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18.3.05

Promoting Torture, Provoking Outrage

The latest blogospheric brouhaha was ignited by Eugene Volokh, who recently came out in favor of revenge torture:

I like civilization, but some forms of savagery deserve to be met not just with cold, bloodless justice but with the deliberate infliction of pain, with cruel vengeance rather than with supposed humaneness or squeamishness. I think it slights the burning injustice of the murders, and the pain of the families, to react in any other way.


In an update to his post, Volokh points out that whether you approve of vengeance is a matter of basic axioms, so there's no possibility of dialogue between himself and someone who finds his view reprehensible. The blogospheric reaction seems to validate that point, as the typical opponent's reaction is sputtering outrage. For those of us on the left, the idea of the law as a cold maintainer of social order is a basic, often not even consciously articulated, presupposition. By challenging something that sits so deep in our psyches, Volokh left us without the resources to respond rationally. It feels like trying to explain math to someone who insists that 2 + 2 = 5.

As it happens, I think one can have a rational argument about the permissibility of revenge torture, though I can't guarantee that pushing it back to a more basic level of axioms would necessarily find any common ground between Volokh and me. My position parallels my stance against the death penalty -- the law exists to promote the happiness of the citizens, and insofar as revenge does not efficiently further that goal (an empirical proposition, but one I believe to be true, at least in modern Western contexts), it's a waste of resources and a needless reduction of the criminal's happiness. But this kind of response seems unfulfilling. When someone has announced that they aren't bound by an axiom you had treated as unquestionable, it feels ineffective to calmly reason with them.

In this sense, the prevailing reaction to Volokh has certain similarities with the very kind of torture he advocates. Logic doesn't seem to do justice to our feelings of outrage over his violation of our moral code, because there's such a gap between expressing ourselves and prudent action. We want to escape the stultifying bounds of rational discourse and unleash our fury, to demand recognition of the emotional impact of his post even at the expense of undercutting doing something about it. But like revenge, such a reaction is both ineffective and unsatisfying in the long run. It certainly won't convince Volokh of the error of his ways. And it leaves his argument standing there, mocking us with its challenge to something we'd never thought we'd have to defend -- just like taking revenge on a murderer doesn't bring her victims back. Luckily, in this case we have the option of intellectually grappling with Volokh's ideas and satisfying ourselves of why he's wrong, rather than simply venting our outrage and using the brief respite that buys to get our minds occupied with other things.

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