It’s a useful discipline of thought to occasionally play devil’s advocate, and attempt to make a convincing argument on the opposing side to that with which you agree. This was brought home to me recently when I re-read Michael Levin’s famous essay The Case for Torture. Anyone who’s familiar with this piece will know that it is a disarmingly frank, simple and logical espousal of a very unpopular position: that torture by the ‘good guys’ is sometimes, in extreme circumstances, justified.
I had no idea who Professor Levin was when I was first introduced to the essay a few years ago. My subsequent discovery that his politics are somewhat to the right of Genghis Khan gives it some context other than that of an intellectual exercise. Even so, it’s accepted by most objective authorities that torture, quite apart from its barbarism and cruelty (which is beside the point of the essay anyway), tends to yield information which is dangerously unreliable at best. But can Levin convince us that its use is ever acceptable? To answer that question, we had better be aware that there are holes in his argument so big you could lose a medium-sized town down one of them. So let’s take a closer look and see if we can’t help him out.
From our post-9/11 perspective, it's tempting to see Michael Levin as some sort of visionary. Writing in 1982, he had no obvious real-life examples which were extreme enough to illustrate his thesis. So he hypothesizes two scenarios: a nuclear bomb set to go off imminently, with the terrorist in custody but refusing to give up the bomb’s location; and a bomb on a plane, with the terrorist (again, presumably, in custody) being the only person who can disarm it. These sound compelling, but we must be cautious. Not only do both these scenarios have no parallel in the real world, but also the particular sets of circumstances would be highly unlikely to come together in the way Levin describes.
Levin moves on to an ‘informal poll’ he conducted, asking four mothers whether torture was justified to retrieve a kidnapped baby. All responded that it was. This is a classic example of the argumentum ad populum fallacy: basically, Levin is saying, ‘These people agree with me, so I must be right.’ Because personal opinion is irrelevant to whether torture is morally justifiable, he would have done better to leave out this little anecdote – especially as he later refutes the ‘personal opinions’ of those who feel that torture is barbaric.
The third major piece of supporting evidence Levin offers is in the form of two types of historical event which he claims provide precedent: the assassination of dictatorial figures, and the pre-emptive military strike. But these do not really parallel the torturing of terrorists. The idea of a successful assassination or military attack is that the subject does not expect what is coming. But for torture to be effective, there needs to be an element of anticipation in the mind of the torturee. Not only that, but Levin cannot show that assassinating Hitler would have saved any innocent lives; and he still offers no real-life examples of pre-emptive military action which illustrate his claim.
Levin has set us, and himself, a challenging problem, and he would have better answered the challenge by putting more work into his supporting evidence. Central to his case is the qualifier that torture is only justifiable in cases where it is the only way of preventing large-scale loss of life, and where the guilt of the person being tortured is obvious. He stresses that such situations need to be clear-cut, so to justify his argument he must give examples that are also clear-cut. He fails to do this. Instead he employs hypothetical scenarios and tenuous parallels, and loses himself in a quagmire of logical error.
Strengthening his case is more a question of what should have been left out of the argument than what was put in. At a time when the PLO, Hezbollah, the IRA, the Red Brigade and numerous other terrorist organizations were all at the peak of their activity, Levin could probably, with some research, have found some real-life incidents where the use of torture did or could have saved lives. In all likelihood they would have been less dramatic than his imagined cases, and he probably felt that they would not have provided sufficiently strong support for a claim as drastic as the one he was making. But they would have had the force of factual truth, rather than just being a set of assumptions.Powered by Sidelines