A reader writes:
Regarding your recent post on Burke and torture, perhaps an elaboration is due. Nothing that Burke says in that passage would not receive equal acknowledgement from an American who thinks that torture is necessary (although it would obviously be futile for them to try to express this in words as eloquent as Burke's).
"I acknowledge indeed, the necessity of such a proceeding in such institutions; but I must have a very mean opinion of institutions where such proceedings are necessary."
So he has a mean opinion but he thinks they are necessary nonetheless.
Burke well understood the relationship between justice and necessity. He, like Hume, acknowledged that justice may need to be put aside in times of necessity:
"And were a civilized nation engaged with barbarians, who observed no rules even of war, the former must also suspend their observance of them, where they no longer serve to any purpose; and must render every action or recounter as bloody and pernicious as possible to the first aggressors. Thus, the rules of equity or justice depend entirely on the particular state and condition in which men are placed, and owe their origin and existence to that utility, which results to the public from their strict and regular observance."
I'd say that Burke absolutely saw the need for torture in police states. But he despised both police states and the practice of torture. As for the quote from "Enquiry Concerning Principles of Morals," the key phrase here is, to my mind:
"where they no longer serve to any purpose"
My own view is that there is still a critical purpose to retaining the moral high-ground in a long war with religious terrorism. It comes from the recognition that we are fighting a generational battle of ideas for the moderate Muslim and Arab world. We are trying to show the benefits of free and democratic societies. But by mirroring the ethics of the enemy, by practising torture, we allow them to claim their moral equivalence as a matter of degree rather than of kind. And so we lose in the long run. We weaken our alliances across the world. We get poor intelligence. And, by authorizing torture as a regular part of the government's activities, in a war that is defined as endless, we are in danger of permanently becoming the very police state Burke despised.
An emergency tactic for a short period of time out of actual necessity is different than institutionalized torture policies, designed to continue indefinitely, against an unnamed enemy whose threat is inherently nebulous. The latter, alas, is what this president initiated.