Academic journal article South African Journal of Philosophy

Political Obligation, Dirty Hands and Torture; A Moral Evaluation

Academic journal article South African Journal of Philosophy

Political Obligation, Dirty Hands and Torture; A Moral Evaluation

Article excerpt

Abstract

The example of a political leader who has to decide whether he would allow the torture of a suspect in order to get information about a ticking bomb has become notorious in ethical discussions concerning the tension between moral principles and political necessity. The relation between these notions must be made as clear as possible before a sincere moral evaluation of ticking bomb situations can be given. The first section of this article considers whether the concept of political obligation is different from moral and legal obligations or whether it is a special kind of moral obligation. In the second section, the idea that the dirty hands problem confronts us with the ambiguities of moral life is rejected because it would imply an untenable moral paradox. The thesis that is developed is, namely, if there is such a thing as political necessity, it must be some form of moral obligation. The third section analyses the concept of political necessity and concludes that it cannot overrule basic moral principles and that the international legal prohibition of torture must be considered to be a categorical imperative. In the last section, these ideas concerning political and moral necessity are brought in against the defence of torture, which should be tolerated in the 'War on Terror'. There it will be argued that the use of the ticking bomb argument not only supports a highly hypocrite political practice but is also deceptive as a moral and political argument.

Introduction

Since the attack on the Twin Towers in 2001, the 'ticking bomb argument' is successfully brought in as a popular argument to defend some forms of torture that should be tolerated in the 'War on Terror'. The argument is based on the example of a political leader who has to decide whether he would allow the torture of a suspect in order to retrieve information about a ticking bomb that would potentially kill hundreds of people. This example has been used as a hypothetical case in different discourses about moral and legal dilemmas. Mostly, it is used to defend an hypothetical action of torture. The conviction that torture must be tolerated, if it is necessary for retrieving information in order to prevent the deaths of hundreds of people, appears to be widely spread, even under liberal democrats. In an impressive article, David Luban writes:

'Alan Dershowitz reported in 2002 that "[d]uring numerous public appearances since September 11, 2001, I have asked audiences for a show of hands as to how many would support the use of nonlethal torture in a ticking-bomb case. Virtually every hand is raised." American abhorrence to torture now appears to have extraordinarily shallow roots' (Luban 2005: 1426).

Luban characterises the ticking bomb argument as an intellectual fraud (1452). I am in support of this argument; in the last section of this article I shall argue that the use of the ticking bomb argument not only supports a highly hypocrite political practice but is also deceptive as a moral and political argument. The argument, nevertheless, has a great rhetorical power. As such it also plays an important role in a broader moral discourse concerning the tension between moral principles and political necessity. My thesis is that the relation between these notions must be made as clear as possible before a sincere moral evaluation of ticking bomb situations can be given. Therefore, I shall give, firstly, a critical examination of some moral theories that use the ticking bomb example as an illustration for the moral ambiguities of difficult political situations in which it is impossible to keep one's hands clean.

1. The concept of political obligation

Political obligation is mostly considered to be the obligation of citizens to obey the laws and commands of the state (See e.g. Hare 1976: 1-12). Under normal circumstances, all citizens ought to behave in conformity with their conscientious interpretation of the law. This obligation to obey can be understood as a moral duty - the explanation of which does not need a special conception of political obligation, which is distinct from legal or ethical obligation. …

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