Moral Absolutes

I just read an essay by a guy named Jeremy Waldron who discusses “moral absolutes,” and attempts to defend his own “absolute” position against torture, i.e. the view that torture is always morally wrong, no matter the circumstances.

He identifies his primary challenge as being able to defend that position in the context of hypothetical cases where torture is necessary in order to avoid great suffering, e.g. in order to prevent many innocent people from being harmed or killed.

He explains that, up against such hypotheticals, he cannot simply keep emphasizing how truly damaging and immoral the act of torture is:

This is because the opponent of absolutism, if he knows his
business, can duplicate anything we want to say about the badness of torture on his side of the argument.

He credits to Jeremy Bentham a hypothetical case where torture is necessary in order to prevent the torture of 100 other innocent people. E.g. we need to torture some terrorist because he knows the location where his fellow terrorists are torturing (even more brutally than we would torture the guy we want to torture) 100 captured civilians.

To me, all of this seems unnecessary: if we are willing to ponder such wild hypotheticals (which, as I’ve found when arguing against casual anti-torture absolutists, many people are not), why not just stipulate that you need to torture some terrorist in order to prevent his fellow terrorists from blowing up the entire world and killing all living things. Surely no sane person could argue that you should not torture someone when the alternative is that the entire world would get blown up. The only way the absolutist could reasonably take on that hypothetical is to refuse to accept it, an evasion technique that Waldron laudably refuses to employ (although he does discuss briefly the idea that the uncertainty around potential evil committed by the terrorists should discount it versus the certain evil committed by the torturer).

So the upshot, in my opinion, is that any sane person must turn into a consequentialist (and drop all other “moral absolutes,” including that against torture) when one of the consequences under consideration is total destruction. When faced with such a consequence, who could argue that some abstract and absolute moral command is of greater importance?

And of course once we’ve gotten “absolutists” to admit that their absolutism collapses when faced with such a consequence, then they’re really no longer absolutists at all, and we should continue to nag them with hypotheticals just short of blowing up the entire world, just to rub it in.

Lastly: Waldron concludes the essay by admitting that he’s not proven his case, although he thinks he’s discussed some potentially promising lines of argument, along which there is “much more work to be done.” His most promising line of argument to me is that it is a greater evil to perform or authorize torture yourself, than it is to prevent such a crime from being committed by someone else (i.e. it is worse for the torture to be done “in your name” than “in the terrorists name”) — thus the justification for refusing to employ torturing to prevent torture. So again, we encounter the act-omission distinction discussed previously. However, even Waldron admits that this is far from a slam-dunk case, and it seems not to hold up well when up against extreme hypotheticals such as Bentham’s above. Indeed it seems only a narcissist or psychopath would be so obsessed with the question of whether an evil act was done “in his name” that he’d endeavor to keep his own hands “clean” at the expense of allowing such extreme suffering (or total destruction) to take place.

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