For years I've been baffled by the huge mess the Bush administration has made of "the torture issue."
I'm going to lay out a policy for torture (surprise - it's utilitarian) that I think a) any president's administration should hold, and b) any president's administration should keep SECRET. As I'll argue, (b) is essential, and without it, one shouldn't pursue (a).
This is a pretty simple idea I'm recommending. Let's start by imagining a classic "ticking time bomb" scenario, where thousands of lives hang in the balance, and we're confident that a single person knows where the bomb is. If the question is whether to torture one person to save 3,000 lives (where other options have been exhausted) I think the obvious answer is that torture is morally permissible. Only the strictest of Kantians ought to object to this, I think. Most objections will be along epistemological lines, I think. That is, how can I be sure that I've got the right guy and that this will save people's lives, etc. Well, put these questions aside for the moment. Imagine that we are confident about the cost-benefit analysis.
So part (a) is just asserting that torture is permissible in cases where we're justified in thinking that torturing someone can directly result in the saving of many lives. This is, I think, exactly what Bush takes to be his mandate. But look at all the trouble this has caused! Not just hot water for the administration, but this news about Bush torture policy has made America objectively less safe. Obviously torture is offensive to people. It ought to be offensive! When people in middle eastern countries who already suspect us of ill deeds see something like guantanamo, they get even angrier at us. If a torture policy results in creating even more terrorists, it's a bad policy.
This is why (b) needs to be integral to the policy. If I'm in charge, I want the freedom to torture people in circumstances where lives can be saved, but I don't want anyone to know about it. So here's how it should work: The president as well as several levels below him need to have plausible deniability. The policy needs to be that if someone finds out about the torture, only the torturer and perhaps his/her direct superior take the heat. After all, if many lives are at stake, sacrifice may be required of not just the tortured but the torturer too. If I'm some jail guard and I can save 3,000 lives by waterboarding (of COURSE waterboarding is torture) my prisoner, HIS sacrifice is called for, and MINE (in the form of firing, or prosecution) may also be called for (but only if it gets out). If it's worth torturing someone it's obviously worth losing my job over. It seems like this tactic (of blaming it on the guards) was tried at Abu Ghraib with modest success, but the problem there was that they weren't strictly obeying (a). They were torturing with no promise of lives saved.
This kind of secrecy condition is what Bush has been lacking. Why the hell won't he and his attorney general(s) just come out and say that torture (including waterboarding, etc) is utterly impermissible?? They're obviously not allergic to lying, so what's the deal? I think they may be inept utilitarians.
I know this sounds awful, and I probably just ruined by chances of getting elected to public office, but unless you're a "respect for persons though the sky may fall" nut, where have I gone wrong?
One place to object might be that Bush isn't the kind of person to be trusted with this power. He's a power-hungry, slightly delusional, child, and yes, this makes me nervous too. But I actually think that my torture doctrine, if followed well, would be self regulating. Bush HAS abused his power, and he's taken heat for it. Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib are an absolute disgrace not because they torture people there, but because they're not discriminating enough about WHO they torture. %80 of the prisoners (perhaps even more) have been released from Guantanamo without charges, which means that basically they had the wrong guys. By being careless with who we torture we've lessened our ability to successfully get information out of the right guys. And obviously we've made everyone mad at us (the U.S.).
So my torture policy would be rarely used. As I say, one needs to be very confident in both the veracity of the info and the payoff (lives saved). Torturing people willy-nilly as Bush has done is self-defeating. This hopefully makes me seem less of a monster. It allows me to forcefully disapprove of both Guantananmo Bay and Abu Ghraib. No one should be humiliated and tortured for no reason. Such evils are only permitted in the rarest of circumstances.