Friday, February 24, 2006

The Torture Papers and the Metaphysics of Persons.

Jane Mayer, "The Torture Papers," The New Yorker, February 17, 2006, p. 32.
Kathryn Schulz, "Brave Neuro World: The New Ethics of Brain Science," The Nation, January 9/16, 2005, at p. 11.
John MacMurray, The Self as Agent (New York: Humanity Books, 1999), pp. 84-104.
Hassan M. Fattah, "Symbol of Abu Ghraib Seeks to Spare Others His Nightmare," in The New York Times, March 11, 2006, at p. A1. (There is now some question concerning the authenticity of the victim's identity in this photo, and also some question about these questions. It is undisputed that persons were, and probably still are, being tortured at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.)
Kirk Semple, "Captors Tortured American Then Killed Him," in The New York Times, March 12, 2006, at p. A10. (Experts predict more such incidents of "retribution" in the immediate future in response to the so-called "torture" policy, demonstrating the bankruptcy of all "get tough, tit-for-tat" responses to violence.)
Colin McGinn, Ethics, Evil and Fiction (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997).

One of the subjects that I plan to address, repeatedly, in these essays is the torture debate. Along with a few other controversies -- such as abortion, right to die, death penalty and genetic engineering dilemmas -- the debate concerning the permissibility of torture transcends disciplinary and other boundaries, raising closely related legal, ethical and political issues. What is particularly fascinating about all of these controversies, especially the torture debate, is that they focus on the underlying question: "What is a person?"

For present purposes, I define torture as deliberate infliction of mental or physical suffering upon a person for purposes that do not belong to the victim and are not in the victim's self-determined interests, especially suffering that is intended to serve the interests of the torturer or of his/her employers or superiors. This usually means secret information-gathering for the State or on behalf of un-named "others." The secrecy alone makes questioning by a "therapist" unethical, probably criminal, as a form of torture, so is the infliction of frustrations and obstructions to creative expression, usually intended to cause psychological distress and depression or for any reason.

Once you have decided on the criteria for the moral category of "persons," there will be consequences in terms of what you may do to someone who qualifies as a person. The moral and political status of persons are quite distinct, since both concepts are different from what we mean by a human being in biology, or by a person in the legal system. Corporations are legal persons, for example, but not necessarily moral persons.

I believe that a "person" is a being occupying a unique moral category, first of all, so as to be accorded legal protections and rights, along with responsibilities. A person is an agent, a being "acting" intentionally in the world, with or upon others. This definition requires analysis not only in terms of causes leading to effects, but also in terms of that mysterious concept of "intention," the measuring of actions in terms of motives and purposes.

A person has motives for his or her actions that are not reducible to causal determinations. Thus, the causal explanation, in terms of brain science, for moving my hand to cut a piece of bread with my knife is the same as the identical gesture or movement when I deliberately cut not bread, but someone's hand off. Yet the meaning of the action is entirely different in each instance. Meaning and intention are words used, properly, only with regard to persons or groups of persons.

Richard Burton described a meeting with Humphrey Bogart at which they engaged in a mock quarrel about the respective merits of British versus American acting methods. "You just behave before the camera," Burton said, "you do not act." Bogart was struck speechless, rose from his chair, went to his closet and returned with his Oscar award, placing it before Richard Burton, Bogey said: "Here, kid. You argue with my Oscar."

A useful distinction is drawn in this anecdote between "behaving" and "acting." A person is self-legislating, choosing his or her actions in the world, accepting their consequences, and being responsible for those self-chosen actions. A person is a social actor. Yes, there are persons who may be impaired in their capacity to act on their intentions, limited in responsibility and judged accordingly as merely "behaving," but what is crucial is the capacity or potential to formulate intentions, to be motivated to act, to be more than an empirical object moved about by external forces. A person decides on the meaning of his or her actions, choosing to reject the interpretations of others so as to construct, freely, his or her own interpretations of those life-actions. Behavior is observable; experience is not.

