McMahan announces at the outset that "torture is almost always wrong." This is a value judgment. That he is a philosopher gives his values no more weight than those of any randomly selected individual. If he goes on to support his value judgment by giving reasons, that's different. But notice: any argument he makes for his value judgment must contain at least one other value judgment as a premise, and then we're back where we started, wondering why anyone should care about Jeff McMahan's values. I don't understand why philosophers think they're special. Their expertise lies not in value judgments but in analyzing concepts, clarifying arguments, identifying fallacies, uncovering hidden assumptions, and so forth. Philosophical expertise is technical, not substantive.
McMahan says that torture "ought to be prohibited absolutely in law." This betrays ignorance of how law works. (McMahan has no legal credentials.) There are always defenses to criminal conduct. One such defense is necessity. Another is self-defense. Another is defense of others. All of these apply, at least in principle, to cases of torture. McMahan also ignores the possibility of jury nullification. If X tortures Y in order to extract information from Y that will save many innocent lives, no jury would convict X; nor, arguably, should a jury convict X.
It's good to see a prominent philosopher admit that "Torture can be morally justified." McMahan goes further than this and says that torture can be "obligatory." Many soft-headed but loud-mouthed academics (such as Jamie Mayerfeld) will attack McMahan for saying this. He is brave to risk their wrath.
McMahan reasons that if it's right to kill a person in order to save many innocent lives, then it's right to torture a person to save many innocent lives. The reason is that "being killed is generally worse than being tortured." I have made this point many times during the past few years. There are philosophers who say that torturing is always wrong but who refuse to say that killing is always wrong. I don't understand this. It's an inversion (indeed, a perversion) of value.
McMahan writes: "I have said that it might be permissible to torture a terrorist to force him to reveal the location of a bomb or a hostage, but that would be quite different from torturing the terrorist's child as a means of extracting the same information." Is it McMahan's position that it is absolutely wrong to kill an innocent person, even if that is the only way to prevent dozens, hundreds, or thousands of deaths of innocent people? The reason I ask is that, if it's right to kill an innocent person to save many innocent lives, then it's right to torture an innocent person (such as the aforementioned child) to save many innocent lives. And what if we don't know that the person we have in our custody is "a terrorist"? Mustn't we assume that the person is innocent, like the child? McMahan seems not to have thought this matter through.
In his final contribution to the interview, McMahan displays his partisanship. He says the Bush administration "lied to its citizens about its torture policy." Really? I don't recall any lies of this nature, and I've been paying close attention since at least the attacks of 9-11. In fact, the Bush administration has vehemently denied torturing anyone. (If McMahan thinks waterboarding is torture, he must explain why, which will require not only analysis of the concept of torture but examination of the facts of waterboarding.) McMahan never tells us what torture is. Does he think that torture is any form of humiliating, degrading, or unpleasant treatment? It's far more than that, both in ordinary speech and in the law. McMahan also accuses the Bush administration of committing "clandestine criminal acts." Specifics, please. The partisanship displayed by these statements (which are breathtaking, really) undermines McMahan's credibility. He comes across as a partisan first and a philosopher second, which is to say, not a philosopher at all. To be a philosopher, one must be first and foremost a philosopher. The model is the great Socrates.
Read the interview and come to your own conclusions.
I took this picture (click to enlarge) from the Harley-Davidson dealership in Sturgis, South Dakota. Do you see the "Sturgis" sign on the hillside? The weather that morning was gorgeous. We were on our way to the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, which was many miles away, so we didn't stay long—just long enough to buy some shirts and take some pictures at the dealership.
My heart goes out to all the parents of children stopped by law enforcement officers in pursuit of their duties. It can be terribly frightening. I have given the same advice to my own son about how to behave if stopped by the police. It’s just common sense.
Almost 50 years ago, the car I was in was stopped by the police: The driver and I were instructed to get out of the car, hands up, were given no explanation and weren’t asked for ID. I was terrified and confused.
