Remember When Everybody Knew Torture Was Wrong?

I’m leaving for Mexico on vacation, and I won’t be back until mid-. Until then, don’t expect any updates here at The Picket Line.

“You have read the book, Goldstein’s book, or parts of it, at least. Did it tell you anything that you did not know already?”

―“O’Brien” in 1984

I had a big bitter nostalgia moment yesterday. I’ve been reading Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life by Sissela Bok () — a book about lying and deception from the point of view of moral philosophy. In an early section of the book Bok discusses the various attempts to come up with systems of moral principles that people can use to plug in the characteristics of their day-to-day moral choices in order to determine the correct choice. She concludes:

Unfortunately, there is no evidence that systems, or overriding principles such as that of utility, or priority rules among principles, lead us to clear conclusions, much as the mind strains for such a result. (I must stress here that I am talking about those concrete conflicts which conscientious persons find hard; needless to say, easier choices, such as the condemnation of torture, can be derived within any moral or religious system as well as through the use of common sense.) [emphasis mine — ]

In the back of my mind I had this feeling that there was a time when this parenthetical “needless to say” remark was true, but it had been so long since I’d seen evidence of it that I’d begun to think it was some sort of false dream memory.

Dahlia Lithwick, writing in Slate, noted:

…[T]he torture photos taken at Abu Ghraib… along with memos from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel that redefined torture in appalling new ways, were not in fact a public relations blow to the Bush administration, but a sort of foot in the door for looser torture standards — a way to begin desensitizing the American people to the kinds of abuse that had been going on in secret. Two years after the images surfaced, Congress enacted a law essentially permitting the acts depicted. And just as those images paved the way to our broader torture policy, the CIA torture tapes now stand to do the same thing for water-boarding in particular.

An investigation is currently underway to determine who authorized the destruction of those CIA interrogation tapes. But as Attorney General Michael Mukasey announced , there will be no investigation into the water-boarding depicted in the tapes, because it’s not illegal, or it wasn’t at the time of the interrogations. Our views on water-boarding seem to be on the same trajectory as our views on sexual humiliation and stress positions — it looked sort of awful at first, but after a few months it seemed more like a fraternity prank. That’s the road we’re headed down with water-boarding. We’ve gone from banning it to trivializing it to justifying it. We are becoming inured to torture at approximately the same rate that it’s becoming legal. How convenient.

At Overcoming Bias, Robin Hanson reports on an interesting experiment that seems to demonstrate that “people prefer to not know how their actions effect others, when such knowledge would induce them to sacrifice to benefit others.”

In the baseline version [of the experiment], each subject chose between five pairs of numbers (x,y), where x is how much money he gets and y is how much money some other subject gets. In each pair (x,y), each number was drawn randomly from the set {1,1,4,4,7}. Here 40 of 63 subjects appeared to put heavy weight on benefits to the other person in making their choices.

In the other treatment, each subject was shown only the x value for each of his five pairs, but could at no cost choose to see the y values. Of the 40 subjects who in the baseline version heavily weighted benefits to others, only 10 of them chose to see the y values. The others just picked the best option for them.