Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Value of Goodness

One of my favorite educational thinkers, Howard Gardner, says education should, at a minimum, provide students with a good understanding of three basic values: truth, goodness, and beauty. If we as a culture can agree that those values are important (and it’s by no means certain that we can), then it seems to me that there are a lot of people in leadership positions (in government and business) in this country that need to go back to school.

For the present, let’s talk about goodness.

Whether they realize it or not, all people who think at all about goodness eventually come to one of two conclusions:

1. Goodness is objective, consisting of universal principles that have an existence of their own—regardless of whether we choose to recognize or respond to them or not, or

2. Goodness is subjective, consisting only of impulses within the individual human mind.

At some point, we choose which of these positions to take, and that decision is the basis of all our moral reasoning.

I submit that morality resides in acknowledging that goodness is objective, not subjective.

Those who believe that goodness is objective—that some things are just inherently good or bad—conclude that goodness is rooted in doing what's best for others. They cultivate empathy, imagining how their decisions might impact others, and act accordingly.

Those who believe that goodness is subjective—that “good” and “bad” exist only in the mind of the actor or agent—conclude that goodness is rooted in culture and convenience. They act pragmatically, according to what they deem to be best for themselves, feeling obligated only to their own self interest.

From studies of the brain, we know that some people are born with more and some with less of a tendency to be empathetic—and, hence, to feel responsible for others. As in all human traits, there tend to be extremists at both ends of the spectrum. There are people whose tendencies toward empathy and compassion make it hard for them to set reasonable boundaries. They tend to be used by others and become “enablers.” At the other end of the spectrum are the true sociopaths—people who feel no empathy or compassion whatever. As is almost always the case with human traits, the “healthiest” position lies somewhere near the middle of the spectrum.

But here’s where moral reasoning comes in: The traits we’re born with are only tendencies. Our decisions consist not only of tendencies but also of choices. Furthermore, the choices we habitually make affect our tendencies (and actually, over time, change the structure and chemistry of the brain). We're not automatons, blindly acting without volition according to our genetic tendencies. We're people who can choose how to behave, even when those choices conflict with our natural tendencies.

This means that we can choose to act with moral responsibility toward others—even when we don’t tend to feel empathy or compassion. We can 1) deliberately cultivate a feeling of empathy or compassion by imagining ourselves in the position of the other, or 2) we can act in accordance with what reason tells us is right, even without feeling empathy or compassion.

This brings us to a subject that’s been very much n the news lately: torture.

I submit that, by any rational standard, torture is wrong. It doesn’t matter what the purpose or excuse may be—it’s wrong. It wouldn’t matter if it “worked” to produce valid information. (It doesn’t.) And it doesn’t matter who knew about it—however you choose to define “knowing about it.”

Deliberately terrorizing or causing extreme pain or discomfort to people who cannot defend themselves is torture. Torture is morally wrong, illegal, and antithetical to civilization. Those who torture are barbarians. Those who defend torture are evil and dangerous.

We must not allow anyone—Dick Cheney, his daughter, John Boehner, or anyone—to distract us from the essential facts: in the first decade of the 21st Century, the United States adopted a policy of depriving others (it makes no difference who) of their essential human rights, committing cruel, horrific, and despicable acts of torture.

It happened. There’s nothing to debate.

We can’t begin to recover our dignity, integrity, or moral stature as a country until we admit that and focus our public attention on making sure it can’t happen again.


Anonymous said...

I agree that ethics shouldn't be situational, but I've found in my life that I often have values that conflict with each other.

I don't like the idea of treating prisoners roughly. On the other hand, I don't want people to die from terrorist attacks. I don't like the idea of capital punishment, but we have stripped all meaning from "life with no possibility of parole" and I really didn't think it was a good idea to put Timothy McVeigh back on the streets after he had behaved himself for a few years in prison.
I equate abortion with murder, but I don't want women (who have terminated pregnancies since the beginning of time) to die from back-street abortions

I notice that Salon.com is listed as a blog you like. You might want to take a look at


as well as


If these reports are correct, it would appear that President Obama is reserving the right to rely on some of these strategies in certain situations.

