Zero Dark Thirty, Andrew O’Hehir, Moral Relativism

Posted: December 3, 2012 in Braak, crotchety ranting, Politics
Tags: , , ,

Now I will write about this article by Andrew O’Hehir over at Salon, which is a discussion of several movies (Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln, and The Gatekeepers), because it is actually pretty appalling.  Let’s just set aside the headline (“Is Feminism Worth Defending with Torture”) as being race-baiting hokum (it carries the attendent implication that 1) the War on Terror is being prosecuted in order to improve the lives of women, and 2) all “enemy combatants” in that war must be misogynist because they are Muslim), and talk just about the torture bit that he brings up.  Here, I will quote the relevant material.

Does a society that produces female CIA agents (and reelects a black president) gain the right to commit atrocities in its own defense? Is torture justified if the torturer is a university-educated woman, and the tortured a bigoted Muslim fundamentalist?

I think those are excellent questions for us to ask ourselves, arguably defining questions of the age, and I think the longer you look at them the thornier they get. I certainly incline toward the predictable left-libertarian response that torture and other illegal and unconstitutional actions (like, say, the government assassination of United States citizens on secret evidence) are immoral and unjustifiable in almost every instance. But you’ll notice that I’ve left myself a little wiggle room, and if we’re honest we recognize that morality is always relative, and only available in shades of gray.


Moral Relativism

Let’s talk for a second about what we mean by “moral relativism.”  “Moral relativism” does not mean that sometimes a thing is moral and sometimes it is immoral, depending on its specific circumstances — like, it’s immoral to kill a man who is just walking down the street, but it’s moral to kill a man who is trying to shoot you in the face.  That is a case in which the morality of an action is relative to its situation, but it’s not “moral relativism” — it’s an absolute moral code that includes exceptions for killing.  “This is moral, depending on circustmances” is not, actually, an example of moral relativism, it’s just, coincidentally, a moral conundrum that includes an answer predicated on its scenario. 

What “moral relativism” actually is is an approach to morality that does not posit universal moral mandates (or, alternately, posits few moral mandates) — that is, that moralities are relative to each other.  When you say that among certain people killing someone who has invaded your home is a moral action, but among other people (Quakers, for instance) killing someone is always an immoral action regardless of the circumstance, THAT is moral relativism. Recognizing that actions are moral not according to a measurement created by a third party, but that they are moral or immoral within the moral code by which they’re judged is moral relativism.

So, what that means is that when Andrew O’Herir says that if we’re all honest and we recognize that “morality is relative”, and that’s why he’s unwilling to unequivocally say that torture is wrong, he’s being disingenuous: this is not the action of a man who is trying to accept that there are different moral cultures, and that those moral cultures need to be in some way accomodated by an inclusive legal system. This is the action of a man who believes it’s sometimes moral to torture people.

The Morality of Consequence

Usually the argument in favor of torture is that ticking-time-bomb scenario that you see on 24 — Jack Bauer’s only got five minutes to find the location of the bomb, so he’s got to waterboard the shit out of some guy in order to get the location, &c. And they say, “isn’t it moral to commit an immoral act if it means saving a million lives?”

Let’s set aside for the moment whether or not torture really is effective (the history of people confessing to witchcraft under duress suggests that no, it’s probably not); I’ll get back to that though.

I think the answer to the above question is actually, “no, it’s never moral.” In fact, I’d argue that you cannot argue for the morality or the immorality of an act based on anything beyond the immediate consequence of the act itself. Specifically, what I am saying is that I don’t think the ends ever justify the means, and I think that, in fact, there’s nothing that really qualifies as a “moral code” that posits that ends do justify means. Morality by its nature must be uncompromising (“wiggle room” and assorted exceptions notwithstanding), because when it’s not uncompromising, it’s not a functional morality. If you’ve got a moral code that you’re willing to abandon any time it’s convenient, or any time it’s going to cost you something, then you haven’t got a moral code at all — you’ve got a vague interest in maybe being kind of moral.

By that standard, of course, torture is wrong regardless of whether or not it’s got positive consequences; it actually doesn’t matter if we can get something useful out of it, or even if we can save lives by doing it — it’s not moral to say “we don’t torture people because it isn’t useful”, it’s only moral to say “we don’t torture people because it’s wrong, regardless of whether or not it’s useful.”

(This is, incidentally, why I find the notion of a morality that is self-regulated by reputation and market forces — i.e., that a person will avoid dishonesty because repeated dishonest will make life difficult for them, and thus comes with attendent personal consequences — utterly abhorrent. It’s actually the dearth of morality, and makes anything permissable as long as the potential gains exceed the potential consequences.)

So, I don’t think consequential morality like that holds up under scrutiny — even minor scrutiny. I don’t think there’s a more effective way to pin down what, exactly, a “moral” is unless you’re willing to accept that a person will hold to it regardless of consequence.


Are You Fucking Crazy?

But Andrew O’Hehir isn’t even making that argument. Andrew O’Hehir is actually asking THIS question:

Does a society that produces female CIA agents (and reelects a black president) gain the right to commit atrocities in its own defense? Is torture justified if the torturer is a university-educated woman, and the tortured a bigoted Muslim fundamentalist?


Even people who argue in favor of torture don’t trot out the “we have the right to torture them because our civilization is better than theirs” argument, because it’s utterly insane. Torture is acceptble because the tortured victim is culturally inferior? What? Torture is acceptable because the victim is a bigot? WHAT?

I am actually having trouble parsing this, because every time I look back at this quote it blows my mind that 1) an actual human being wrote it in an online forum that actual human beings read, and 2) that the author goes on, in the very next paragraph, to describe himself as “left-libertarian.”

I think those are excellent questions for us to ask ourselves, arguably defining questions of the age, and I think the longer you look at them the thornier they get

Really, you fucking maniac? Because the longer I look at them, the easier they get.

Here, I’ll break it on down for you, old son: the only society worth defending is one that doesn’t commit atrocities.

  1. Josh Wimmer says:

    No, see: Our culture has done awesome things for some people, sometimes, so it follows that we can do horrible things to other people so that later we can do more awesome things.

  2. braak says:

    Is that right, though? That doesn’t sound right to me.

  3. Josh Wimmer says:

    I’m not sure. But it’s an excellent question to ask ourselves.

  4. braak says:

    Oh god! The more I think about it, the more complicated it gets!

  5. Josh Wimmer says:

    It’s like trying to solve the Anti-Life Equation with anything less than the intellect of Darkseid.

  6. braak says:


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