Reducing religion & morality to what is “useful”

More from Daniel Schwindt on de Tocqueville, this time about how Americans–because of their rationalism and individualism–tend to see both religion and morality in terms of what is “useful.”  (Again, thanks to Daniel Broaddus.) [Read more...]

Absolute ethics vs. Pragmatism

If postmodernists are right in saying that there are no absolutes of truth or morality, how can they function?  The answer, according to both the masses and philosophers such as Richard Rorty, is pragmatism.  Just do what “works.”  Don’t worry about what is true or what is good, just pursue your practical agenda.

Now pragmatism is a philosophy, an ideology, and a worldview that is utterly opposed to Christianity.  And yet many Christians adopt it unthinkingly, determining the way they worship and the things they teach according to the tenets of pragmatism.  (We want to get more people to join our churches, so let’s eliminate the obstacles to that, whether in practice or theology.)

It’s interesting to see how people who perceive a moral issue nevertheless appeal to pragmatism to make a better case.   For example, in the debates about torture, most of those who reject the practice do so on moral grounds but then make a pragmatic claim:  Torture doesn’t work anyway!

Conversely, many people who do hold to moral absolutes often revert to pragmatism.  Yes, torture may be wrong in principle, but if we could save a thousand lives by torturing one person, it would be worth it.  (This is actually an example of Enlightenment-era utilitarianism, which sought to evade Biblical absolutes and to justify the abuses of the Industrial Revolution by promoting “the greater good for the greater number.”)

Now it appears that torture actually DOES work.  Not by crudely getting someone to tell the truth to make the pain stop–which, of course, would encourage saying ANYTHING–but by a sophisticated process of psychological manipulation.

M. Gregg Bloche, a physician and lawyer, faces up to the fact that his fellow liberals need to be willing to oppose torture on moral grounds even though it works pragmatically.  A sample:

Torture, liberals like me often insist, isn’t just immoral, it’s ineffective. We like this proposition because it portrays us as protectors of the nation, not wusses willing to risk American lives to protect terrorists. And we love to quote seasoned interrogators’ assurances that building rapport with the bad guys will get them to talk. . . .

The idea that waterboarding and other abuses may have been effective in getting information from detainees is repellant to many, including me. It’s contrary to the meme many have embraced: that torture doesn’t work because people being abused to the breaking point will say anything to get the brutality to stop — anything they think their accusers want to hear.

But this position is at odds with some behavioral science, I’ve learned. The architects of enhanced interrogation are doctors who built on a still-classified, research-based model that suggests how abuse can indeed work.

I’ve examined the science, studied the available paper trail and interviewed key actors, including several who helped develop the enhanced interrogation program and who haven’t spoken publicly before. This inquiry has made it possible to piece together the model that undergirds enhanced interrogation.

This model holds that harsh methods can’t, by themselves, force terrorists to tell the truth. Brute force, it suggests, stiffens resistance. Rather, the role of abuse is to induce hopelessness and despair. That’s what sleep deprivation, stress positions and prolonged isolation were designed to do. Small gestures of contempt — facial slaps and frequent insults — drive home the message of futility. Even the rough stuff, such as “walling” and waterboarding, is meant to dispirit, not to coerce.

Once a sense of hopelessness is instilled, the model holds, interrogators can shape behavior through small rewards. Bathroom breaks, reprieves from foul-tasting food and even the occasional kind word can coax broken men to comply with their abusers’ expectations.

Certainly, interrogators using this approach have obtained false confessions. Chinese interrogators did so intentionally, for propaganda purposes, with American prisoners during the Korean War. McCain and other critics of “torture-lite” cite this precedent to argue that it can’t yield reliable information. But the same psychological sequence — induction of hopelessness, followed by rewards to shape compliance — can be used to get terrorism suspects to tell the truth, or so the architects of enhanced interrogation hypothesize.

Critical to this model is the ability to assess suspects’ truthfulness in real time. To this end, CIA interrogators stressed speedy integration of intelligence from all sources. The idea was to frame questions to detect falsehoods; interrogators could then reward honesty and punish deceit.

via Torture-lite: It’s wrong, and it might work – The Washington Post.

So can those of you who oppose torture AND those of you who believe it justified make your case WITHOUT referring to pragmatic arguments?


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