Finally, after being told that we resembled suspects in a robbery, we were released. Although no guns were drawn, I am certain that they would have been if it had happened today, in this age of an armed citizenry, for officer safety reasons.
By the way, I am a white woman, and my son is white. Sometimes it is not about race and gender, but only officer safety.
JESSE ALLEN Santa Fe, N.M., Jan. 26, 2015
Note from KBJ: The lesson is simple: If you don't want to be mistaken for a criminal and treated like a criminal, don't act like a criminal, dress like a criminal, talk like a criminal, or hang around with criminals.
Have you noticed the correlation between (1) skepticism about global warming and (2) dogmatism about global warming? Every expression of skepticism so frustrates and angers the global warmists that they increase the certitude of their claims. They've gone from "there is evidence that the globe is warming" to "in all likelihood, the globe is warming" to "the globe is almost certainly warming" to "without a reasonable doubt, the globe is warming (and anyone who thinks otherwise is stupid, ignorant, or beholden to Big Oil)." The fact that dogmatism increases in response to expressions of skepticism shows that the global-warming hypothesis is political rather than scientific. The proper scientific attitude toward any theory or hypothesis is skepticism. Dogmatism of any sort has no place in science.
A committee at the University of Chicago has issued a report on freedom of expression. Here is an excerpt:
Except insofar as limitations on that freedom [to "speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn"] are necessary to the functioning of the University, the University of Chicago fully respects and supports the freedom of all members of the University community “to discuss any problem that presents itself.”
Of course, the ideas of different members of the University community will often and quite naturally conflict. But it is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive. Although the University greatly values civility, and although all members of the University community share in the responsibility for maintaining a climate of mutual respect, concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community.
This is a breath of fresh air (though one wonders whether the committee members contemplate speech about race and intelligence, climate change, innate sex differences, the immorality of homosexual conduct, and the inherent violence of certain religions). College campuses are suffocating places. Instead of being sites in which ideas are bandied about, they are places of stifling conformity. Part of this is due to the students, many or most of whom were raised to believe that they—and their ideas—are special. Instead of developing thick skins, so as to ward off offensive or challenging speech, they became intolerant of anything that makes them uncomfortable. The parents and teachers who produced these students should be ashamed of themselves. If you don't like what someone says, speak out against it. If you think someone's ideas are false, say so and support your claim. The more speech, the better.
The weather is bad (and getting worse) on the East Coast, but it's gorgeous here in North Texas. I just rode 30.6 miles in glorious sunshine, with temperatures in the mid-50s to upper 60s. The music was good; the air was clean; the wind was moderate; the traffic (including pedestrians) was light; and I felt strong as a bull. What's not to like? I've pedaled 275.4 miles already this year, with many more to come.
Regarding “Tough-love message for black community” (Jan. 21), I’m glad to see some prominent members of the African American community taking a stand for responsibility from within the community. Responsibility does start at home. In the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., nonviolence, education, and character (values) are keys to taking advantage of the hard-won opportunities of the Civil Rights Movement.
Yes, of course there are larger societal issues at play, but more significant positive change will come in the majority of black communities when someone turning in a criminal is considered a hero, when violently taking what you want from someone else or dealing drugs is not a lifestyle choice, when the norm is having children with stable fathers (and mothers) after completing education and academics as well as other successful African Americans are as prominent role-models as athletes and rap singers. By the way, these values apply to all ethnicities and communities. As any nerd who was bullied as a kid can tell you, the sweetest revenge is success.
Some of you will recall that I'm reading the 10-volume Encyclopedia of Philosophy (second edition) at the rate of two pages per day. I've been at it since 24 April 2007. Today I finished the letter "P." Among the entries I've read are:
Pain Panpsychism Paradigm-Case Argument Parfit, Derek Patriotism Paul of Venice Performative Theory of Truth Pessimism and Optimism Philodemus Philosophy of Film Philosophy of Sex Pico della Mirandola, Count Giovanni Plurals and Plurality Posner, Richard
I read the two pages first thing in the morning. It takes about 15 minutes.