On Ethics – Part 2 – Ethics and Morals of Torture

October 20, 2006

People of different nations view the issue of torturing prisoners differently. A survey by BBC et al measured and compared these views in countries around the globe. The conclusions may surprise you. I believe the results not only reflect the torture issue but are also pretty good indicators of national Ethics standards.

Are countries that accept torture perhaps less ethicalor moral than those that don’t? Some may say that is an unfair assumption. For one thing, people living in a war torn or crime ridden environment may accept torture as a necessary defense more readily than those lucky enough to live in peace. It’s easy for those living in peace to be “pure” when an issue does not immediately threaten them.

There may be perceived justifications for accepting torture, just as there are reasons why others can afford the high road. But so what? A person’s view on torture is still is a fundamental attitude closely related to Ethics and Morals. Justifications don’t count.

The data used here comes from a BBC of England survey, interviewing 27,000 people in various countries. Here is the question about the interviewee’s positions:

Most countries have agreed to rules prohibiting torturing prisoners. Which position is closer to yours?

1 – Terrorists pose such an extreme threat that governments should now be allowed to use some degree of torture if it may gain information that saves innocent lives.

2 – Clear rules against torture should be maintained because any use of torture is immoral and will weaken international human right.

Position 2 reflects an Ethical view – torture is bad no matter what. Position 1 reflects an expedient attitude, perhaps based on fear, but still less Ethical. Here are the results using tables from an article by Bob Harris:

The top table sorts the countries in terms of “Ethical Purity” (Position 2 above). The bottom table sorts them by “Expedience” (Position 1 above). Largely, but not exactly, the bottom table is the inverse of the top table.

Let’s look at the top table first. The most “Ethical” countries are those with typical Western values. The high rank of South Korea might be surprising considering the tension with its Northerly neighbor – I’m sure the survey was done pre-nuclear times.

The countries ranked low clearly have a different attitude than the top ones. The Indian values look like a fluke – Bob Harris suggested perhaps the interviewer stuttered.

The poor Israeli values may reflect their security situation – I’d expect the attitude of Palestinians might be similar or worse.

Russia and China both rank low together with several less developed countries. That may be the price of a totalitarian heritage.

Now let’s view the bottom table, showing “Expedient” countries that rank high on the “Less Pure” scale. Israel and Iraq come out as the most “Expedient”. Many Western countries are far less open to torture as a weapon in their struggles.

Now, let’s look at the US. Here is the sad situation. The US is ranked worse than average in both tables.
It ranks close to the Philippines, Iraq and Ukraine on “Ethical” standards. Its Ethical attitude is far lower than that of Italy. How about that?

In “Expedience”, the US is right there with Russia and China, neither of which are viewed as human rights advocates by World opinion. Should we infer neither is the US?

What is going on here? Remember that this is the view of the PEOPLE, not the governments. If this was the Ethics or Moral standards of the US top government, I’d not be surprised at the poor showing. But it is not. Consider this (Source: here):

Just two months ago we saw minute-long videotape footage of several guards viciously beating two young men in California Youth Authority custody. This followed revelations four years ago that some wards had been handcuffed and slammed into walls, shot at close range by CYA staff with potentially lethal riot guns and forcibly injected with anti-psychotic drugs.

Remember the disturbing 1996 videotape of naked prisoners crawling on their bellies in a Texas jail as they were hit with batons, kicked and in some cases bitten by German-shepherds?

Do you recall Corcoran State Prison, where eight guards were accused in 1997 of staging gladiator-like fights between inmates, then shooting and killing some of them in the name of prison security?

And who can forget Haitian immigrant Abner Louima, raped with a stick in the custody of New York City’s finest that same year?

Has the Ethical attitude of the US always been poor? Is it a result of the Iraq and other wars? Does racial tension explain it? May it be caused by high crime rates? Is it because of being a melting pot of so many diverse cultures? Is it the Government impacting the Ethics of the people or is it the other way around? Are the crimes of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib reflections of the people of the US in general? Did 9/11 result in a shift in US attitudes?

I have no idea about the causes. What I do know is that this dismal showing will be evident in many upcoming posts in this series. The US largely leads the way in resisting worthwhile international programs, fundamentally based on Ethics and Morals. The drastic difference between its rhetoric sermons and its real, often unethical actions has long frustrated the rest of the World. Hate in the US is not an unknown concept, nor is torture.

Let’s finish by quoting Donald Rumsfeld’s rhetorical view on the Abu Ghraib horror (bolding by me):

“The images that we’ve seen that include U.S. forces are deeply disturbing, both because of the fundamental unacceptability of what they depicted and because the actions by U.S. military personnel in those photos do not in any way represent the values of our country or the armed forces. As President Bush has stated, their treatment does not reflect the nature of the American people.”

There is a lot of evidence to the contrary. The BBC survey simply confirms those sad facts.

Where are we?

I’ve been off line this blog for about a month. Part of the reason is I needed to do some things besides this blog. I’ve been busy in my day to day business, at the moment working on some fancy Web Designs as well as photography.

But I have also spent considerable time on this Ethics series. Ethics is a complex subject and I needed to spend some time to collect my thoughts. I wanted to walk down the trail a bit. I’m close to done and the result will here soon. That means some four or five massive posts in the next week or so.

As always, thank you


One Response to “On Ethics – Part 2 – Ethics and Morals of Torture”

  1. sandrar said

    Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.

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