Suppose that I am an actor on stage, I turn my back to the audience and comb my hair as I make a great speech ("to be or not to be") in Hamlet. After the performance, I comb my hair before the same mirror once again, performing identical physical behaviors or movements -- but not the same actions -- for very different reasons from those "choices" made on stage.

That difference in the meaning of the physically identical gestures is not observable in any brain scan and never will be. Brain scans will only detect the same neurons firing and blood vessel activity. "Not so," you say, "all of the new technology will show ever-finer gradations and subtleties." This is irrelevant to the question of meaning which is essentially cultural, linguistic and (therefore) social, having as much to do with factors outside (an audience, the director, other actors, interpretations of the text) as with those inside the brain of the actor, though both are important.

Like minds, meaning and culture are not items that have a single, narrowly-specified physical location. Hence, the protean selves or minds that emerge in cyberspeace, free of gender, ethnicity, nationality may be persons and yet not be limited to a single physical location or bodily identity. John MacMurray explains:

A behaviorism which ... denies consciousness is self-refuting. It proposes to describe behavior by excluding all elements which cannot be observed or inferred from observation. But "observing" and "inferring" cannot be observed; and no theory, not even even a behaviorist theory is then possible.

Secondly, there is no way, in theory, from an organic consciousness to a personal consciousness involving knowledge and action.

In a recent article containing numerous logical errors and category mistakes undetected by the author, resulting from a failure to recognize these philosophical distinctions and also many others crucial to the metaphysics of mind/body debates, Kathryn Schulz writes:

In transforming Gage from the amiable and responsible person he had been before the accident [a brain injury] to the temperamental and bawdy one he became after, the iron bar also drilled a hole in Cartesian dualism, the intuitive distinction we all make between our minds and our brains.

I don't know about Ms. Schulz, but a brain injury has a way of ruining my mood too. Getting my cable bill has the same effect. This has no bearing on the validity of dualism.

Descartes was well aware of the connection between mind and brain. His error was in supposing that this connection could be "located" in the pineal gland. He understood perfectly well that brain and mind are mutually dependent, for us, but also believed that minds and/or souls were conceptually or philosophically distinct entities, which (he thought) might exist independently of physical organisms. Descartes used the analogy of a ship's pilot (mind) and the ship (body) sailing on the high seas. This is something which computer scientists today -- who are seeking to transfer human brain states to "chips" to be inserted in computers -- also believe, that minds may be separated, some day, from organic bodies.

Like MacMurray, I am NOT a dualist, but a personalist and a compatibilist. On the mind/body issue, I am what philosophers describe as a "dual aspect theorist." I like that better than Davidson's term "anomalous monism." I am anomalous enough, thank you. I believe that minds and brains do not act in the world, only persons do that. Persons tend to have both minds and brains or bodies, which are mutually dependent, to be sure, but neither one of these concepts or entities (mind or brain) can be reduced to the other, no matter how much they need each other to exist. (See "The Galatea Scenario and the Mind/Body Problem.")

When Ms. Schulz says that neuroscience "brooks no distinction between me and the physical processes of my brain," I wonder what she means by "me." Does she think of her American nationality, sexual preference and drive, vocabulary, religious tradition and family as "located" inside her brain? All of those factors make up what -- logically speaking -- she must mean by "me," yet they are not reducible to the contents of any single person's brain as opposed to mental experience. Did you invent the English language? Where did it come from? Doesn't it take two to tango, or to communicate, or to do lots of fun things that are defining of identity? We are not obligated to accept her grim conclusion: "I have no 'will' above and beyond the neurochemical reactions that make me tick."

Relax, kid, and keep "ticking." You can choose to reject the confused neurochemical determinism contained in your article (were you "determined" to adopt that view?), while remaining scientific and fully up to date, so that your friends at the lab or at your university will approve.

