The moral unseriousness of torture and other stupid “tough guy” solutions to the world’s problems

The moral unseriousness of torture and other stupid “tough guy” solutions to the world’s problems December 11, 2014

Cheney-flag-soldiers-554x412In the world of politics, most things are the opposite of what they seem. When politicians use cheap and dirty PR stunts to trick the media into to the narrative that they’re tough straight-shooters, they’re being the opposite of genuinely tough straight-shooters who actually stick to their principles no matter how great a PR disaster they’re creating for their Olivia Pope handlers and how merciless a pounding they’re receiving from that class of blabbering idiots known as pundits. One of the most disastrous acts of political posturing in recent history has been the use of torture as part of the war on terror in order to give politicians a means of showing that they were taking terrorism “seriously.” Noah Millman at the American Conservative elaborates:

Willingness to torture became, first within elite government and opinion-making circles, then in the culture generally, and finally as a partisan GOP talking point, a litmus test of seriousness with respect to the fight against terrorism. That – proving one’s seriousness in the fight – was its primary purpose from the beginning, in my view. It was only secondarily about extracting intelligence… It was our psychological security blanket, our best evidence that we were “all-in” in this war, the thing that proved to us that we were fierce enough to win.

Daniel Larison then builds on Millman’s commentary by pointing out the irony that this posturing of “seriousness” through torture is the ultimate display of moral unseriousness:

Because of the bias in our debates in favor of hard-line policies, preventive war and torture not only become acceptable “options” worth considering, but they have often been treated as possessing the quality–seriousness–that they most lack. The belief that a government is entitled to invade a foreign country and destroy its government on the off chance that the latter might one day pose a threat is an outstanding example of something that is morally unserious. That is, it reveals the absence or the rejection of careful moral reasoning. Likewise, believing that a government should ever be allowed to torture people is the opposite of what comes from serious moral reflection.

I would simply add that there are so many other “tough guy” solutions to problems in our world that are morally unserious precisely because they’re no more than shallow posturing tactics for exuding “seriousness.” Another great example is the quagmire of our national immigration debate. Right now most undocumented immigrants are part of the giant 10+ million job blue-collar independent contractor labor sector. The reason why they’re undocumented is because there is no legal way to migrate to this country and work as a blue collar independent contractor. We simply don’t have a visa for it. So the practical solution would be to create a blue-collar independent contractor visa with which workers could seasonally migrate to the United States for work and retain their residences in their home countries where their families could live for incredibly cheaper. This would dramatically reduce the number of people migrating to the United States permanently. Why can’t we do it? Because it would be “rewarding lawbreakers,” according to the politicians who need to show that they take breaking the law “seriously” but don’t have any interest in finding practical solutions that address the problem.

Similarly morally unserious politics are exemplified in the policies of our criminal justice system. Instead of trying to figure out on a practical level how to reduce recidivism and make correctional facilities into places of actual social rehabilitation, our politicians are more interested in showing their constituents that they take crime “seriously” by putting mandatory minimum sentences on drug crimes, taking away ex-felons’ rights to vote, and other policies that do nothing to address the problems that cause crime, but rather give politicians the means to show that they’re not “softies.”

There are so many other issues we could talk about where politicians choose the posturing of “seriousness” over genuinely thoughtful moral seriousness. We could talk about climate change, health care, child welfare, public schools, taxes, guns, and just about every other issue. So kudos to the American Conservative for being conservatives with enough integrity to call out morally unserious faux “seriousness” among politicians who love nothing more than dishing out the red meat to their rabid base.

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  • rogerclegg

    Re felon voting: If
    you aren’t willing to follow the law yourself, then you can’t demand a role in
    making the law for everyone else, which is what you do when you vote. The right to vote can be restored to felons,
    but it should be done carefully, on a case-by-case basis after a person has
    shown that he or she has really turned over a new leaf, not automatically on
    the day someone walks out of prison.
    After all, the unfortunate truth is that most people who walk out of
    prison will be walking back in. Read
    more about this issue on our website here
    [ ] and our congressional testimony here: [

    • Guest

      Wrong. Once somebody’s sentence has been completed that’s it. Their punishment is over. Unless, of course, you are a conservative and want to have a permanent underclass to exploit.

      • rogerclegg

        There are all kinds of consequences that follow from committing a felony that continue even after the prison sentence has been completed. For example, felons are generally not allowed to possess firearms or serve on juries, and of course you would not suggest — I hope — that a convicted child molester should be hired to work in a public school. Likewise, we have certain minimum, objective standards of responsibility and commitment to the law that must be met before someone is included in the solemn enterprise of self-government. People who have committed serious crimes against their fellow citizens can’t be presumed to meet those standards until they go some period of time without committing new crimes.

        • Guest

          That “period of time” would be the time they are in jail. And nobody has the right to work in a school, public or otherwise. All Americans have (or should have) the right to vote.

          Edited to say: Now that I’ve been thinking about it, I don’t think they should lose the right to vote even while they are incarcerated. For one thing, not everybody in jail is guilty. For another, voting is a right. I’m against taking away rights, including gun rights so long as the 2nd amendment exists, although I am in favor of repealing it. I don’t think serving on a jury is a right, but it seems most people would rather not do it anyway, which is sad.

  • Melissa

    This issue of torturing our enemies and then justifying it seems to me a
    look into the depths of the cancer that has grown under the skin of
    Christianity (because let’s face it, do you know any “Conservatives” in
    this country that would not consider themselves Christians? I don’t.).

    Jesus said to love our enemies. Why? Because when we allow ourselves the
    indulgence of hating our enemies a piece of our humanity is killed—it is that piece that looks like God in us—his image. The hatred becomes a poison within us that kills the most important, most fragile, part of ourselves.

    When we refuse to the see the image of God in our enemies, the image of God in us dies in some way. We end up causing moredamage to ourselves because we have killed the image of God in ourselves which allows us to accept more and more hateful means of dealing with our enemies. We cannot feel God’s love for those we have been commanded to love. Our lives, and our world desperately need this love of God. Jesus himself died giving this kind of love. Why do we think we should be above having to fight for this love in ourselves? It is not easy. It is hard. But we do not attain it by approving torture.