Thursday, April 30, 2009

Jon Stewart vs. Cliff May

Continuing our ongoing series on torture, Jon Stewart's extended interview/debate with Cliff May on Torture is pretty interesting, the three parts are up here.

I thought the most philosophically interesting part of the conversation hit in the third clip. Cliff May points out the incongruity of claiming that torture is impermissible, while shooting suspected terrorists in Pakistan with Predator missles is. Stewart responds that different rules apply when people are "on the battlefield."

I think the distinction Jon is trying to make is that captured agents are "defanged," and that it's less humane to mistreat people who cannot harm you.

Where I disagree is when high level terrorists have direct knowledge of impending attacks. By withholding this information they are threatening specific harm, the harm of those attacks going unaverted.

One possible response might be that the harm threatened is through an omission, "not telling," rather than an act, like "shooting at you." But the act/omission distinction doesn't hold very much meaning in this situation. The person in custody is the very same person who set the harmful course into effect (through planning and encouraging future terrorist attacks). It's like at the end of Dark Knight, where Batman says "I can't kill you, but I don't have to save you," after Batman has basically completely engineered Ra's al Ghul's demise. The moral distinction between acts and omissions is sometimes meaningful, but becomes silly when the omission is "preventing a harm I already caused."

But even if we agree there's a gap between training camps and prisons, and that a captured individual is simply off-limits by virtue of his capture. When our intuitions tell us that to prevent an attack it's ok to drop a bomb on 20 "suspects" rather than torture one confirmed high level terrorist, our intuitions are telling us something at least somewhat puzzling.