Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Breaking a few eggs

The logic of having to give up a few rights for more security is something that gets bandied around a lot these days. For some reason the PATRIOT-ACT (it's an acronym) and NSA spying aren't being talked about as much in the media as they once were, but Guantanamo is and the reasoning behind things like denying counsel to inmates there as well as denying treatment in line with international standards is based around the same type of argument. After all, they say, these are the worst of the worst, people who if released are likely to engage in acts of terrorism against the U.S. Therefore, to protect ourselves, we can't afford to restrain interrogators from techniques that might yield useful information.

Immanuel Kant had something interesting to say about arguments like this. Kant, most known in the U.S. if at all for the extraordinarily dense and abstract nature of his arguments, was a dedicated enemy of Utilitarian ethical and social thought, which was at the time of his writing represented by Jeremy Bentham. Bentham believed that that which enabled the greatest good for the greatest numbers was the right thing to do, which is a nice view of things. Human beings are motivated to seek pleasure and avoid pain; doing what's right involves committing more acts that promote pleasure than inflict pain. Also good. Bentham was the principle proponent of prison reform in England in his time, advocating against punitive punishment, that is punishing a person through beating them just the purpose of rendering justice, and suggesting instead rehabilitation. This was so that when the person got out they'd be less of a threat to society, thereby increasing the general good of society and decreasing the general bad. Also a good thought, at least in the anti-punitive measures division. It was his position on this last issue that really got Kant angry, but he responded in a way that turned the whole thing on its head.

Kant was for punitive punishment but not for mindless revenge, and there was another difference between his position and random vigilante justice: he believed that everyone had inalienable rights that should be protected no matter what, no matter if a group of people carrying torches is after you for a crime you're supposed to have committed. Kant started out his critique of Bentham, in a preface to "Groundwork of the Metaphyics of Morals" I believe, by attacking Bentham's principle of Pain/Pleasure on the basis of rights.

What if, Kant said, you could prove that more pleasure could be guaranteed to society and less pain inflicting by punishing murder by executing several innocent people for every person murdered? It wouldn't just be a case of the murderer paying for his crime but of innocent people not connected to it also paying, which might lead a murderer to reconsider doing what he was planning to do. After all, if they're random people, some of them might be people he knew and cared about. A person might be willing to sacrifice themselves but not others. But most people would react to that idea with horror. Kant asks why that is. After all, it would make sense from a Pleasure/Pain perspective; and if we're solely motivated by pleasure and pain then the thought of it shouldn't bother us.

It must be, Kant explained, that there's something in the makeup of the human persona that we value to the point where we won't let it be severely abused even if it's for a greater good. That something Kant locates in the makeup of the mind and of the self, in qualities that because we all possess and can see not only in ourselves but in our daily existence we wouldn't wish hurt on--because we realize what wishing that hurt on ourselves would do to us.

In Kant's way of thinking preserving these essential qualities that all individuals possess is a more valuable good than any good that could be gotten by society at large. It's not hard to take Kant's reasoning further down the line: if you start violating rights for a social good then isn't everything thrown up for grabs? If torture in Guantanamo Bay is permissable to get information to stop terrorist acts then why isn't it permissable in the United States itself? Why not torture American citizens convicted of or suspected of committing terrorist acts, or of planning them? After all, what's the difference between the mainland United States itself and a prison on an Army base in Cuba? Just some legal jurisdictional differences. If the general principle holds for Guantanamo then it should hold for the United States as a whole.

The problem is that if you beat people into a corporate mass that can be destroyed in whatever proportion at will you forfeit any claims to humanity, or to living in a human society.

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