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Exposing torture - the virtue of American hypocrisy

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While critics cry hypocrisy over the recent US Senate report on torture, we need to rethink whether hypocrisy might have some virtue and if it might be better than some alternatives. Español

Juan Francisco Lobo
15 January 2015

The recent revelation of the US Senate report on acts of torture committed by American security agents has been categorized by many as yet another instance of “American hypocrisy”. After all, how can we respect the values of a country that pretends to spread democracy and respect for human rights throughout the world, but instead has gravely violated such rights in its zeal to fight the “war on terror”?

In this debate, however, we must first define hypocrisy and then differentiate it from cynicism. Hypocrisy is, as La Rochefoucauld put it, “the homage that vice pays to virtue”, an admission that virtuous norms do exist, while disguising the violation of them. The “cynic” admits her skepticism for certain norms and openly disregards them, not even attempting to hide a lack of adherence. The “hypocrite”, on the other hand, acknowledges the value of the rule, simulating compliance but secretly undermining it.

American hypocrisy, then, cannot be reduced to cynicism, and that is a positive thing. As Jane Mayer says in her book The Dark Side, the US not only has pretended to be the champion of democracy and freedom in international relations. It has also from the times of George Washington characterized itself as respecting the laws of armed conflict that prohibit the mistreatment of prisoners of war. This tradition makes all the more shameful the faults or vices of a country that from the outset has claimed to uphold humanitarian principles, in war and peace.

But the discussion regarding the reasons for the impropriety of torture has also been misguided. Some argue that one should fairly appraise an egregious practice such as torture in light of the positive results it helps to obtain. If torture works to stop terrorists from achieving their goals, why should law enforcement and military agencies restrain their arsenal to get the job done? Why not even legalize torture, as a tribute paid to reality by the law, as Professor Alan Dershowitz has proposed?

This line of thinking suffers from two shortcomings. First, there is no empirical evidence supporting the effectiveness of torture in obtaining the relevant information from the person under questioning. If anything, the tortured person will say whatever his or her capturer wants to hear. He or she is not a rational agent any longer but only, as Chilean professor José Zalaquett has put it, “the flesh that howls”.

But second, and more important, the point of the discussion has been lost if we linger on the issue of torture’s effectiveness, as a matter of convenience, rather than on whether is it right to torture in the first place, as a matter of principle. To evoke the language of the 18th century philosopher, Immanuel Kant, (the banning of) torture should be discussed at the level of categorical imperatives and not of hypothetical ones.

The “ticking-bomb” scenario, for example, is a well known philosophical exercise that confronts Kantian approaches of moral obligations with outcome-driven doctrines like utilitarianism. When time is running out, is it worth getting the information needed at any cost— because the outcome is what matters? Or should we assign primary importance to the means used to achieve that outcome?

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Demotix/Evan Golub (All rights reserved)

Protestors wearing orange jumpsuits and black hoods, as a symbol of the attire of detainees, stand in front of the White House. There is no empirical evidence supporting the effectiveness of torture in obtaining the relevant information from the person under questioning. If anything, the tortured person will say whatever his or her capturer wants to hear.


When discussing the ticking-bomb torture dilemma in the early 70s, Michael Walzer pointed out three attitudes towards this problem: that of the Machiavellian politician, who I would call a cynic; that of the Weberian tragic hero (after the German sociologist Max Weber), who knows torturing is wrong but does it anyway and suffers the moral consequences in her conscience; and the one of the just assassin à-la Albert Camus (the French novelist), who understands he is doing wrong when torturing (or when killing innocents to overthrow a tyrant) but is willing to face the moral consequences and legal punishments for his actions. Thus, both the Weberian and Camusian characters depicted by Walzer (he prefers Camus) epitomize the “value” of hypocrisy, a redeemable evil, as opposed to the radical and unrecoverable vice of the Machiavellian cynic, who apologizes for nothing.   

All in all, the institutions of the United States, represented this time by the Senate and some other times by the Supreme Court, are the ones that ultimately have questioned the despicable practices of the war on terror. This public self-consciousness exercise is very rare among superpowers in the history of humankind.

The ideal scenario is that there is no hegemonic power to oppress other people. Yet, if there must be a superpower, then it is better for it to be a hypocritical rather than a cynical one. At least the former is capable of paying homage to virtue, nurturing the hope that one day it will not need to be falsely honored from the shadows, but that it will shine with a light of its own.

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