The Politics Of Amorality

by Andrew

Charles Murray responds to my small riposte to him on the question of torture. I should say I am second to few in admiring Murray's work. I risked my entire career to bring his brilliant book, The Bell Curve, into the bounds of respectable conversation because I believe his intellectual honesty is self-evident, even if you believe he is wrong about everything. His work debunking the claims of welfarism is central to understanding the best conservative critique of the liberal entitlement state. I have long counted him and his brilliant wife as friends. (And a tiny example of his honesty is in the post I link to, where he discovers he has been unfair to the late great Pauline Kael.)

And I do not disagree with him that it should be possible to debate even torture in amoral terms, in terms of political repercussions, polling, cultural attitudes and so forth. The same can be said of abortion, child abuse, or the death penalty and other horrors. What still stuns me, however, is how supine many on the non-statist right have been in the face of the massive evidence that the US government instituted a systematic, bureaucratized torture-and-abuse program for captured and imprisoned terror suspects (many of whom turned out to be completely innocent). If Charles has written about this, I must have missed it. I have done the usual Google search for his statements condemning torture by the US government and have come up empty. Maybe I missed something. I will gladly post anything he has written or said in condemnation or criticism of these torture techniques.

It is not the amoral discussion of torture that appalls me; it's the amoral discussion proffered without any moral discussion ever being offered.

And to go straight to the amoral argument without dealing with the fact that the government secretly and illegally, walled, froze, beat, contorted, stripped, shaved, near-drowned, near-suffocated, and denied sleep for hundreds of hours to unknown numbers of prisoners and murdered 100 of them that we know of - this befuddles me. It was illegal; it was unethical by any standard of ethics; it was immoral and indecent; it required a conscious subversion of democratic norms to accomplish; and it is a terrifying precedent in a country allegedly founded on the rule of law. I do not understand how a libertarian cannot stand up against this and be counted - for once and for all on the grounds that is remains the greatest violation of individual liberty and dignity and due process in recent times in America.

I know the social and communal pressures on the right that mitigate against this kind of stand. The pressure to fall in line behind Bush and Cheney at AEI must be intense. AEI has a war criminal as a fellow, and has hosted forthright defenses of war crimes by the perpetrators. To my knowledge, no criticism of torture as government policy has emerged from a think tank crafted to defend individual liberty. But I always took Charles to be a man alone, immune to such pressure, capable of facing it down because his integrity as a public intellectual has been a lodestar in my own professional life.

It saddens me to argue with him over this. But I feel I have no other option.