Political Principles

(This reflection is motivated in part by responses to yesterday’s post ‘Tortured Logic’ and the principle behind rejecting torture.)

The term “principle” gets used a lot by people to justifytheir political beliefs.  Principle usually means adherence to a particular position, and the more principled one is, the less willing one is to compromise.  But rarely can principles be followed without compromise.

If someone is anti-abortion and wishes to use government force (rule of law) to prevent abortions from occurring, a few things follow.  First, there is a principle of the sanctity of life, defining life at conception.  Second, there is recognition that governmental force to limit freedom can be legitimate.

This can lead to dilemmas.  Someone cannot have a principled position against abortion and yet support the death penalty or the use of war as a policy tool.  War kills.  80% of the deaths in modern war are innocent civilians.  Balancing that cost with the benefit of using war to achieve ends (e.g., protect the country from dangers, overthrow dictators) makes the principle of ‘the sanctity of life’ something which can be compromised for political expediency.    If that’s true for war or the death penalty, it certainly can be true for abortion (which is why the Catholic church opposes all three).

The same goes for government coercion.  If it’s OK here, in principle there is nothing against government using force for anything — how it gets used becomes a political issue, rather than one defined by principle.

Another example:  Anarchists believe that government is immoral, claiming freedom as their principle.   However, in anarchy powerful people can use that power to force others to do their bidding, even without government; if that’s OK, then the core value isn’t freedom, but individualism.  A collective should not be empowered to deny an individual to do what he or she wants.   Yet even a voluntary collective acting to protect individuals within it contradicts the principle of individualism.  To the person being acted upon by this voluntary collective, it may as well be a government limiting their freedom.  When worked through logically, it becomes virtually impossible to justify anarchism on the basis of principle.   Alas, the same is true with taking a principled stand against torture.

The principle behind opposition to torture is opposition to the violation of another person in ways that cause psychological and physical distress.   To hold that principle absolutely would be to become a complete pacifist — more so even than the person who opposes abortion, since there the concern is life, not injury.

If there is ever any reason where doing physical or psychological harm to someone is permissible, and then the issue becomes how those conditions get defined and under what contexts.    Is water boarding torture?  How about pulling out finger nails?   Why one and not the other?  One can point to legal definitions, but those definitions are simply the result of somebody else grappling with these questions.

Approaching it this way, torture is a linguistic marker, delineateing those acts of coercion we consider immoral.   And, since it assumes that some such acts of coercion can be allowed, the drawing of the line is driven by compromise and personal/cultural norms rather than clear analytical principles.    It involves the level of damage to the individual, the amount of pain, long term psychological damage, and perhaps also violation of social norms.   One can build arguments rationalizing virtually no physical or mental coercion, to one that justifies even ripping out finger nails if effective at getting information from an enemy.   Once it becomes a matter of drawing lines, we can find ways to justify drawing the line anywhere.

I would argue this that is true for every issue, the number of people who truly live according to clear, uncompromised principles is exceedingly small.  Even then, their reason for embracing a principle is personal — it appeals to them somehow, probably at an emotional level.   Principles are held because of ones’ personal belief system.   Moreover, both our principles (values we hold as true) and the compromises we make involving them are driven as much (or more) by the heart as the head.  Emotion often trumps reason.  The emotion can be fear, anger, insecurity…or love, concern, and empathy.

So perhaps it’s wrong to look to reason and the head for core principles.  Maybe it’s best to start from things like putting love, empathy, and contentment as core values, and examine our points of view on politics and life by asking whether or not we’re being motivated by something like love, or something like fear.   That won’t give us clear, objective methods for determining what is the right thing to do — but the kind of objectivity offered by using reason is, as noted above,  an illusion.   And, while the head can build complex modes of rationalizing what one wants to believe, the truths of the heart and/or gut might be harder to obscure.

And why love and empathy rather than fear and anger?   After all, many people feel far more comfortable rationalizing fear and hatred, and see love and empathy as ‘wimpy’ and unrealistic.   To me that comes from a deeper principle, a sense of unity in all reality.   Plotinus called it “the one,” while Muslims embrace it as Tawhid.  But if there is a union beneath all reality, then love is acceptance of this reality, while anger and fear is an attempt to flee reality.  Accepting reality usually works best.  And this principle seems to work for me, so I choose to hold it.

