Friday, January 14, 2005

A Question of Ethics

As President/Prime Minister of your country, you have to make a choice: either a million of your citizens die, or an innocent person from another country must be brutally tortured. Which do you choose?

I understand that's not a reasonable question; it's completely unlikely to arise in real life, and there are usually other alternatives. But just think about it; I want to use it as a lead-in to other questions.

Does your answer change if the innocent person is from your own country? If the number of your citizens who will die goes down from a million to ten thousand? One thousand? If the person to be tortured is not innocent, but has planned the attack which will kill your citizens?

And in the real world, there are more shades of grey... what if the person to be tortured is only suspected of having planned the attack? Should he/she not be presumed innocent until proved guilty? What if you are not sure that your citizens will die, but have reason to believe that it may happen?

Seriously, ask yourself these questions. I'm not happy with my own answers; perhaps there isn't a set of 'right' answers. Comments are invited.

I have to get up early tomorrow, so more on this subject later.


Sanketh said...

join the club !!

The first issue that comes to mind is why on earth was the Geneva Convention instituted. Well I guess they wanted standards and norms in the treatment of enemy combatants. Each and every POW can be a source of valuable information which in any war can save hundreds if not thousands of lives. I am sure it is not an issue that arises just now but it has been since the Convention was introduced. I feel there was more potential for the treaty to be violated during the Cold War than the world now.

The other issue that is debatable is the status of those detained by the current administration. They are labeled as combatants without affiliation or stateless combatants. The argument is that the Geneva Convention applies to soldiers captured in a conflict between states and hence those captured in the "war on terror" can be treated "differently".

The recent issue of Time addresses this issue. It specifically questions the role of the nominated Attorney General in the tortures in Abu Gharib and that Cuban base. The same questions that you address in this post came to my mind. I know it is difficult to look at the world as it is in black and white. At the same time we need to recognize the fact that this administration has already committed several excesses. And most of this is based on their view of the world that can safely be labeled "black and white".

I also feel there are others ways of gathering intelligence. If this form of "data collection" was validated it will be a matter of time before they pick up every Tariq, Dawud and Haji for questioning. There is always a justification. There has always been a justification.

Violation of human rights should not be tolerated. No matter who it is happening to we should always be aware some day it could happen to us.


Arima said...

Ok, given the absolute circumstances of the question, my answer would be that you would torture n nobodies to save any number of nobodies because this way everyone lives, versus the alternative. This would mean in the situation of torturing 4 or 5 children to save the childens' grandmother you do it on the theory that at least this way they all live. (I'm pretty sure the grandmother would feel differently though)

That's not really the reason I posted though: When can one EVER gain useful information from torturing another person? If you torture me long enough I'll probably admit to you that I'm actually the leader of the United Nations... that just dosen't necessarily make it so.

If the answer is "well, really you can't get useful information through torture", then the question becomes when could a situation ever occur when anyone would ever be saved by it? This isn't some fantasy land like '24' where ya shoot the guy in the leg and he reveals the "master plan" to ya. In real life the guy realizes that his life only lasts as long as his usefulness and that if he actually told ya the "master plan" you'd just shoot him in the head. It's in the victim's best interest, knowing that his life is forfeit no matter what, to spread as much disinformation as possible while being tortured: this way his death actually means something instead of being wasted.