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Military Psychologist Justifies Torture Through Shallow “24” Utilitarianism

John-stuart-mill-sized.jpgIf you haven’t heard this fascinating interview with Dr. Bryce Lefever, a military psychologist and SERE instructor who participated in enhanced interrogations war crimes in Afghanistan, give it a listen.

Lefever, teeming with arrogance, sees himself as some kind of hero and explains his actions thusly:

From Lefever’s perspective, the notion that psychologists behaved in an unethical manner is absurd; a product, he believes, of a fundamental misunderstanding of the psychologists’ true ethical obligations. Because psychologists are supposed to be do-gooders, Lefever says, "the idea that they would be involved in producing some pain just seems at first blush to be something that would be wrong, because we ‘do no harm.’ "

But in fact, says Lefever, "the ethical consideration is always to do the most good for the most people."

Now the concept of doing the most good for the most people is pretty basic utilitarianism, but to me, the notion that John Stuart Mill would endorse torture seemed pretty off-base. And on the surface, Lefever’s model seems easy to poke holes in. If a majority benefits from slavery, does that justify slavery?


What utilitarianism is unable to articulate is that there are some things you would never do, not ever, because winning the fight would not be worth the degradation. The point is that not all moral dilemmas can be reduced to a cost-benefit analysis of pleasure and pain, good and evil. There are some kinds of pain a morally serious person ought never to inflict. Torture—defined as the deliberate degradation and humiliation of a person through the infliction of physical and mental pain—is simply not what we do to other human beings.

And there’s also this wonky perspective from an Air Force intelligence officer, who has a PhD in cognitive science and philosophy:

I have argued that it is possible to formulate a theory of exceptions for torture interrogation. This theory can be patterned after another attempt to reach a reasonable compromise between utilitarian and deontic demands: Walzer’s doctrine of supreme emergency. However, the requirements for this test are stringent enough that while severe forms of torture interrogation might be permissible in certain circumstances, those circumstances will almost never present themselves in actual practice. For all practical purposes, the requirements will never actually be met.

The "24/ticking bomb" scenario is a cartoonish, neocon fantasy. Lefever’s use of it here, and his half-baked utilitarianism, are rather lame and transparent attempts to justify his crimes.

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