So what is torture, when are certain kinds of physical and psychological acts against individuals immoral?   I can’t say for sure, I have to look at the case at hand and then look into my heart and decide.   If I see anger, fear, or hatred as a core behind my thoughts, I step back and question my reactions.  In much of the torture debate it is the rhetoric of fear and anger that drives defense of these practices, while those who see the humanity of the victims have their ability to show love and empathy derided — how can one feel any sympathy for a terrorist.   And the terrorists, I’m sure, feel the same way about American military personnel.  I chose not to participate in that dance of fear and hatred.

Moreover, fear obscures.   It causes the imagination to massively magnify threats, what one imagines suddenly becomes what one expects.  That adds to the capacity to rationalize any act to counter that fear.  And when people sacrifice what they know is right in the name of fear, they start to hate themselves and soon become unable to break loose and get stuck in an edifice of rationalizations and compromises of principle that swallows them up, causing them to see the world as a cold, dangerous, place, full of enemies.   I choose not to live in that kind of world.

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  1. #1 by Mike Lovell on April 29, 2009 - 14:39

    Philosophical question: Would refusal to draw a line anywhere show a lack of principles?

    Extremely unlikely scenario: You prefer to embrace life, and don’t care to battle evil with evil. IF someone were to kidnap your children and demand a gazillion dollars in return for your life, giving you a deadline which you could not meet…would you then authorize or personally use force, at any level necessary, to deliver your children back into your hands safely? (Think the movie, Ransom)

  2. #2 by Scott Erb on April 29, 2009 - 14:48

    I think its possible to be guided purely by principle and draw no lines. Life is so complex (as your unlikely scenario shows) that I suspect that reality forces people to draw lines and compromise things they hold as principle. I personally believe that force is legitimate for self-defense and direct other-defense, so for me I’d use force in the scenario. However, if the use of force would likely cause a lot of innocents to die, that would change my calculation. Do I really want to kill a number of innocents just to get my children back? What if the innocents who would likely be killed were children — meaning I might get mine back, at the price of killing other people’s kids. In such a case, I’d probably just pray.

  3. #3 by Jesurgislac on May 1, 2009 - 07:54

    Mike: IF someone were to kidnap your children and demand a gazillion dollars in return for your life, giving you a deadline which you could not meet…would you then authorize or personally use force, at any level necessary, to deliver your children back into your hands safely?

    Interesting example, Mike. One of the people murdered by Americans in Abu Ghraib was Major General Abid Hamid Mauhush, who turned himself in to the US forces because, 11 days earlier, his sons had been kidnapped by the US occupation and he wanted to get them out of American hands.

    That was in November 2003. Mauhush (or Mowhoush) was legally entitled to all the rights of a prisoner of war – at the very least: he wasn’t taken in conflict, he surrendered himself to save his sons. Iraqi quislings, acting under orders from US military interrogators, beat him with a rubber hose, with their fists, with a club – probably a M-16 rifle, the autopsy determined. What killed him in the end was, after he had been beaten many times (his ribs were fractured) being stuffed into a sleeping bag, tied with an electrical cord, and then suffocated in the bag by a couple of US soldiers working him over in one of the interrogation rooms.

    cite

    So, Mike: what do you feel about a man who cared for his sons and was loyal to his troops – who surrendered himself to the enemy power to save his children, and who endured torture rather than betray his men? True, he was an Iraqi. It was your side who kidnapped his children, and your side who tortured him.

    The official response to this crime was to try Warrant Officer Lewis Welshofer – who remains the highest-ranking soldier to be convicted of any crime related to the torture of prisoners – and condemn him to receive a letter of reprimand, a 1,500 fine, and be on house arrest for two months. For murdering a prisoner.

    What force ought Major General Abid Hamid Mauhush have used against the Americans who had his children and wanted his life, Mike? Should he have used “any level necessary” – including torture – to get the US to return his sons?

  4. #4 by Mike Lovell on May 1, 2009 - 14:51

    Jesurgislac: Its a tough call to make. I think murdering a prisoner deserves a much tougher punishment than WO Welshofer received.