I also believe that there is no distinction between "me" thinking, apart from "me" walking and talking, or having a cheeseburger. There is a conceptual distinction between the different aspects of me that think (mind), or eat (brain, stomach, digestion), or desire (mind, brain, and other parts of me), love (mind, brain, filtered through culture). Some of these aspects of me are meaningful socially, others are more individual; some are best studied in a laboratory, others are best examined psychologically or socially, through art or religion, or simple dialogue. All of these aspects of me are certainly "real." Persons are (get ready for a shock) "complicated."

The most illuminating insights into the nature of mind will not come from reductivists, denying the mind's reality by focusing only on the brain, but from "complexity theory" and the mathematics of "emergent phenomena." It is quite possible that science will never solve the puzzle of consciousness, since science is concerned with empirical reality and consciousness -- though natural -- is not "locatable" empirically.

You are in contact with my mind as you read these words, but where is my mind? It is not "on" your computer screen. It is with my brain or me, wherever I am, when you read this. The location of my mind, like that of a minute particle in the quatum realm, is a matter of uncertainty. If you are an actor or film director, then you may create a set of illusions which are captured on film forever; then, like Elvis, you leave the building. Persons who are in touch with those illusions, as they see your film, are experiencing the "products" of your mind, but where is that mind or your self? On screen? Or with your physical body at the Beverly Hills Hotel, where you like to stay to promote the movie? ("What the hell, the studio is paying for it.") Or "at home" with the family? Or working on the next project?

A person is a "freedom in the world" (Sartre), a self-choosing agent, responsible for his or her actions, if unimpaired. A person always has a moral command on my concern, a right to be treated with respect, as a subject and not an object. You do not censor the speech of others. You do not limit the legitimate freedom of others to suit your purposes. A person who has committed no crime is not something to be acted upon by another, without his or her informed and unimpaired consent, regardless of who that other may be or what ostensibly altruistic reasons are offered for that "acting upon" another. Any violation of another's autonomy is worse if it is done secretly, then covered up. As Goethe said that when he heard the word "culture" he reached for his revolver, so whenever I hear the words "this is for your own good," I reach for my baseball bat.

Torture reduces a person to the ontological and moral status of an object. Torture is always immoral and it happens to be illegal under American and international law. To the extent that the current Administration or any other, anywhere, authorized torture, that Administration and those persons -- even if they wear black robes -- have acted illegally and should be held accountable. I am not persuaded (yet!) that this flawed decision to torture Iraqui detainees was made at the highest levels of the government, at the level of policy. Although it is clear that some amazingly awful legal reasoning seems to have been adopted by the Bush Administration, making the hateful abuse of detainees possible.

Jane Mayer's article about the brave actions of former General Counsel for the U.S. Navy, Alberto Mora, suggests that this heroic attorney understood the heinousness in any policy of torture long before anyone else did, boiling it down to essentials. His public statement of these views seems to have resulted in his sudden "departure" from his employment. He will probably face professional ethics charges eventually. He is just not enough of a "team player" to remain an attorney for long. This is to his credit. Nevertheless, he is quite correct. Persons may not be tortured, just as they may not be enslaved, raped, or killed, and for the same reason: because they are persons, entitled to dignity and respect. I insist on my dignity.

Most of the lawyers who researched the issue for the administration had no problem with rationalizing and seeking to justify torture. (It was "nothing personal.") Psychologists and other "therapists" knowingly implemented the techniques designed to inflict torments on men not charged with crimes, much less convicted of any. None of those professionals will face ethics charges. They are the sort of "politically connected" people appointed to elite committees and panels to judge the ethics of others, eventually some of them will serve as judges. Despite my poverty and struggling writer's life, despite my many failures and flaws, I do not envy them their "success" or their precious and oh-so false ethics. Would you care to see one of their portraits?