You state that no good information is ever obtained from torture. You are entitled to your opinion, but the experts disagree on this point.
In fact, there are even differing definitions of torture. Frankly, I hope these articles are right and that the President would used enhanced interrogation if the stakes were high enough.

Citizen Jane said...

Hello, A!

I've just finished an outstanding book called "How We Decide," by Jonah Lehrer. It's one of those books so profoundly true and important that I keep thinking about it again and again in the context of discussions on various topics. On being too certain, Lehrer says, "A brain that's intolerant of uncertainty--that can't stand the argument--often tricks itself into thinking the wrong thing." So you and I--people who "often have values that conflict with each other"--may be wrong less often than some.

However, I believe that we have to have some rock-solid basis for our values. And if that rock-solid basis doesn't have something to do with increasing the amount of happiness, peace, and comfort in the world and decreasing the amount of misery, than it is probably not a defensibly moral stand. (Hitler's "rock-solid basis," for example, became the superiority of the Aryan race."

If we can't agree that torture is off limits, entirely and completely unacceptable and immoral, then we haven't progressed very much since the time of the Romans.

Regarding the two articles you cited, I'll address those in a separate comment. This one's getting a little long.

Citizen Jane said...

Since it appears to be impossible to edit comments without deleting them, I really must try to remember to close my parentheses.

Anyway, Anonymous, regarding your two links. The Greenwald article seems to suggest that, given its recent history, the U.S. has absolutely no credibility when it comes to defending human rights or criticizing other regimes for brutality and torture.

The "Newsweek"* article alludes to rumors from anonymous sources that, "behind closed doors," the White House council supposedly said "the administration" doesn't feel that the president is bound by executive orders." Whose orders? About what? Who in the administration? That piece is vague to the point of being completely meaningless.

Newsweek, you disappoint me.

*HTML tags don't seem to work, either.

Idna said...

Charles Krauthammer has two articles in the Washington Post that deal with the question of torture. He says: Torture is an impermissible evil. Except under two circumstances.

1. The first is the ticking time bomb.

2. The second exception is the extraction of information from a high-value enemy in possession of high-value information likely to save lives.

He gives very clear agruments for each of these points. Then he goes on to show the important info that was gained.

Finally, and this is a really important argument, he points out that "the reason no objections were raised to waterboarding at the time by Pelosi and the American people (who by 2004 knew what was going on)and reelected the man who ordered these interrogations, is not because she and the rest of the American people suffered a years-long moral psychosis from which they have just now awoken. It is because at that time they were aware of the existing conditions and concluded that on balance it was a reasonable response to a terrible threat."

I really recommend hese two articles (the second a continuation of the first) Well written and well argued.

Interested in your response.



Citizen Jane said...

Hi, Idna,

First, if there are exceptions to value of saying "no" to torture, then there is no value. This is one case when the "slippery slope" is no fallacy. If individuals can decide that they hear a "ticking time bomb" or rationalize that lives are at stake, all bets are off. And if we can torture the sons and daughters of people in the Middle East or elsewhere, how can we expect our own soldiers and citizens to be treated?

Secondly, torture doesn't work. That's been known to psychologists for many years and is known to the military. Torture is simply terrorism on a one-on-one basis, and it is likely to get the victim to say something--anything--to try to make it stop. Under no circumstances is it likely to garner cooperation. Case in point: Those who were interrogating Khalid Sheikh Mohammed have said that he was cooperating with the Americans and providing important information--until others took over and began to torture him. (If waterboarding "worked," why would they have felt they had to do it 186 times.)

Finally, I, too, knew long ago that my country had adopted a policy of torture. I didn't say much (nor would I have likely said much if I were Speaker of the House) because it wouldn't have done any good. (Nor did any of us really understand five years ago the extent of the horrors being perpetrated in our name.) In that sense, we were all like those in Nazi Germany who knew, or at least suspected, what was going on. We were helpless to find out the whole truth and, if we knew it, do anything about it.

Then we did something about it. We elected a new president.