limit the states power for good reasons however. The state has no innate moral compass to guide it and the people who should be its guide are all too fallible. Another thing we have learned is that the interest of the state and our own individual interest rarely coincides. We must protect our rights from the state, because the state will always believe that its actions are in everyone's interest (even if it is to the detriment of the individual).

Torture is a tool that should never be given to the state. It is base folly to expect the state to be able to use it responsible. Torture, as is the death penalty, is a one way street. There is no second chance. Where the state applies the death penalty in America, it is after years of consideration and even more years of waiting on the chance that contrary evidence is not found. Still, mistakes are made.

By the nature of the deed, there can never be such contemplation where torture is concerned. It is an act of passion. There can be no "You will only be tortured after due process". Will the state use this only in the most direst of circumstances? Yes, but what are those circumstances? Abdul knows where the chemical bomb is planted. His wife knows where Abdul is. The Indonesian financier knows where the wife is. Its thought that one of the 10 people picked up in the last raid knows the name of the financier. Will the state hesitate to torture if it had the right to do so? I don't think so (and rightly so). Should we hesitate to give this power to the state? Yes. Why? Because we should value the lives of people in other countries as much as we value the lives of our fellow countrymen. It should not be the states responsibility, but it must ours.

In my previous post I said that at times torture could theoretically be an option. It is not option that the state should ever be granted. It is an action that only an individual can decide on, with the knowledge that they will be held accountable for their actions. The state can never be held accountable.

Update: Steve Sturm replies to my post here.

To those who claim that 'all lives' are of equal value, that is a load of bunk. Maybe it made sense in the abstract in whatever philosophy course you took during your never-ending time in school, but it doesn't play in Peoria. Nor does it play in Pretoria. If it did, and using Iraq as an example, with Hussein killing thousands of innocent Iraqis every year, then why didn't you offer up some number of your countrymen to stop Hussein? If Iraqi lives are just as valuable as South African lives, you should have been willing to suffer several hundred South African deaths in order to stop Hussein - yet you didn't.

I supported the American invasion of Iraq because I hold Iraqi lives in high regard, and would see them have same opportunities in life that I do. The reasons for the American invasion of Iraq did not matter to me, because getting rid of Saddam Hussein would have been and has been an incredible gift for the Iraqi people.

I would have supported Pretoria in sending troops to Iraq to help getting rid if Saddam Hussein. The South African government, to my disappointment, decided that helping America in its invasion of Iraq was not in our interest. This I regret and I think it was a mistake.

However, America invaded Iraq because it was in Americas interest to invade Iraq. Not because it was in the interest of Iraqis. The fact that Iraqis are to be freed from the regime of Mr Hussein is but happy coincidence.

If I could have my way, I would like to see more such happy coincidences in North Korea, Sudan and Zimbabwe. Sadly it is in neither Americas nor South Africas interest at the moment.

Our governments hold our lives in higher regard than the lives of the people from those countries. Rightly so. That does not mean we should.

p.s South Africa currently has troops in Burundi and the Congo on peacekeeping missions. South Africa also led the invasion of Lesotho when that countries government was overthrown by a faction in their military 1998. You'd be forgiven for thinking Thabo Mbeki was Goerge Bush on Speed after reading this article describing the events of the day.

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