Charles Murray’s Moral Relativism on Torture

Charles Murray

Charles Murray

A common trope of the right is to accuse the left of “moral relativism.” On this view, conservatives believe in an objective sense of right and wrong, while liberals believe that morality is just a matter of personal preference. So does that make Charles Murray a liberal?

The late New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael famously said after Nixon’s landslide reelection, “How can he have won? Nobody I know voted for him.” My proposition for today is that the entire White House suffers from the Kael syndrome.

It was the only explanation I could think of as I watched the news last night about the coming prosecution of CIA interrogators…

[Democrats] won the election with a candidate who sounded centrist running against an exceptionally weak Republican opponent. But they’ve been in the bubble too long. They really think that the rest of America thinks as they do. Nothing but the Pauline Kael syndrome can explain the political idiocy of letting Attorney General Eric Holder go after the interrogators.

Julian Sanchez points out how silly this is:

Even if Murray were right about the optics of a prosecution, surely it’s wrong that “nothing” could explain the decision to go ahead. One wacky possibility: The attorney general believes that crimes may have been committed, and if so, those responsible should be held accountable, while the president either shares this belief or at least is reluctant to intervene for political reasons to quash an investigation. And yet a lot of analysts get awfully postmodern when they’re talking about the prospect of investigations, taking it for granted that there simply are no right answers: Any legal reasoning, however specious, simply reflects one more difference of opinion—and you can’t prosecute someone for having different opinions, right? Some conservatives, to be sure, are willing to defend the practices of the interrogators or the opinions of the Office of Legal Counsel on the merits, but others seem to step back and take the meta-view that so long as some sufficiently politically powerful group was and is willing to mount that defense, it must fall within the realm of reasonable disagreement—and therefore outside the realm of actual legal consequences for wrongdoing. Attempts to establish any kind of real accountability are only intelligible as partisan “witch hunts.” In this case, the insistence on an amoral perspective undermines the analysis even in purely descriptive terms, since it excludes motivational explanations of the actors’ behavior that don’t reduce to a strategic bid for political advantage. I’m pretty cynical on this front myself, but it seems a bit much to rule it out a priori.

abu-graibIt’s been fascinating to see how torture apologists have steadily moved the goal posts as more and more evidence of torture has emerged. I remember back in 2005, when John McCain was pushing for a ban on torture, critics argued that Abu Graib was an isolated incident by a few bad apples and Congress should leave well enough alone. Then when it became clear that the CIA had used waterboarding, the argument shifted a bit. They still insisted that waterboarding wasn’t technically torture, but we started to hear people making the “contrarian” point that maybe it was OK to torture in the event of a really serious emergency. Now we’ve got solid evidence that the CIA routinely employed a variety of “enhanced interrogation techniques” in non-emergency situations. So torture apologists have abandoned ticking time bomb scenarios and switched to this postmodern theory that nobody really knows what torture is. And as a consequence, not only shouldn’t we prosecute anyone, but we shouldn’t even bother investigating to see what laws might have been broken.

Murray justifies this by noting that lots of people engage in “amoral” analysis of other issues, such as the death penalty and abortion. But these aren’t cases where one side champions a “moral” perspective and the other champions an “amoral” one. They’re cases with strong moral claims on both sides. I’m honestly not even sure which side of these debates he regards as the amoral ones. In any event, the fact that some people disagree about which side in a debate is the moral one doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands and stop trying to figure out which side is the moral one.

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2 Responses to Charles Murray’s Moral Relativism on Torture

  1. Jeremy Morlan says:

    Abu Graib != CIA Torture.
    These are two completely different incedents. I don’t think the goal post is being moved. I think the auguments are changing because we are talking about two different situations.

    That being said I still believe that we should go forward with the prosecution. Thats why we have the law. To determine whether an illegal act occured.

  2. Rhayader says:

    Abu Graib != CIA Torture.

    OK, sure, but they both fit into the larger picture. Under our watch, prisoners both innocent and guilty have been treated in ways that were called torture until we decided to start doing it ourselves. As Tim points out, the revelations regarding the CIA have destroyed the “isolated incident” argument that was bandied about for Abu Graib. The fact you point out — that these are completely different situations — simply goes to show that there is a systemic encouragement of this sort of behavior.

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