April 2009: Nobody asked me, but

Kant and the torture debate, Coors Field East, and other observations

With tip of the ballcap (for borrowing his signature phrase) to the late, great New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon: nobody asked me, but…

THE RECENT DEBATE OVER TORTURE HAS FOUND THE NATION’S CAPITAL FILLED WITH… KANTIANS. The 19th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, famous for his advocacy of duty-based ethics, argued that universal maxims, once established, should be followed no matter the circumstances or consequences. President Barack Obama and many liberal Democrats have taken a decidedly Kantian position on what they call torture (and neo-conservatives call “enhanced interrogation techniques”), maintaining that it should never be employed under any circumstances, and that captured terror suspects should be interrogated only under the restrictive rules of the Army Field Manual.

Obama and his allies have undercut their profession of Kantian absolutism, however, by considering the question of whether the CIA’s waterboarding of Al Qaeda terrorists was effective (they say it was not, although Obama’s director of national intelligence, Dennis Blair, stated that those harsh interrogations did  produce “high-value information”). But as any self-respecting Kantian knows, the utility of an action is immaterial to its morality. To put it another way: if you decide torture is always wrong, if you make its abolition a Categorical Imperative (in Kantian terms, an unconditional moral law) it doesn’t matter whether it works or not. Kant on this question: “Do what is right, though the world may perish.”

A different strain of moral philosophy, consequentialism, holds that the morality of an action should be judged by its results. This, of course, is the philosophic position taken by the circle around President George W. Bush. They argue that “enhanced interrogation techniques” saved American lives by staving off additional post-9/11 terror attacks.  Consequentialism is a more pragmatic approach, which is perhaps why the philosophic movement advanced by Charles Peirce, William James and John Dewey was called Pragmatism. It’s a theory with clear appeal for results-oriented Americans.

What if the CIA takes an Al Qaeda leader into custody who is likely to know the operational details of a planned attack on the New York subways? Under Kantian principles, you would refrain from torture (or “enchanced interrogation techniques”) no matter the consequences, no matter the potential loss of life. Would CIA head Leon Panetta and Obama hold to their Army Field Manual standard for interrogation, which one critic argued “is so anemic, that it goes below the level of coercion associated with police station level of interrogation”? Panetta has sent mixed signals about how far he would be willing to go, telling the Senate Intelligence Committee in his confirmation hearings:

“If we had the ticking bomb situation and I felt that whatever we were using wasn’t sufficient, I would not hesitate to go to the president and request any additional authority that we would need.”

Establishing an absolute ban on torture but seeking “additional authority” to “enhance” interrogation could easily mutate into a policy very much like the Bush Administration’s. Or as the Who once sang: “Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss.”

The most puzzling aspect of the torture debate is President Obama’s decision to release memos from the Bush years dealing with enhanced interrogation, and then “making it clear that he does not intend to press charges against those involved in the decision-making or the interrogations. ” Why trigger a national debate over the issue if you aren’t going to seek a resolution either through prosecution or Congressional hearings? (For the record: I take a Kantian position against any use of  those techniques, like waterboarding, which have been regarded as torture for centuries and “shock the conscience.”)

MONEY CAN’T BUY LOVE, IT’S SAID, AND THE NEW YORK YANKEES WILL ONCE AGAIN PROVE THAT IT CAN’T PURCHASE THE AMERICAN LEAGUE PENNANT. The Yanks are off to a slow start, dropping their first five games to their hated rival, the Boston Red Sox, and watching home runs sail out of the new Yankee Stadium at record pace (some are calling it Coors Field East!). All this despite (or perhaps because of) the highest payroll in major league baseball!

COUNT ON COLUMNIST FROMA HARROP FOR UNCONVENTIONAL INSIGHTS, nowhere more apparent than in her recent musings on the state of marriage circa 2009: “A Nation of Unwed Drudgery.” Harrop looks at the growing trend of  single motherhood and notes that the fathers involved often go AWOL, walking away from their responsibilities for childrearing. The result: “Most such single mothers become beasts of burden.” To provide some context: when Daniel Patrick Moynihan warned of the dangers to social cohesion presented by illegitimacy in his controversial 1965 report “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” the illegitimacy rate stood 22 percent for black Americans and 8 percent nationally. Today, those numbers are 71 percent and 38 percent.

It is hard to imagine how many of the pressing domestic challenges, from income inequality to crime to inadequate education, can be effectively addressed without confronting this breakdown in the nuclear family. That will require changes in government tax policy to support married couples, a change in the cultural attitudes about unwed motherhood, and a recognition that silence about these issues no longer suffices. Can these disturbing trends be reversed? Difficult, but not impossible.

WHAT IS GLOBAL CAPITALISM’S FUTURE? Paul Kennedy offered his predictions in a fascinating Financial Times essay in March. Kennedy discounts the prospects of an egalitarian, Marxist alternative, and instead posits a “new post-excess neocapitalist political economy.” He adds:

It will be a system where the animal spirits of the market will be closely watched (and tamed) by a variety of national and international zookeepers – a taming of which the great bulk of the spectators will heartily approve – but there will be no ritual murder of the free-enterprise principle, even if we have to plunge further into depression for the next years.

“DO AS I SAY, NOT AS I DO” MUST BE THE MANTRA OF THE NEW YORK TIMES COMPANY, as its hard-ball negotiating tactics with the Boston Globe hardly match up with the editorial positions taken by the Times on employer-labor issues. The New York Times Company has successfully pressured the unions at the Globe for major concessions (including cuts in health care and other benefits) and threatened to shut down Boston’s leading newspaper if it didn’t get those givebacks. It’s not the stance you would expect from an organization whose flagship newspaper has long carried pro-union editorials (including support for the Employee Free Choice Act, which would eliminate secret ballot elections on the question of union representation). Full disclosure:  In the past, I worked for both the New York Times Company and the Boston Globe.

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM FROM AMERICAN WRITER SUSAN SONTAG (1933-2004): “I envy paranoids. They actually feel someone is paying attention to them.”

Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserve


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