An Analysis of the Utilitarian and Kantian Arguments for and against Torture
Alan Dershowitz expresses moral approval (with reservations) in his essay "Should the Ticking Time Bomb Terrorist be Tortured?" Dershowitz's argument is essentially that of a Utilitarian. But it also contains elements of Kantianism. While a Kantian, however, could argue against the moral correctness of torture, Dershowitz steers the argument away from a Kantian perusal of the moral correctness of the argument through universality, which Dershowitz describes as a "slippery slope" (297), and concludes with a self-centered Utilitarian perspective that approves of torture as long as it meets specific criteria (i.e., is "above-board," "recorded," etc.). In this paper I will analyze whether torture is morally acceptable from both a Utilitarian and a Kantian perspective and show conclusively how either could actually be used to argue for and against torture.
The reason that both may be used to support either stance is that while the Kantian perspective may attempt to assess the universal moral correctness of torture, it is not limited to accepting such an assessment but, indeed, may leave the door open to other interpretations, which can alter as the universal perspective also alters; in other words, truth may be objective, but it is discernable only subjectively and therefore discernment is always subject to change. Likewise, the Utilitarian, may argue that torture is morally acceptable because it preserves life for those threatened by terrorists; on the other hand, the Utilitarian may also take into account (unlike Dershowitz) the opinion of Aristotle, which is that "evidence given under torture is not true" (Rhetoric 1377a), thus implying that actions based on such information could have worse effects on one's life and the lives of one's community than actions based on other means of intelligence. It simply depends on what information the Utilitarian chooses to base his opinions. His end of happiness is always the same -- but how he arrives there is open for interpretation. Kantianism also has an end or goal in mind, which is truth -- but this end is elusive because Kant's categorical imperative is subject to subjective interpretations, and thus can be viewed in opposing ways.
Utilitarianism, first of all, is a philosophy whose morality is based on the preservation of self. According to John Stuart Mill, actions are morally acceptable and "right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness" (qtd. In Fox). Utilitarianism in other words is not based on the "objective" transcendentals of ancient definition, such as the one, the good, and the true. Instead, it is based on a cross of Enlightenment doctrine with Hedonism. It asserts that all men desire happiness and that because man is rational he should do whatever is in his best interest. It follows that, since no man is an island, the Utilitarian should also deal rationally and correctly with others, since it is in his best interest to treat others as he would like to be treated. But self-preservation supersedes all else, thus the Utilitarian is able to argue that torture is morally acceptable if it can help save the life of oneself or the lives of one's community or nation.
But the Utilitarian is not limited to such a perspective. Because his philosophy is based on the subjective philosophy of Immanuel Kant, who also called into question the idea that man could measure himself against an external, objective and transcendental moral law, the Utilitarian is able to examine the facts in as many different lights as he can justifiably arrange. For example, Mill writes that "if [society] issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practices social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression" (Mill 13). This is to be avoided, according to Mill, because social tyranny is opposed to human happiness. If torture leads to social tyranny, as Aristotle claims it can, and the Utilitarian chooses to accept Aristotle's opinion, then the Utilitarian is free to argue against torture. Dershowitz, in fact, does argue against torture when it is done in secret, because he views such conduct as leading easily to abuses and human rights violations. Torture that is conducted in open and under careful watch and according to explicit and agreed-upon guidelines is more legitimate. For Dershowitz, the argument is not whether torture produces information that is true, it is whether torture should be practiced out in the open or behind closed doors: the former would help keep human rights in check and help preserve happiness; the latter leads to human rights violations, resentment, and unhappiness.
Kantianism, on the other hand, asks whether we can really know if something exists. Such doubt is a skeptical attack on the school of empiricism. Kantianism attempts to discern the intellect's ability to judge what is real and unreal. A Kantian is not bound to accept an objective morality (i.e., that torture is correct or incorrect), because he insists on viewing objective morality subjectively, which opens the door for multiple and conflicting opinions. Kantianism, therefore, cannot help us decide if torture is morally permissible anymore than Utilitarianism can, because it is, essentially, a fundamentally subjective system of philosophy in which nothing certain can be stated. Like Utilitarianism, it is not based on an objective perception of transcendentals.
The very proof of my argument is made by Kantians themselves -- people who profess to know what Kantianism is cannot even agree as to whether torture would be morally permissible. What Kantianism effectively does is -- like Utilitarianism -- it allows you to bend all manner of information into whatever conclusion you desire to reach. It is a philosophy that elevates subjectivity over objectivity, which inhibits anyone from making a claim such as, "Torture is morally and objectively evil," as Aristotle does. A Kantian can easily argue that torture is morally acceptable if it is done in a manner that is universally acceptable in an approved moral framework for human rights that recognizes the worth of every human being (which is basically how Dershowitz gets to his conclusion that torture is morally acceptable if it is done within a precise and approved of code).
But another Kantian could easily argue that torture is a violation against correct morality if it destroys even only one innocent life. This is essentially Ivan's dilemma, which Dershowitz points out in his article. Dershowitz, however, arguing as a Utilitarian attempts to get around this point by simply dropping it. The Utilitarian is not able to utilize Ivan's argument, and therefore has no use for it in reaching the conclusion he desires to reach. This is a selective and subjective kind of reasoning that refuses to answer the more difficult questions.
To assert, moreover, that Kant would have said this and that Kantianism permits such-and-such behavior is absurd: Kantianism is self-defeating: it can be reduced to a mere empty and contradictory cliche: There is no truth and that is the truth. Such a pronouncement is ridiculous but that is Kantianism, and to pretend to use it as any kind of moral guideline shows a lack of desire for objectivity and truth.
Of course, some will argue that my reading of Kantianism is completely false and circular -- that Kantianism is really a highly thought-out and much-respected philosophy, and that it has influenced thinking for centuries and spawned some of the "best" schools of thought; therefore, there is no reason one could not use Kantianism to decide whether torture is morally permissible: just because two people cannot agree on what Kantianism would say, does not mean it does not work. This is what a Utilitarian would argue, because the Utilitarian relies upon Kantianism to achieve its own end, which is his or her own subjective happiness.
My argument against such a claim is simply this: the Middle Ages held its own philosophy -- and it was objective: meaning, it held the highest regard for objective truth. Such can be seen in the work of Thomas Aquinas, whose scholasticism was based heavily on the work of Aristotle and other Greek philosophers. One could, as a rule, discern the arguments made by the scholastics, and arrive at the same conclusion as everyone else who discerned those arguments. For example, one could arrive at the conclusion that torture is not morally permissible for the reason that its end is highly unreliable.
Yet, the Utilitarian objection to this kind of objectivity could be this -- that torture's results may be doubtful, but torture itself may act as a kind of determent to other terrorists, who risk being caught. But, again, this is an example of the Utilitarian sidestepping the objective realities in favor of his own subjectively-hoped for conclusion.
Kantianism and Utilitarianism both, ultimately, appeal to pedants and semanticists. Most modern philosophy does. It is based on the idea that man can reshape reality as he sees fit: it disregards the concept…