    As for General Mauhush’s options, granted given his opponents in a particular situation, they are limited. However, I think turning himself in outright, prior to a “prisoner exchange” being brokered was a bit naive. But one can definitely be blinded by emotion in that situation, especially given that the odds were not in his favor for almost any scenario. I myself would’ve either gone on a full scale attack, likely to fail in an American-controlled combat zone, or brokered such an exchange and after ensuring the safety of my sons, endured whatever was necessary to have saved the lives of my sons.

    On a domestic front, if kidnappers grabbed my kids and tried to ransom them back to me, well, the situation might go a little differently, but in the end my actions would be equivocal in nature, that I would do anything within my power to get my sons to safety, even if it meant my own death, or life in prison for vigilante-style murder.

  5. #5 by jesurgislac on May 1, 2009 - 17:05

    I myself would’ve either gone on a full scale attack, likely to fail in an American-controlled combat zone, or brokered such an exchange and after ensuring the safety of my sons, endured whatever was necessary to have saved the lives of my sons.

    Next question, Mike: you approve of the US kidnapping children in order to get their father to surrender himself, then torturing him to death because he won’t talk?

  6. #6 by Mike Lovell on May 1, 2009 - 17:37

    “Next question, Mike: you approve of the US kidnapping children in order to get their father to surrender himself, then torturing him to death because he won’t talk?”

    Well, I think we have one of RG’s posts, and two of Scott’s posts here beginning to intertwine, but to answer your question as I did in “tortured logic”
    NO, I don’t. As I stated, I think the American military has the capability to have tracked and captured the general without the use of the kidnapping tactic, despite its effectiveness. I also disagree with the killing of a “[in]voluntary” prisoner for failure to talk. As a former soldier, given his circumstances and an adherence of loyalty to those he commanded, I can appreciate his willingness to die before talking, even though he should’ve received better treatment than death during incarceration. As a father, I also can appreciate his devotion to his children to willingly throw himself at the mercy (or lack thereof in this case)of the Americans for the sake of his children.

  7. #7 by jesurgislac on May 1, 2009 - 18:15

    Mike: NO, I don’t.

    Do you think that those responsible – all of the people responsible for this, not just stopping with the NCO – ought to be prosecuted for kidnapping, torture, and murder?

  8. #8 by Mike Lovell on May 1, 2009 - 20:51

    For kidnapping, while I don’t condone it, I do not support the prosecution for…on the basis that it is still a tactic of war that has existed for as long as warfare has existed.
    For the torture- I would have to have a line item to make the decision on what “torture techniques” were used, and go through them line by line to see what is prosecutable. waterboarding i would exclude from prosecutorial offenses- unless the guy is hooked up to electricity at the same time, then I would include it.
    For the murder, yes.
    And by all people responsible, those with direct knowledge of each and every tactic used that is deemed excessive (judged by myself, not some washington lawyer who hasnt the faintest idea what the blank he’s talking about other than theoretical ideas). If someone is ignorant of specific things, such as the intention of suffocation, and other such heinous acts, then yes, I would go forward with prosecution

  9. #9 by Mike Lovell on May 1, 2009 - 20:51

    For kidnapping, while I don’t condone it, I do not support the prosecution for…on the basis that it is still a tactic of war that has existed for as long as warfare has existed.
    For the torture- I would have to have a line item to make the decision on what “torture techniques” were used, and go through them line by line to see what is prosecutable. waterboarding i would exclude from prosecutorial offenses- unless the guy is hooked up to electricity at the same time, then I would include it.
    For the murder, yes.
    And by all people responsible, those with direct knowledge of each and every tactic used that is deemed excessive (judged by myself, not some washington lawyer who hasnt the faintest idea what the blank he’s talking about other than theoretical ideas). If someone is ignorant of specific things, such as the intention of suffocation, and other such heinous acts, then yes, I would go forward with prosecution

  10. #10 by Mike Lovell on May 1, 2009 - 20:51

    scott, you’ll have to delete on of those, and go ahead and delete this too, my mouse is being stupidly overactive this week

  11. #11 by jesurgislac on May 2, 2009 - 13:46

    Mike, the Gestapo started with the principle that there were torture techniques it was okay to use, and torture techniques it wasn’t; they also began with the principle that only the worst/most recalcitrant of their enemies would be tortured.

