Snell: What kind of society do we want to live in?

Barry Snell

Virtue is anathema to many Americans these days, I swear.

The other day I was having a discussion with an old Army buddy about torturing terrorists for information. This is an old debate, but to recap, the United States began employing what Big Brother Newspeak calls “advanced interrogation techniques” when “interviewing” terrorist suspects sometime within the last decade.

Oldspeak, or the way normal people talk anyway, calls that “torture.”

Torture as an interrogation technique is nothing new, even to the United States. However, as an official policy for dealing with prisoners of war, torture is a completely new thing to our country.

“F— those guys, they’re terrorists,” my friend said. “If we don’t get the information from them, lots of people could die. So we hurt one terrorist to save hundreds. Who cares? What if they’ve got a nuke?”

“What about individual rights? Don’t we protect those here in America?” I questioned.

“But they’re not Americans,” he replied. “They’re just a bunch of assholes with guns and bombs, trying to kill as many Americans as they can.”

So I asked, “Rights still matter. And anyway, what about morality? Either everyone has rights and morality is an inflexible code not subject to the whims of society’s passions, or the entire American philosophy of rights and governance is complete nonsense. Remember that oath you took?”

And so the conversation went.

This whole argument is one of utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is a philosophical theory in which its creator, Jeremy Bentham, sought to reduce decisions on social matters to a simple calculation based on the pleasure of the majority. Bentham based this idea on the concept that individuals made decisions based on how much pleasure or pain the action would give them.

For example, students procrastinate studying for their midterms because it’s a lot more fun to play Xbox than it is to study for one’s statistics exam, which without a doubt sucks. Another utilitarian might argue that studying and getting a good grade has a higher pleasure value in the long run because it reduces academic stress, improves one’s GPA and one stands to get a better job someday.

Bentham said we can apply this same individual calculation to social problems: Whatever increases the happiness of the greatest amount of people, even if a minority is less happy as a result, is the right decision to make. This is how our government, and many citizens, arrived at the decision that torturing people is an OK thing to do. Like my friend said, if we don’t torture one guy, we might see many more innocent people die.

But the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

An interesting characteristic of some utilitarian calculations is a factor that reduces the humanity of the affected minority. In the terrorist example it’s obvious: the guy is a suspected terrorist. What’s more loathsome these days than the terrorist boogie man that we’re told is lurking everywhere (justifying our massive military expenditures and endless wars)?

So to get at the heart of this matter, take the terrorist out of the equation and ask this instead: What if we torture the terrorist’s innocent 9-year-old daughter to compel him to talk? The utilitarian calculation still exists; torture the one girl to potentially save many others. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, right?

Wrong. Cue buzzer sound.

Morality and individual rights matter. Not only do they matter, but they are fixed and unchanging. Either it’s wrong to murder someone or it’s not. Either you have the right to free speech or you don’t. These concepts won’t be any different a thousand years from now, even if society changes how much importance it places on them.

If utilitarian philosophy is correct, then the only thing that matters are the numbers. This means we need to be flexible in our morals and how much or how little we value the rights and dignity of human beings. If utilitarianism is correct, then our principles of morality and rights are all about an ever-changing cost-benefit analysis in an “economy of humanity” after all.

This ought to make you uncomfortable, even if you haven’t the first clue about classical liberalism that forms the foundation of the United State’s philosophy.

All too often, utilitarian calculus is used to justify or incite government action, from the torture of terrorists to the economy to welfare programs to health care. Clever politicians and interest groups twist these issues to fool you into thinking they’re addressing individual rights. Quite often, though, there’s a minority group somewhere — even just a minority of one — getting the shaft because society’s passions overwhelm them.

In a nation with more than 300 million individual interests, we can’t be perfect. But we need to stop the cycle of political utilitarianism and cease making decisions based purely on how many people something will positively effect. In the end, isn’t that really more about popular appeal and winning elections and less about doing the right thing?

Utilitarian logic can certainly be part of the debate, but living a life of virtue means more than figuring the numbers. Rights and morality matter in a principled society … What kind of society do we want to live in?