(Photo by DOH4)
I have long maintained a page on my website where I address various distortions, misunderstandings, and criticisms of my work. I take it to be either a sign of carelessness or masochism on my part that this page is the #1 Google search result for the phrase “response to controversy.” Surely, I need not have courted quite so much controversy. But there it is.
While most of my work has been devoted to controversial topics, I have taken very few positions that I later regret. There is one, however, and I regret it more with each passing hour: it is my “collateral damage argument” for the use of torture in extreme circumstances. This argument first appeared in The End of Faith (pp. 192-199), in a section where I compare the ethics of “collateral damage” to the ethics of torture in times of war. I argued then, and I believe today, that collateral damage is worse than torture across the board.
However, rather than appreciate just how bad I think collateral damage is in ethical terms, many readers mistakenly conclude that I take a cavalier attitude toward the practice of torture. I do not. Nevertheless, I believe that there are extreme situations in which practices like “water-boarding” may not only be ethically justifiable, but ethically necessary—especially where getting information from a known terrorist seems likely to save the lives of thousands (or even millions) of innocent people. To argue that torture may sometimes be ethically justified is not to argue that it should ever be legal (crimes like trespassing or theft may sometimes be ethical, while we all have an interest in keeping them illegal).
I sincerely regret making this argument. Rational discussion about the ethics of torture has proved impossible in almost every case, and my published views have been the gift to my critics and detractors that just keeps on giving: It seems that every few weeks, someone discovers the relevant pages in The End of Faith, or notices what others have said about them, and publicly attacks me for being “pro-torture.” Journalists regularly steer interviews on any subject in this direction—not so that they can understand my position, or coherently argue against it, but so that readers can be shocked by whatever misleading gloss appears in their final copy. The spectacle of someone not being reflexively and categorically “against torture” seems just too good to pass up.
And so, I am now a bit wiser and can offer a piece of advice to others: not everything worth saying is worth saying oneself. I am sure that the world needs someone to think out loud about the ethics of torture, and to point out the discrepancies in how we weight various harms for which we hold one another morally culpable, but that someone did not need to be me. The subject has done nothing but distract and sicken readers who might have otherwise found my work useful.