    The notion that it’s OK to torture prisoners if the techniques you use are ones that only kill if the torturer is careless or the victim has a bad heart (waterboarding, for example) opens the door to the idea that it’s OK to use worse means if the prisoner proves stubborn. And then you end up beating men like Major General Mouhoush to death in interrogation rooms.

    And you’re fine with having your children kidnapped – you don’t regard that as a crime for which the kidnapper should be prosecuted. Okay.

    And by all people responsible, those with direct knowledge of each and every tactic used that is deemed excessive (judged by myself

    Yeah, but you’re a father who thinks having your children kidnapped is perfectly legitimate. So your notion of what’s “excessive” is going to be pretty damned inhuman.

  12. #12 by Mike Lovell on May 2, 2009 - 15:17

    “Yeah, but you’re a father who thinks having your children kidnapped is perfectly legitimate.”

    Again, not legitimate. I merely understand the motivation behind such acts, and the effectiveness it can bring about. If my sons are in a combat zone, and are kidnapped, I will find a different method other than the courts to deal with that transgression. I would be more interested getting my kids back, not wiht how a court at some level would later deal with the kidnappers.

  13. #13 by Jesurgislac on May 3, 2009 - 08:22

    If my sons are in a combat zone, and are kidnapped, I will find a different method other than the courts to deal with that transgression.

    Mike, your sons don’t have to be in a combat zone under the rules of the game you’ve found legitimate. The kids who were taken by US forces were taken in “neighborhood raids” – they were at home.

    I would be more interested getting my kids back, not wiht how a court at some level would later deal with the kidnappers.

    *shrug* This kind of macho talk isn’t particularly impressive. You know if your sons are taken by an occupying force, you wouldn’t be able to get them back, unless you could trade their lives for yours. And you’ve already discarded the idea that the kidnappers should have to fear their actions will be ever dealt with by the courts. So, you’re supporting the idea that your children can be kidnapped, and the kidnappers won’t ever see court: won’t be prosecuted.

  14. #14 by Mike Lovell on May 3, 2009 - 15:09

    “Mike, your sons don’t have to be in a combat zone under the rules of the game you’ve found legitimate. The kids who were taken by US forces were taken in “neighborhood raids” – they were at home.”

    You’re absolutely right, they were at home. And unfortunately, and I do mean unfortunately, their home is currently in a combat zone, and the particular neighborhoods are often in opposition-controlled areas of operation. As Scott has mentioned previously on multiple occasions, warfare is without transgressions against the innocent. It’s a mere fact of warfare in and of itself. For as long as we have war, innocents will come in harms way. It does NOT make it right, I’ll grant you that any day of the week as many times as you require.

    “This kind of macho talk isn’t particularly impressive. You know if your sons are taken by an occupying force, you wouldn’t be able to get them back, unless you could trade their lives for yours. And you’ve already discarded the idea that the kidnappers should have to fear their actions will be ever dealt with by the courts. So, you’re supporting the idea that your children can be kidnapped, and the kidnappers won’t ever see court: won’t be prosecuted.”

    It isn’t macho talk, it’s merely the act of a father who would utilize any option necessary to get his kids back. For me sitting back and doing nothing is not an option, personally.

    As for the terrorist/kidnapper/whatever you want to call them fearing the court, they themselves have already discarded the idea themselves. Those who will openly oppose an army they cant militarily handle, and those who will blow themselves up, have pretty much lost a fear of a court that might lock them up.
    I don’t support the idea of my kids being kidnapped, just as I dont support the idea that the generals kids were kidnapped. I merely accept the possibility (in the generals case, the reality) of its happening. Should my kids ever get kidnapped, if the courts get them, then fine, but if I get them first, I’m kind of okay with that too. I’m a bit more primally driven than you are, so I personallty prefer to exact an equal or disproportionate reaction (whatever is required to get the job done) to their actions, but thats the emotional side that comes out when one messes with my family. Maybe thats just me.

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