Philosophers concerned with the concept of disgust may wish to focus on torturers who are uniquely capable of producing disgust in normal persons, especially when those torturers are lawyers, psychologists or psychiatrists. Mr. Mora states:

"If cruelty is no longer declared unlawful, but instead is applied as a matter of policy, it alters the fundamental relationship of man to government. It destroys the whole notion of individual rights. The Constitution recognizes that [a person] has an inherent right, not bestowed by the State or laws, to personal dignity, including the right to be free of cruelty. It applies to all human beings, not just in America -- even those designated as 'unlawful enemy combatants.' If you make this exception, the whole Constitution crumbles. It's a transformative issue."

There are jurisdictions within the United States where cruelty is allowed, so long as it is done secretly and "persons" do not discover that they have been tortured, so that courts and agencies can pretend that nothing happened. (See "Psychological Torture in the American Legal System.") Sometimes these jurisdictions are controlled by one of the national political parties -- often not the one that you might expect -- but the issue is ignored by the powerful. The torturers get away with it, possibly after making a political contribution.

State judges are often more concerned about lobbying for pay increases -- which they probably deserve, especially when they actually do their jobs -- than about coping with this reality of torture in the legal system. Organized crime has become influential in local governments in too many jurisdictions -- New Jersey being the prime example -- influencing the appointment of judges and other officials. It is often difficult to distinguish the criminals from the judges. (See "Same Old, Same Old" and "A Letter From a Condemned Man" at Philosopher's Quest, also: David Kocieniewski, "Ex-Prosecutors in Trenton Respond to U.S. Scolding," in The New York Times, January 27, 2006, at p. B2.)

I am suggesting, along with Mr. Mora, that a choice to ignore "crimes against humanity" or violations of the integrity of persons, when they are committed by the politically or otherwise "connected," is a tragic mistake. It results in the loss of the very freedoms for which American men and women are said to be dying now, as I write, in Iraq. It also undermines of the credibility of the American legal system by leading observers to conclude that Constitutional principles are given lip service publicly, but ignored in practice. I continue to hope that this is not true.

It should be noted that sadists and torturers (Alex, Terry and Diana), victimizers of all sorts, grow addicted to their activities, deriving pleasure -- maybe even sexual pleasure -- from inflicting pain on others, preferably others who are rendered helpless in some manner. Professor Colin McGinn explains:

"[The sadist's] governing impulse is about as repulsive as any could be -- to make another person not want to live. This is a good deal more heinous than merely wanting to make one's mark on the world or reduce the other to fleshly existence. What the sadist is primarily aiming at is the desire system of the victim -- he wants to alter it from being pro-life to being anti-life. He does not primarily seek the death of the victim, only the victim's desire for his own death. The victim's suicide is the logical extension of the sadist's aim ["jump off the Empire State building!" -- has been whispered by torturers to victims, as I can attest,] but this has the disadvantage that the victim will no longer exist in a state of complete value-turnaround. The death of the victim is always a matter for complete ambivalence on the part of the sadist: it is both consummation and failure. ... The evil character is moved by something more than the mere absence of virtue. If we wish to understand and eradicate evil, we need to start by acknowledging how good it feels [to the evil-doers]."

Ethics, Evil and Fiction (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), p. 81, p. 91.

Professor McGinn is suggesting that doing evil "feels good" to torturers and evil-doers. Just the opposite is the case for the rest of us, who will never do evil because we find the very idea of such actions -- and the persons capable of them -- repulsive.

I am asking judges everywhere to honor the robes that they wear by doing what is required by law and morality. Punish the torturers. Stop the evil. Recognize that victims are persons, entitled to respect and acknowledgment in their pain and suffering. End the stone-walling and cover ups. Tell people who have been tortured the truth about what has been done to them and who has done it. South Africa's peace, after years of torture and oppression, was only made possible by a process of "Truth and Reconciliation." Mr. Mora will provide the last word:

"The debate here isn't only how to protect the country. It's how to protect our values."

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