Saturday, November 24, 2007

Sensible Torture Policy

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.

Any thoughts?

Monday, November 12, 2007

One Laptop per Child

Because I know one of the power players in the OLPC organization (I this for the sake of full disclosure) I've been following their effort to design and manufacture a $100 laptop to be made available to the world's poor children.

It seems to me that this has the potential to be a world-changing force for good, but in discussing it with peers I've encountered almost universal skepticism, disdain, and eye-rolling. Since they've rolled out a give one - get one program I thought this was a good time and place to mount a philosophical defense of the effort.

Here are some objections I've heard:
-poor children don't need laptops, they need food and shelter.
-"handouts" are almost universally under-appreciated and squandered.
-the laptops replace schoolbooks in government spending, but are more easily broken or lost (or stolen) than books.

The second two are economic and sociological concerns, so I'll quickly comment on those first, leaving the philosophical angle of the first question for last. It is true that when governments purchase these computers, they are spending money that would have otherwise gone towards text books. So it is worrisome to think of a student who loses his laptop in the first week, finding himself without school books for the next three years. Similar concerns of theft also might arise. The laptops are cute and cuddly in the hopes that they will be universally recognized as "for children," hopefully thereby preventing a robust black market from forming. Note that a given geographic location will be flooded with these things (literally one per child) so the thought is that any adult seen with one would be immediately recognized as having having gotten it illegitimately. As far as this being a "handout" program, meaning that the kids will be less apt to care for the laptop than for something that they have earned, aren't most items acquired by kids "handouts"? Perhaps there is a significant difference in the way an adult treats something they've earned versus something they've been given, but kids hardly earn anything at all! They acquire things from their parents and (in the case of books and pencils) from school, and I'd imagine they'd treat all such handouts more or less the same. If someone wanted to launch a serious objection on these grounds, however, I'm all ears.

The more serious objections from from philosophical worries about giving aid. Conservatives may see this as another hopeless liberal plan to ignore market forces and try to raise the quality of life in the third world by giving, giving, giving (perhaps along the lines of the "handouts do no good" objection). Liberals may see this as misallocation of aid, passing over goods such as food and medicine in favor of luxuries. I think both worries are off base.

First, the liberal worry. Some may think that our obligation is to provide what is most immediately needed by people in the third world. This will of course be food, medicine, and shelter. Money spent on laptops would be better spent on more essential goods, the thought goes. But with a nod to the conservatives, let me point out that unless efforts are made to alter the causes of the squalor, putting band-aids on the wound is doing little good. Picture a machine that makes something fragile on a conveyor belt - lightbulbs, say. The machine is left on, and the conveyor belt keeps running, lightbulbs smashing on the floor as they reach the end. You arrive at the scene and find yourself at end of the conveyor belt, so you start catching the lightbulbs and laying them delicately on the floor. You tire, however, and realize that unless someone turns the damn machine off, the bulbs will come faster than you can catch them. If you turn off the machine yourself you'll be letting X number of bulbs smash (bulbs you could have saved). Surely if you're alone you'll eventually decide to sacrifice a few bulbs and turn the machine off. Giving kids these laptops, I think, will help create a middle class in a given country in as soon as 15 years time. During those 15 years you might imagine that many lives could be saved if the money had been spent on food and medicine, but you would not have cultivated a middle class. As the saying goes, "teach a man to fish..." For this it would certainly be worth some moderate frustration and heartaches in the present day with lost and stolen laptops, and forgone spending on other opportunities.

This helps with the conservative worry. These aren't mere handouts, these are culture-altering, economy-altering handouts. The software on these machines is quite impressive, and kids learn so fast, so imagine the world 15 years from now when kids in rural peru, afganistan, and nigeria have learned not only math and history, but computer programming and english (more advanced with the audio pronounciation tools). Imagine how sophisticated the third world will be in 15 years when every kid in country X has had instant and immediate access to the internet. In my view, this is teaching them to fish, not giving them fish.

The laptops aren't $100 yet, but more like $200. This is just a function of production numbers, though. The more that get ordered, the lower the cost will become. This is why they're letting americans and canadians buy them for a short period of time (you spend $400 and they give you one while donating one to a poor kid). Hopefully then they'll have the production costs down.

It's obvious that I'm somewhat idealistic about this. Perhaps it will be an utter failure despite my optimism. But I think there's enough there for people on all sides of the "giving aid" debate to be supportive of the project.

Look here for a favorable review
and here for a 60 minutes report