Thursday, January 22, 2009

Socrates and Obedience to authority

Spencer Ackerman
Ret. Adm. Dennis Blair just refused to answer a very easy question, asked by Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.): Is waterboarding torture? “I would say that there will be no waterboarding on my watch, there will be no torture on my watch.”

C’mon, a stunned Levin said. Blair: “I’m very much aware there were dedicated officers in the intelligence service who thought they were carrying out activities that were authorized at the highest levels … I don’t intend to reopen those cases of those officers who acted within their duties. I’m hesitant …” He doesn’t want to call his intelligence officials torturers, but, you know, still. Waterboarding is is clearly torture.

But Eric Holder said it was torture, Levin continued: “That’s troubling to me … I’m looking for your judgment, is waterboarding torture?”

“You’ll just have to make the inference from my answer that on my watch we will not waterboard,” Blair said. He reaffirmed that torture doesn’t produce reliable intelligence. But still: WTF?
My comment:
The answer's obvious. He's trying to maintain the peace within the organizations under his purview. He's trying to "look forward not backward."
"You’ll just have to make the inference from my answer that on my watch we will not waterboard,”

People thought they were following orders. He doesn't want to have to work with people who are being told they are torturers, even if not charged with it. Military logic is simple: following orders is good, disobeying them is bad. The orders were bad. The people who followed those orders do not want to feel responsible, since they did the "right" thing . Ever heard of Stanley Milgram?

Socrates: "And is, then, all which is just pious? or, is that which is pious all just, but that which is just, only in part and not all, pious"

The military is founded on an ideal of piety. The government is [Democratic governments are] founded on an ideal of justice. Blair understands the conflict more than you do.
I'm not sure if he understands the conflict more than intuitively, but he understands that members of the military are not trained to think about moral complexity. But they should be. Military philosophy, as I've said elsewhere if not here, is Manichaean. To some degree -for practical reasons- it needs to be. But our military is not taught to understand the tensions between the military as authoritarian order in defense of a free one.

The bigger issue is that Blair lied about killings in East Timor


  1. Anonymous5:56 AM

    He doesn't want to have to work with people who are being told they are torturers, even if not charged with it.

    Right, but this seems to imply that there will be scores of tortures under his command. It that was a half dozen or so people - who cares, replace them if they are unhappy.

    So, what are we talking about here - perhaps hundreds of torturers whose feelings need to be protected?

  2. He doesn't want to undermine the simple non-contradictory code of military piety. He's asking them to allow the military officers to "save face" by holding the previous civilian authority responsible.
    I'm not defending it I'm just describing it.
    Liberals who are fans of the application of Aristotelian logic in the social world don't understand this.
    G.A. Cohen is the man of the hour at Crooked Timber again.
    A military in the service of a democracy is a dictatorship in defense of freedom. What holds the relationship together is not laws but trust. Trust is a sphere or a zone of ambiguity, not a rule.
    When rules are all that's left it's over.

  3. Anonymous1:55 PM

    I understand what you're saying and I don't disagree.

    But at the same time you don't want to make this zone of ambiguity too wide; at some point the rules have to kick in, otherwise it just turns into corruption and lawlessness.

    And it's not obvious to me that torture belongs into this zone. The zone is still there, everything is fine, but it still may make sense to resist the attempts to expand it too far.


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